Without Durant on the court -- and with LeBron James home for the postseason for the first time since 2005 -- Nike is facing its first Finals since 2006 without one of its active signature stars playing.
Even that Finals matchup between the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks included former Nike signature players Gary Payton and Alonzo Mourning wearing black-and-red, Heat-themed editions of their respective late-'90s signature shoes, the Zoom Glove and Air Alonzo.
In the 13 seasons since, Nike has been able to count on signature stars such as James, Durant, Kobe Bryant and Kyrie Irving playing deep into June every year, giving the company the ability to introduce new technology, Finals-themed colorways and elaborate marketing campaigns.
This spring, it's everyone else's turn.
Nike, the league's official uniform and apparel outfitter, does boast Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam in this series, but none of them has their own shoe. In fact, Siakam's 32-point performance in Game 1 came in Durant's KD10, which was released two years ago.
For Under Armour, Anta, Puma, New Balance and Adidas, there's an opening this spring for the first time in more than a decade, as Nike's superstar roster had continued to dominate the landscape. The last Finals MVP who wore a non-Nike Inc. sneaker was Tim Duncan, who sported Adidas in the 2005 Finals, two years after Nike declined to re-sign him.
A similar story could be unfolding in 2019 with Kawhi Leonard, who chose not to re-sign with the Nike-owned Jordan Brand and instead inked a deal with New Balance, immediately becoming the face of the company's re-entry into the basketball market.
Leonard debuted the OMN1S model during All-Star Weekend in Charlotte and has worn a rotation of 27 different colorways in the months since. With an expected wide release not coming until October, the brand has released only a few hundred pairs of the sneaker to date. Dubbed the "2-Way Pack," drafting from his status as perhaps the league's best two-way player, a pair of the OMN1S and a similarly styled pair of the 997 Sport lifestyle sneaker was released online, selling out in mere seconds.
Luckily for New Balance, the sole launch to date featured the same colorway Leonard was wearing when he nailed his instant classic, Game 7 buzzer-beater over the outstretched arms of Joel Embiid, advancing the Raptors past the second round and toward their first trip to the NBA Finals in franchise history.
Both models were designed by Leonard himself, featuring regal hues of gold and purple, along with a faux crocodile, textured collar. The instant sell-out gave New Balance confidence and hope as it heads toward additional moment-driven, surprise releases should Leonard win the NBA championship.
In the week leading up to the Finals, New Balance digital banners flanked the streets of Toronto, declaring Leonard the "King of the North." The morning after the Raptors' convincing Game 1 win, the brand launched yet another billboard campaign, this time just off Oakland's 880 highway heading toward Oracle Arena.
The shorthand franchise city names of each dismissed Raptors opponent stood listed in order and crossed out, with a simple "GS" up next. "The King of the North is Coming," appears next to a hoodie-donning Leonard, flashing a slightly smirking stare at Warriors fans driving by.
Those fans would certainly prefer to see Stephen Curry win his first Finals MVP award, which would give a lift to Curry's Under Armour line. This year's Curry 6 has featured colorways heavily inspired by the city of Oakland, in the team's final season before moving across the Bay to San Francisco. Since December, Under Armour has operated a pop-up store in downtown Oakland where fans have early access to exclusive gear and sneakers and where viewing parties for Warriors games are also held.
In Game 1, Curry debuted the "Roar" Curry 6, inspired by the record-breaking levels of a decibel scale the Oracle Arena crowd, nicknamed "Roaracle," is known to reach.
"The atmosphere is so unique," he said. "There's a different energy, they're true basketball fans. It's always been like that. As we've gotten better, every single game that intensity is only amplified by how many people are in the building every single night."
Curry wanted to bring that longtime energy of his home crowd with him on the road, opting to debut the "Roar" edition in Toronto. The clashing colorway was created the very week after news of the league's throwing out its footwear color restrictions was announced in late August of last year, with Curry also wanting to break away from his typical black, gold and white look for his Finals sneakers in recent years. He figured the unexpected hues would further stand out on the biggest stage, in high contrast to his team tones.
Klay Thompson would love to further heighten his signature sneaker imprint in China with footwear brand Anta, as he plans to tour throughout Asia later this summer and potentially also play in the FIBA World Cup in Beijing. There is simply no bigger opportunity to impact his Chinese fan base than winning the NBA Finals, according to Anta's head of sports marketing, who always looks to plan Thompson's tour for the last week of June, right after the Finals.
Thompson's latest KT4 signature shoe is featured in the top 5,000 doors of the brand's 10,000 stores throughout the country, with a fourth ring only adding to the potential frenzy around his line overseas. The partnership has gone so well since he first signed with the company in 2014 that the two sides agreed to a 10-year extension in 2017 that could pay him as much as $80 million.
Upon signing his extension, Thompson laid out a singular goal for the partnership: "Hopefully, be the Michael Jordan one day of Anta."
New Balance tells me they also took out an identical full-page ad in today's San Francisco Chronicle. This is the billboard that greeted commuters today in Oakland. Clever. #NBAFinals #Raptors #Kawhi pic.twitter.com/wbwL6WwmGE— Lori Ewing (@Ewingsports) May 31, 2019
The lucrative endorsement deal could help to ease the pain of missing out on nearly $30 million and the league's supermax designated contract extension, after Thompson failed to make an All-NBA team this season. It could also ultimately help incentivize him to stay with the Warriors this summer as he weighs unrestricted free agency for the first time.
"Winning not only has it put me in a different light how people view me as a player, but it's elevated my brand so much," he said in 2017 during his tour in China. "That's why I never want to leave, man -- winning is so fun. It overcomes any stats or any individual accomplishment. Especially out here with the Chinese fans."
Cousins played just eight minutes in Game 1 after missing most of the postseason with a torn quad, but was one of the Warriors' top performers in Game 2, finishing with 11 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in 28 minutes. The exposure Puma gained from Cousins' return to form was big for the company, as it looks to finish its first season back in the NBA since the late '90s with a strong push.
To celebrate Cousins and Green reaching the Finals, the company gave each player a gold "Title Run"-themed pair of its Clyde Court sneaker, along with a gold chain worth several thousand dollars and featuring a diamond-laden Puma cat logo pendant.
"It's so dope," Cousins said with a laugh.
Green was similarly shocked when he opened the additional jewelry box from a Puma rep.
"What! This is what Puma does now?" Green said. "I'm feeling big time with this chain."
Both Green and Cousins are just three wins away from adding another piece of jewelry, which would give Puma the opportunity to market the winner as the company's first NBA champion since Isiah Thomas wore the company's shoes for his second title with the Detroit Pistons in 1990.
Whichever team ends up winning the title, they'll be lead -- barring a dramatic return by Durant -- by someone wearing something other than the iconic Nike swoosh, which is something the NBA Finals haven't seen in a long time.