In case you haven't heard, Kawhi Leonard recently reached an endorsement deal with Jordan Brand. It's nothing new for a player of Leonard's caliber to garner attention from sponsors, but it's still encouraging to learn about a Spurs player getting endorsement opportunities. While on-court success is still the driving force behind being an alluring franchise, off-court factors like brand-building, notoriety and input on personnel moves are now key issues a player considers when deciding where to spend his career.
Unlike when a player tries to play GM, pursuing exposure -- and the endorsement money that comes from it -- is nothing to be ashamed of, especially for a young player who's still on his rookie contract. Parker and Ginobili have opportunities in their respective countries, so endorsement money and fame in the U.S. are not as big an issue for them. Timmy is Timmy -- one of the best players ever and someone who's always had a conflicted relationship with the attention his greatness attracts. But for a player like Leonard, the missed opportunities that come from playing in a relatively small market are very real.
Valid or not, one of the reasons used to explain the migration of star players to big markets is the fact that endorsement opportunities are easier to come by in places like L.A. and New York. Even though great players always garner attention regardless of market size, it's hard to deny that playing for a major market is helpful when trying to become more recognizable. Blake Griffin's impressive dunking ability was surely a big part of why he was such a popular public figure early in his career, but playing in L.A. surely helped. Meanwhile, Chris Paul toiled away in relative anonymity in NOLA for years despite clearly being the better player. Is it any wonder he maneuvered his way to L.A.?
The Spurs perhaps inadvertently compound the problems inherent to small market teams by often deflecting whatever attention they do get. PATFO likes operating in the shadows, so to speak, and makes no concerted effort to draw the public eye to the team and the players.
This tendency was solidified as the Spurs modus operandi when Robinson and Duncan were both not only alright with it, but also actually preferred it. The result is a team that most casual observers have very little knowledge of and in which players fly under the radar. That's really the reason Leonard "blew up" during the Finals: no one was really paying attention before, in part because that's the way the Spurs seem to like it.
But as the Duncan era draws to a close, the Spurs might need to change the way they do things. The younger generation of players has taken their destiny into their own hands and wants to succeed both on the court and off. And they have no problem flexing their muscles to make things happen, as demonstrated by the recent forming of super-teams and the trend of stars demanding trades. The best way to prevent that is to offer a chance to contend. The reason those Paul George to the Lakers rumors were ludicrous -- aside from restricted free agency shifting the power to teams -- is because the Pacers are a great young team on the upswing. As much as players like exposure and off-court earnings, most simply value winning first and foremost.
If Kawhi was to enter free agency now, there'd be no reason for him to leave the Spurs, but in two seasons everyone expects Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to retire, and only Tony Parker (on a partially guaranteed contract) and Tiago Splitter will be on the books -- the uncertainty doesn't seem at all appealing, really. The monetary compensation would be similar everywhere, thanks to the cap on individual max salaries, although the Spurs could offer Leonard the five-year designated player contract.
So without the certainty to contend, or the possibility to make more on-court money, what do the Spurs really have to offer a young player entering his prime? Certainly not the promise of developing his image in order to maximize off-court income, an area where the Spurs intentionally trail the less "successful" franchises.
Some teams, like the Wolves and the Mavs, have tried to launch viral videos or openly campaign for a player to get an award, raising their public profile. Others are accommodating to national media, sometimes to the point of sycophancy, and get treated to better coverage for their troubles. The Spurs don't do any of that. The #letBonnershoot movement started online and at the behest of Matt Bonner's brother. There were no Stack5 tunes playing in the AT&T Center when Stephen Jackson was around. Pop resting his players before highly anticipated games actually costs those guys exposure. Players know which franchises are player-friendly and conducive to growing their public profile because they make it patently obvious. And that's not the Spurs.
Let's go back to Leonard now. His presence in the HEB commercials -- and the contract that followed -- were a fantastic start in making him feel like a big part of the organization and establishing him as a charismatic guy that can handle attention. Pop's statement that Kawhi will be the face of the franchise helps too, obviously. As soon as next season, the stories about the passing of the torch from Duncan to Leonard will start writing themselves. But if the Spurs are hoping to be one of the few teams that retains the players it drafts and lures free agents despite not being a big market, they can't stop there.
Promoting the brand of the guys on the roster in any way they can, being a little more attentive to the media and even showing a willingness to engage players that require a little ego-stroking before jumping in could go a long way in making sure the post-Duncan era starts off smoothly. More than ever before, it seems like those little things matter to more than just the prima donnas. The Spurs have always been ahead of the curve in terms of acquiring talent, from scouting in Europe to setting up a serious D-League operation before everyone else. The only mandate was to "get over yourself" and adapt to the culture of the team. But the times they are a changin', and it might be the Spurs who now need to adapt.
The last thing I want as a fan is for the Spurs to betray who they are and lose what made them special in the first place. But doing everything in their power to help Kawhi get more endorsement deals should bring on a more open and image-conscious era for the Spurs. Timmy's departure will force PATFO to adjust in a variety of ways. Starting the player-friendly revolution as soon as possible might be a good way to begin preparing for it.
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- Spurs fall to Blazers, 115-105
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