Where does Jordan Brand success leave Nike in basketball?

Ad Age did a brief case study on the Jordan Brand last week, revealing that it has eclipsed the sneaker sales of Reebok and addidas. That surprised me for a minute, but not when you look deeper at the roster of athletes it has assembled. Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul are arguably the next three most marketable players behind Lebron and Kobe, so add all of their sneaker sales with the line of Air Jordan’s and you can see why the sales numbers are where they are.

My question is what does Nike plan to do moving forward. Jordan Brand has limited distribution, premium pricing and positions itself as the Mercedes (or fill in the luxury brand) of the industry. One look at their website indicates what the brand strives to be – the lineup of athletes dressed in fine suits lounging in a room no sign of sneakers, basketballs, or uniforms. Jordan Brand also poached Derek Jeter and CC Sabathia, a few prominent football players, and boxer Roy Jones. Again, all top of the line public figures in their respective sports.

Will Nike take Jordan Brand to other sports and continue to carry it as the premium play it is now, or will extend vertically in basketball, expand distribution, and offer products at various price points? From there, what is the end game for brand Nike? If they allow Jordan Brand to expand within basketball, which I don’t feel is the strategy, does Nike shift its focus away from basketball all together. If it horizontally expands Jordan over to baseball, football, and beyond as the premium brand, does it start to target lower price points or will it compete directly with Jordan risking some cannibalization to house maximum market share under the same Beaverton, Oregon roof?

I don’t have any answers, but it’s a testament to the power of MJ on how fast this entity grew and the lineup of stars it immediately attracted. At a time when Under Armour is trying to enter the sneaker business, Nike continues to get stronger, and with Jordan Brand now successful on its own, brand Nike can shift its efforts to other sports and other products to cut into the strengths of Under Armour, Reebok, and addidas.

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Western Playoff Stampede

San Antonio, Utah, and New Orleans have a chance to end the most lopsided Western Conference playoff round in recent memory. Bad enough the lower seeds have only won three games, six of the 12 games have been decided by double figures – three happen to be in the Utah-Houston series. So much for the anyone can win the conference claim.

Denver never gave Los Angeles a match. The Nuggets self-destructed, losing every aspect of the game except technical fouls. Combined with the Laker discipline and execution, with Denver’s selfish play, lack of discipline and lack of ball movement, it adds up to a sweep. Carmelo Anthony was right – his team, top to bottom, quit.

Dallas traded the farm for 7.3 points, 6.3 assists, and a nice view of the Chris Paul show. Oh yeah, forgot that ejection. That sums up Jason Kidd’s performance in this series. Paul makes Kidd look old, totally dominating him on both ends of the court at will. Less prominent, though as imposing, Dallas has no equal for David West either. Josh Howard disappeared into a cloud of smoke that only thickened after his untimely comments. The coach is on the hot seat, the star point guard doesn’t belong on the same court as his counterpart, the Small Forward lacks any judgment, throw in two superstars on the other team, adds up to New Orleans coasting in five tonight.

Forever the playoff goat, Tracy McGrady unfairly shouldered the blame for his teams inability to win a playoff series prior to this year. However, he earned that blame against Utah, scoring 1 point in the combined fourth quarters of Games 1 and 2. Yes, the Rockets are banged up . Yes, Utah has a solid team up and down the roster. But if they hang in the game until the final minute, McGrady has to close it out. More and more it looks like he’ll never live down that comment about the Pistons, up three games to one in 2003 while with Orlando. If Houston extends the series, Utah will not lose at home twice.

The mother of all first round series, San Antonio and Phoenix. Last week I wrote about a scintillating Game One that the Spurs pulled out in double overtime, best game of the year. Phoenix responded with a strong start in Game Two, then went on vacation for six quarters. Always consistent, ready to pounce on the opponent, San Antonio erased a a double-digit deficit in Game Two to win easily, before blowing the doors of the arena early in Game Three. Nash and company recovered in Game Four, but beating San Antonio four straight in the playoffs, without home court is daunting.  Unable to stop the penetration of Parker and Ginobili, the Suns become susceptible to easy shots, and kick outs for three. The defending champs took Sunday off, expect them to rebound tonight. Shaq has played pedestrian this series, failing to make a significant contribution on either side of the floor. No longer an offensive threat, too slow to play consistent defense. Losing Grant Hill, forever injured, hurts Phoenix tremendously on defense, its best answer to the younger, quicker Parker. Prior to Sunday, the Suns role players – Barbosa and Diow – failed to show up, players they need in order to win. Of any team trailing 3 games to 1, this team has the best chance to at least extend the series. They need a full team effort, and someone needs to control the perimeter on defense to slow down the Spurs attack.

Round Two is shaping up with two intriguing matchups, then again, we thought Round One was too.

Truth Will Cost Josh Howard

Finding out an NBA player – anyone for that matter, be it pro athlete, presidential candidate, or union worker – smokes marijuana is not earth shattering news. Josh Howard, previously suspected of marijuana use as far back college, admitted to smoking pot in the off-season on “The Michael Irvin Show” on the local ESPN Radio affiliate in Dallas last Friday. Commend Howard for his honesty, however probably cost himself millions of dollars, and created an unneeded distraction for his time.

You have to question his timing, selecting the day of a playoff game to discuss marijuana use. Already down two games in the series, an off court distraction is the last thing Dallas needed as a team, or for one of its star players. The Mavs did answer the bell Friday night, beating New Orleans, but lost convincingly last night, and now sit one game from elimination, down 3-1 in the series. Howard played like he had a cloud over him, shooting an abysmal 8-32 from the field in the two games, only scoring 6 points on Sunday.

Howard’s marijuana admission marks the second major PR hit for the Jordan Brand roster of stars this month. Earlier this month, Denver police arrested Carmelo Anthony on DUI charges. Anthony, fresh off a $60 million extension with the Jordan brand, probably hurts the brand more, but Howard’s double whammy does not help. Without knowing the intricacies of his contract, I wonder if the Jordan brand will try to distance themselves from Howard after his comments.

His agent and PR team will need to do a lot of spin work to rebuild the image Josh Howard has created for himself before he gets another endorsement. Sponsors are increasingly wary of signing athletes with the recent spate of off the field problems, afraid an athlete can taint the image of the product. A former All-Star, Howard cost himself future marketing dollars with this public admission.

Losing out on money is not new for Josh Howard. Back in 2003, the reigning ACC Player of the Year fell to 29th in the NBA Draft party due to suspicion of marijuana use contributing to an already questionable public persona due to his association with various entourages and discipline problems at Wake Forest. His skill warranted border-line lottery status. That year Howard received a 3-year, $2.56 million rookie contract as the last pick of the first round, while the last lottery pick, Marcus Banks, signed for $4.58 million for three years. Right there, Howard left two million on the table, though he since compensated with a 4-year, $40 million extension. Nonetheless, lost money is lost opportunity.

The NBA gave no indication if they will reprimand Howard. Mavs owner Mark Cuban stated the team would deal with the issue internally. Needless to say, in a league rebuilding its image, David Stern and the league office cannot be happy with Howard disrupting the playoffs with another story that creates a negative perception among fans.

Again, its befuddling why Howard would go out of his way to bring up the marijuana topic when Irvin did not probe him about it. Honesty is the best policy, but sometimes silence is smarter. This underscores the fact that agents and teams need to coach players on interview skills, and monitor them off-the-court more than ever.