Tyronn Lue is trying to actively put his stamp on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Just days after replacing David Blatt as coach, Lue suggested the Cavs were out of shape and needed to pick up their pace of play. Telling a team what style they should be playing is a coach’s prerogative, but Lue may have entered into a space he shouldn’t be meddling in when he stated that Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving need to stop caring about their “brand.”
Most professional athletes have a finite window to cash in on their talents. Cultivating a brand image is extremely important when it comes to endorsement and earning opportunities outside the field of competition. Their brand can also help them earn a paycheck long after their playing days are over — just look at Shaq, Jalen Rose and the most obvious example . . . Charles Barkley.
A lot of players’ brands are based on their performance, and even though Irving and Love are both max-contract players, they will never be the star of the Cavs with LeBron James on the court. That doesn’t mean Irving and Love can’t focus on cultivating a brand and endorsement deals off the court. Players don’t need to be the main attraction to grow their brand. Kobe didn’t start as an international superstar on the Lakers because it was Shaq’s team for the beginning of their run. The same can be said about Shaq and Penny Hardaway in Orlando, where Hardaway succeeded with his Lil’ Penny ad campaign. Scottie Pippen was able to build his brand and achieve success as the second-best player on Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
Neither Love nor Irving will be able to pass LeBron on the Q scale, and it was interesting to note Lue didn’t mention anything about LeBron’s brand when discussing what could fix the Cavaliers. LeBron has a goal of becoming a global icon and any conversation about changing his game to limit his brand would be laughed at by LeBron and his management team of Rich Paul and Maverick Carter.
In the end it is up to Love and Irving to decide how they want to limit their personal brands, not the coach. Lue referred to the Celtics big three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen when talking about what Love and Irving should look to as a guide. The problem is that those three players were at the tail-end of their careers — a time when players often worry less about their brands and endorsement opportunities and more about winning — while Love and Kyrie are in their earning primes. Sacrificing a certain style of play to win a championship makes sense, but sacrificing earning power does not. If Lue meant to say Irving and Love should defer to LeBron more often, that is fine, but sacrificing earning power would be a mistake. Especially since either player could be traded if the GM — and LeBron — felt it was necessary.
Michael Colangelo is Managing Editor of The Fields of Green and Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute.