by Zac Dubasik
Nike’s Elite line was introduced four years ago as a way of upping the ante for signature athletes in the NBA Playoffs. Elements like carbon fiber, Kevlar and Pro Combat were added to standard editions of Nike’s top-of-the-line sneakers in effort to provide the ultimate hoops shoes for the most important part of the season.
Unsurprisingly, these Elite elements have come with a steep price tag. It hasn’t been uncommon to see $70+ increases from the standard to Elite editions. Considering that you can get probably get a basketball shoe from last season on sale for not much more that $70, that’s a very significant bump in price.
This concept brings up a few different questions. For one, why wouldn’t athletes want the best of the best all season long? Sure, a more affordable option at retail makes sense, but what about the signature athletes themselves? Second, is it worth it? For those looking for the absolute best, regardless of price, is the Elite line worth the premium it demands? Is it actually better than the standard editions?
To explore this topic, I spent an extended period of time playing in both the LeBron 12 and LeBron 12 Elite. I’ve had issues with the LeBron line from a performance standpoint dating back to the 7. Simply put, I just haven’t liked them. While they may have been impressive from an aesthetic standpoint, I’ve found them severely lacking the in playability department. That said, I was skeptical when it came time to test out the newest models. I was in for a pleasant surprise. Both pairs weren’t created equal. They may share similar features, but one was the clear winner when it came down to choosing the best.
As much as I may have liked the LeBron 12 and LeBron 12 Elite, fit is probably my biggest area of criticism. That’s not to say the fit is bad though – it’s actually pretty good. The problem is it lacks dynamics. The upper is constructed like a bootie, without a traditional tongue. And despite the fact that the spec sheet may read “Dynamic Flywire,” it’s just not. I could pull the laces until my fingers hurt, and I just couldn’t get it to cinch up much tighter than when I first put my foot in. Speaking of putting your foot in, that’s another area of complaint. Getting your foot inside the LeBron 12 isn’t an easy task. It’s a positive in the sense that it needs to be that tight for proper lockdown, but it makes putting the shoe on a chore. This issue was present on both the models, despite the more offset lacing pattern on the Elite.
The 12 Elite really begins to pull away from the 12 in the comfort category. The entire upper is more minimal at the flex points, plus there’s more padding where needed. For example, I had issues with rubbing on the underside of the top eyelet on the standard 12. There’s really no padding there whatsoever, and a gap between the tongue and eyelets allowed the rigid back of the Posite collar to rub directly on my ankle. On the other hand, the Elite’s Pro Combat-based padding is plush without being overly bulky. At first sight, the Elite looks to be too much shoe, but the flex points have been expertly incorporated to feel much more minimal than expected. It sounds wrong to say a shoe is so heavily padded, yet feels minimal, but that’s exactly what makes the Elite 12 so impressive.
Edge: 12 Elite
Both the 12 and 12 Elite share the same tooling, which means they share the same hex-based Zoom Air cushioning. And that’s a positive thing, because the setup allows for an outstanding court feel. Even though I enjoyed playing in LeBron 10, the full-length Zoom bag just didn’t flex enough for optimal court feel. The hex Zoom however offers enough flex points to feel natural no matter which direction you plant. It’s still a step behind Flight Plate-based Zoom setups in the responsiveness department, but a clear improvement over standard Zoom.
Taking into consideration that the shoes share cushioning platforms, this should make things a draw when it comes to comparing the 12 and 12 Elite. Right? Well, kind of. While they do have the exact same cushioning, this serves as a good lesson in the importance of the holistic nature of sneaker design. Because the entire shoe flexes better with the Elite, the Zoom bags can engage that much extra on hard cuts. It’s subtle for sure, but when directly compared, the Elite just feels a little better.
Edge: It’s a tie on paper, but in practice, the Elite feels slightly better.
One area where I found the two shoes to be exactly the same was in the traction department. On a clean court, I had no complaints. The flexibility of the outsole, thanks to the hex pattern, allows for solid rubber-to-hardwood contact, and cuts felt crisp and reassured. On a less-than-pristine court though, I found myself having to swipe my soles more frequently that I would have liked. That’s not to say it isn’t good, but be prepared to manually keep the shoe’s multidirectional traction pattern clean.
As mentioned in the cushioning section, the hex Zoom allows for excellent court feel. My biggest issue with the LeBron line (other than the broader issue of seeming to favor aesthetics over function) has been a lack of flexibility and court feel. Going all the way back to the Air Max LeBron 7 (and to some extent, the Zoom LeBron 6), the shoes have just been so overbuilt that they lack any semblance of natural motion. My feet felt like they were fighting against the Max Air bags, rather than flowing together. The build of the 11 was different, but the drop-in midsole resulted in the same problem. The shoe just felt like it was working against me, rather than as one.
Segmenting the base was a huge improvement to transition in both the 12 and Elite, but the upper is what sets these two apart. Posite looks cool, but I’m ready to move on. It looked cool back when it was introduced in 1997, but it wasn’t good from a functionality standpoint then, and it’s not now. The upper of the standard 12 was stiff and borderline uncomfortable. And while the underfoot portion flexed well, the upper didn’t work as one with it. It wasn’t actually bad, but it was just unnecessarily stiff. On the other hand, the Elite stripped down the upper, added padding where needed, and at the same time, felt minimal. The TPU support overlays have been placed exactly where needed for support. It looks bulky on your foot, but plays surprisingly nimble.
Edge: LeBron 12 Elite
Here’s the hard part. I definitely liked the Elite better. But $75 better? That’s a tough call. Had I never played in the Elite, I don’t think I would have had the complaints I did about the 12. While I thought the 12 was really good, once I started playing in the Elite, I kind of lost interest. The 12 Elite has become my go-to pair, even after the review period. If money was no object, then it’s an easy call. Get the Elite and don’t look back. If money is an issue? Well, you can get a lot of the Elite for $75 cheaper. Just don’t try on the Elite first.
Edge: LeBron 12
After years of disappointment in the performance of the LeBron line, I feel like it’s finally back on track with the 12. It’s still not perfect. Things like the continued inclusion of Posite, I believe, are examples of placing marketing ahead of performance. But on the bright side, it was used much more functionally than on the 11. And the hex-based Zoom has been the biggest cushioning advance since Flight Plate (at least in terms of court feel). As far as which shoe is better, the Elite is without a doubt the winner of the showdown. It’s more comfortable, feels faster, and provided an overall better playing experience. It’s not a better value, and if you’ve only played in the 12, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t realize what you’re missing. But when it comes to picking a winner, the choice is clear.
Edge: LeBron 12 Elite