Branding, Marketing, NBA

Why, Kawhi?

While most NBA offseasons offer intrigue and entertainment, this summer is already shaping up to be a game-changer. Decisions made over the next few weeks have the potential to shape the league’s competitive landscape for the next decade.

The most captivating storyline will unquestionably involve LeBron James. I would anticipate a blog post to be made in the near-future regarding “The Decision, 2.0,” when the time comes.

However, updates surrounding a disgruntled Kawhi Leonard have surfaced recently, and it appears changes could be on the horizon from one of the most consistent, stable and successful sports organizations from this century.

There are a few theories as to why the All-Star forward wants to leave San Antonio. The most popularized rumor revolves around his recent quad injury, more specifically how the organization treated Leonard and handled his rehabilitation process.

Obviously, if there’s a sincere lack of trust, or an unhealthy professional relationship between Leonard and the Spurs organization, then change seems to be the best option.

Yet, from a speculative and outsider perspective, this could be a big mistake for both parties.

Athletes – particularly star players – are walking, talking, and breathing brands. The decisions they personally and professionally make should support a consistent story and an unwavering image.

In the NBA, the sport that most successfully markets their individual athletes (due to the comparatively more individualistic style of the sport and its high levels of visibility), the need for consistent storytelling is magnified.

And personally, I believe Kawhi Leonard’s brand is nearly synonymous with the San Antonio Spurs’ organization.

Remember, this is the same Kawhi Leonard that asked to be benched after just 15-minutes of action during an All-Star game so that he could “rest-up” for the stretch-run of the regular season. In a game where players bask in the spotlight and enjoy the attention, Leonard was thinking about his team.

Leonard is a reserved, quiet, humble and hard-working superstar. A rare combination in today’s sports world.

San Antonio is undoubtedly the perfect spot to harbor such a talent and personality. It worked well for Tim Duncan.

While I stand by my belief that Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs are seemingly the basketball equivalent of peanut butter and jelly, there is a counterpoint to be made – something Leonard’s people have probably considered.

Leonard is a must-see attraction. His athleticism, hard-work and tenacity allow him to be considered one of the greatest perimeter defenders of all time. As LeBron James’ unreal career (eventually) dwindles in the twilight, Kawhi Leonard can be the league’s big star in terms of talent and entertainment.

This obligation comes with endorsements, increased fame, and of course, more money.

Yet playing in a small-market like San Antonio doesn’t exactly allow that dream to come to fruition. And playing in a system like the Spurs’ – where teamwork, accountability and selflessness reign supreme – Leonard’s potential desire to become an NBA megastar seems unlikely. Just consider the differences in perception when you compare Tim Duncan’s career to that of Kobe Bryant’s or Shaquille O’Neal’s.

If Kawhi Leonard and his team hope to capitalize on off-the-court opportunities, then leaving San Antonio will satisfy those needs.

Yet I believe a move could be counterproductive to his established brand image. Unless he comes out of his proverbial shell and remakes himself, Kawhi Leonard may not be a great fit under the bright lights of a big market.

We’ll see how this situation plays out, and if Leonard is ready to handle the increase in attention and the sequential pressure if he is to be moved to a big market.

My prediction: Gregg Popovich will find a way to fix this seemingly damaged relationship, and Leonard won’t have to leave what could amount to an additional $70 million on the table by signing a “Supermax Contract.” If this happens, perhaps the rumors and speculations were scare-tactics by Leonard’s camp to help influence change in the San Antonio organization.







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