words // Zac Dubasik

After being thoroughly disappointed in the Nike LeBron 11, I wasn't exactly looking forward to playing in the Elite edition. But then again, this is the Elite, right? It represents the pinnacle of Nike innovation and performance. And sure, it doesn't look like it's added any performance elements, such as the way carbon fiber has been added in the past, but for $75 extra, you've gotta be getting something, right?

The Air Jordan XX8 may not have been a great value for $250, but it was the best playing shoe of its time. So, for $275, it should be reasonable to expect an outstanding on-court experience for the LeBron 11 Elite.

As you probably already know though, the LeBron 11, as well as the Elite, have been plagued by a very troubling issue. The guy whose name is on the shoe, LeBron James, didn’t seem to want to wear either of them. I can’t speak for LeBron, and tell you why he didn’t wear his shoe. But I can tell you why I came to the same conclusion with the Elite as him, as I did with the first version.

The first thing to know with the 11 Elite is that you’re basically getting the exact same shoe as the 11, at least in terms of playability. There are a few slight differences, both positive and negative, which I’ll address next. But they don’t offer any perceptible difference in performance.

One of the biggest differences between the models comes in the collars. Where the 11 had an asymmetrical cut, the Elite mirrors the lower cut lateral side over to the medial half. While this allowed for slightly better range of motion than the original, it wasn’t an issue to begin with, and the least of the 11’s issues.

Another point of contrast is the design pattern of the Hyperposite. While the original was designed in a way that it hampered flex, the Elite offered an opportunity to correct that. Only it didn’t. It’s just a different flex-unfriendly pattern. Not only that, it’s probably a touch worse. The shoe just doesn’t flex where you want it. And due to the lack of natural flex points, the upper pinches in some points, and leaves gaps in others, basically achieving the complete opposite of the one-to-one, second skin type fit that most shoes strive for.

The outsole of the Elite offered a little more rubber than the original, due to the shank not being exposed, but the traction pattern was largely the same. The Elite's pattern is a slightly modified designed, grouped in hexagonal pods that somewhat foreshadows the design language of the upcoming LeBron 12. That means that the traction was fine, and better after a few wearings. But it’s also far from the best out there and required pretty consistent swiping to maintain grip.

The biggest improvement found on the Elite was its tongue. It features a dense, Pro Combat-style padding, which closely hugs the foot. It eliminates any lace pressure (which I didn’t have issues with on the original, but I’m stretching to find positives here), as well as provides additional abrasion resistance. Did it make the shoe play any better? Not even a little bit. But I did like it, and wouldn't mind seeing it employed in more shoes going forward.

And then there’s the “articulated external cage,” which is the shoe’s biggest visual change. The thing is, the Hyperposite was so firm and unforgiving in the first place, that there was really no need to reinforce it with any type of additional support device. The original 11’s overall rigidity already didn’t allow your foot to move in a way feet should move. So, on the bright side, the cage didn’t make things any worse. It sure didn’t improve things either though.

As far as other things that didn’t improve, that would include pretty much every other element of the shoe. There aren’t really many more important differences. That means you’re still getting the bottom-loaded full-length Zoom bag embedded in the shoe’s thick Lunar insole.

But rather than enhancing the Zoom the way Jordan Brand’s Flight Plate does, it negates the responsiveness by burying it in a pile of Lunar mush. It's not that the cushioning is bad - it's actually good - it's just not necessarily right for basketball and targeted.

And once again, drop-in midsoles prove to not be the ideal construction method for basketball. It may help achieve a certain aesthetic, but when the result is a shoe you’d rather look at than wear, that’s not an achievement that’s worth pursuing.

In the case of the 11 and 11 Elite, it compounds the flexibility problem of the rigid upper, by not allowing a natural heel-to-toe transition, which results in constant foot fatigue.

The original 11 felt heavy due to its disappointing transition, which is still a problem here. But the 11 Elite is also over an ounce heavier on top of it. This is another one of those areas though where it wasn’t good enough in the first place for it to make a difference. It doesn’t feel or play any heavier than the original, it just still feels slow.

As similar as the shoe is to the original, there is one very big difference. The price. The Elite will cost you an extra $75, and for that cash you get…as far as my feet could tell…nothing much at all. Did the external cage cost more to produce? It’s possible. But considering it doesn’t do anything for performance, it doesn’t really matter.

At least with the carbon fiber found in the past two Elite models, it felt like you were getting something extra for your money that was also providing more support and structure. But not here, and Nike has done little to explain why this version is so much more expensive. It comes across as a shameless cash grab, and quite frankly, is insulting. In fact, the 11 Elite, in my opinion, almost looks like a cheaper version of the original - more of a PS than an Elite.

The fact that neither LeBron nor KD wore their Elite shoes is a fitting end to a season where Nike Basketball seemed to disappoint with their signature sneakers at almost every turn. And while it would be easy to blame Kobe's injury and the Lakers missing the Playoffs for the 9's lack of on-court presence, don't forget that Kobe's line has been one of the most widely worn across the entire League.

Buzzword technologies and form, rather than function, seems to have been the focus lately from a brand who loves to claim they put athletes and performance first. The bad news for those of us that like to play in our hoops shoes is that these have been selling as well as ever. And especially in the case of the LeBron line, many of its playability issues were a direct result of its aesthetics. It will be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out moving forward.

The Elite does break in somewhat after a few wearings, but never enough to matter. If you're dead set on playing in the latest LeBrons, save yourself some cash and get the original edition of the 11s. Or you could always grabs the Soldier 7s (LeBron's preferred model this season) for over half the price. Due to the fact I didn't like anything about playing in the 11 Elite, I couldn't recommend it at any price. But for $275, it's simply as bad of a value as we've ever seen in the performance sneaker world.

GRADE BREAKOUT:

best for: Post players who want maximum protection

colorway tested: Wolf Grey / Cool Grey / Black / Laser Crimson

key tech: full-length bottom-loaded Zoom Air unit; Lunarlon footbed, Hyperposite, Dynamic Flywire, articulated external cage

pros: abrasion protection

cons: transition, court feel, foot fatigue, comfort, weight, extended break-in period, drop-in midsole incompatible with orthotics

improvements: employ more traditional construction method better suited to basketball; align design of ‘Posite to flex more naturally

buying advice: My feet felt like they were in a constant battle with the Nike LeBron 11, and the war raged on with the Elite edition. While there were small differences from model to model, none were material enough to make an overall difference. You’re basically getting the same shoe and playability for $75 more with the Elite, which is something I can’t recommend to anyone from a performance standpoint. If you love the look, and want a pair for your collection, they should be on sale soon considering FSRs are still available. Otherwise, stay away.