Kevin Love knew he had made a mistake.
In the first half, the Cavaliers-Lakers and Love’s ex-teammate LeBron James rushed into the lane. Love made the split-second decision to attempt to draw a charge. Whoops. James brought up. It’s gonna be bad, Love thought, straightening up. It was. James slammed a dunk home, charging into Love in the process.
“He’s so smart,” Love said. IF. “We have our 2016 [team] group chat and I said ‘I put my body on the line [all season].’ He’s like, ‘Yeah man, that’s a hell of a job taking care, blah, blah, blah’… but he had that in mind. He’s so smart, cerebral, like a sponge… putting me in front like that, I had nothing to do.
Love laughs remembering the memory. Cleveland lost that game last month. But they haven’t lost much, at least not as much as the Cavs were expecting at the start of the season. Cleveland is 43-36, locked in a battle with Atlanta for the No. 7 seed. They are likely heading to the play-in tournament. For most teams, that’s cause for complaint. For the Cavs, who haven’t won more than 31% of their games since James left town in 2018, that’s cause for celebration.
Are there better stories this season than Cleveland? The Cavs aren’t just good, they’re fun. Darius Garland is an All-Star. Jarrett Allen too. Evan Mobley is one of the leading candidates for Rookie of the Year. Love, a reserve for the first time since his rookie season, is on board for Sixth Man.
Collin Sexton is collapsing? Garland steps forward. Ricky Rubio tears an ACL? Cleveland finds a way to win without him. A series of injuries in the second half sent the Cavs down in the standings. Before them, Cleveland looked set to finish in the top four.
“We were expected to win, maybe in the middle or low, maybe in our twenties this year,” Love says. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
Love didn’t expect to be in this position. Not in Cleveland, anyway. In 2018, Love signed a four-year, $120 million extension. The deal gave Love financial security. Given the Cavs’ position — Love agreed to the terms just weeks after James fled to LA — it also appeared that Love was sacrificing the chance to spend the rest of his early years competing for a championship.
Love, speaking on a Zoom call to promote a partnership with Milkbone, admits he thought about it before signing the deal.
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“I had conversations with Draymond [Green] about it,” Love says. “You lose guys for a season or for so long, like he did with Klay and with Steph, guys that were so monumental and leave such a hole in what you’re trying to accomplish. You go from the final four consecutive years to being at the bottom of not only your conference [but] the NBA, there is no preparation for that. I had an idea of where we were going and it would be a longer rebuild… I looked at it like, man, it’s gonna take a long time and there’s been good times, there’s been really bad times which I had, both on and off the ground. But for me to be in a landing spot where I am now is the most fun I’ve had since the 2015-16 season, just being with these guys and coming to work every day.
Love was forced to adjust to a new role when he was traded to Cleveland in 2014. With this group, he has another. But although his initial adjustment from All-Star to third star was difficult, this change, he says, went smoothly. He credits the trust he has with Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff and the mental space he was in to start the season.
“JB, he’s like, ‘I want you to play for free,'” Love says. “You have the green light…so for me there was no pushback. And from there it took me about, I’d say four to six weeks to really feel good and safe and figuring out how I was going to play within our group and different matchups and who I was going to play with. I would say around December I found myself in this sixth man role. And then it just grew from there .
The Cavs see Love’s value as a reserve. Love too. He averages 13.4 points. He’s shooting 38.4% from three. His numbers by 36 – 21.3 points, 11.3 rebounds – are comparable to what he posted during his All-Star seasons. Next season is the last of Love’s contract. At 33, he is looking for ways to extend his career. Playing with the second unit, Love says, is one way to do that.
“Coming off the bench, I think it can add a lot of time to my career,” Love says. “I feel good. My body feels good. Mentally I feel good. In this league if you can bounce back and you can shoot you can basically play as long as you want. I don’t have [plans on] slow down or move away anytime soon.
Love can be a key element for a candidate. And maybe that competitor is… Cleveland? The Cavs are on the rise. Garland, Mobley and Allen will only get better. In fact, Cleveland may be a small forward away from competing for a championship. If only there was an elite striker with a strong connection to City who could help them win one.
Does Love have any clues on this text string of 16 that James is interested in returning to Cleveland?
“After 2018, will [I] Did you know he was going to the Lakers? I was like, uh, I kind of had an idea that was a possibility, like a strong possibility I should say, but no, I don’t see any. He obviously loves our makeup. He loves our team, he has a special connection to Akron, the city of Cleveland, Ohio. But no, I don’t really feel like it at the moment. But you know, with him, that could change.
A lot of things are changing in Cleveland. For the best.
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