LeBron James and the Cavaliers have given Love the same opportunity that the Los Angeles Lakers provided Gasol six years ago, when he was dealt from Memphis and promptly helped Kobe Bryant make three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals and win two more championships.
An unappreciated all-star and former rookie of the year before being traded, Gasol completely transformed his reputation in Los Angeles, so much so that few ever mention his early travails or that he had never won a playoff game in his first seven years with the Grizzlies.
The attributes that made him a flawed front man in Memphis worked well for Gasol in the second stage of his career. He became the perfect superstar complement as a skilled big man with low post moves, reliable jump shot, deft passing skills and, most importantly, a willingness to defer – a quality that couldn’t be overlooked when paired with a sociopathic scorer such as Bryant.
In six seasons with the Timberwolves, Love was the rare player who earned the respect of peers, coaches and stat geeks by putting up most valuable player-caliber numbers despite never reaching the postseason. The blame mostly rested on an organization that bumbled in nearly every way fathomable – with faulty trades and free agent signings, bad coaching and general manager hires, even worse draft picks – and even created an untenable situation by handing Love a flawed extension that allowed him to force his exit two years earlier than necessary.
James gained an appreciation for Love when the two won a gold medal together in the 2012 London Olympics and imagined playing with the two-time all-star long before Cleveland finally consummated the much-discussed three-team deal that involved Andrew Wiggins heading to the Minnesota Timberwolves. During his introductory news conference on Tuesday, Love said that James called him a few hours after committing to sign with Cleveland last month: “I said, you know what, ‘I’m in.’ ”
If Wiggins blossoms into the star Minnesota expects him to become, the Love deal has the potential to pay off for Minnesota in the same way the Gasol deal helped Memphis rebound into a contender within a few years. For now, Love is hoping not to become like other recently disgruntled stars who demanded trades to form super teams elsewhere.
Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard have all moved on but none has had much success in their new home. Anthony and Paul have both made it to the second round just once with New York and the Los Angeles Clippers, respectively, and Howard has yet to win a playoff series since leaving Orlando.
Love may not have succeeded as the lead guy in Minnesota but has a chance to thrive alongside James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. A tenacious rebounder, Love can get the Cavaliers out on the run and get easy transition buckets from his outlet passes. A knockdown shooter from long distance, Love can open up driving lanes for Irving and let James operate in the low block. Though criticized by some for chasing stats over wins, Love’s ability to erupt offensively would also relieve James of the scoring burden that seemed to frustrate the four-time MVP in his final days in Miami.
The talent fits spectacularly – especially on the offensive end with a creative coach such as David Blatt – but Love realizes that he will need a different mindset for everything else to fall into place. Love gets to skip a few steps on the road to team success, joining forces with the game’s best player. Instead of just playing beyond 82 games, Love will be judged on his ability to help James raise a Larry O’Brien trophy.
“I think it will be somewhat of an adjustment playing in the playoffs,” Love said. “But LeBron and I have had conversations that I needed to mentally prepare myself to [be] playing into June. That’s something that I wanted to do. I told him that I was in. Everything in my entire life and the past six years has led me up to this point. I’m excited and ready and optimistic for this opportunity.”
Love chose to wear the No. 0 for the Cavaliers because the No. 42 he wore in Minnesota and the No. 11 he wore for Team USA have both been retired by the organization. Nate Thurmond was willing to let Love wear the No. 42 again but Love declined out of respect to the Hall of Famer. Love explained that the jersey number was the first he ever wore and also represented his home state of Oregon.
At no point did Love mention that the number had anything to do with his playoff appearances in Minnesota. If Love can help James win a championship or two in Cleveland those past failures will be long forgotten, serving only as the grooming period for Love’s eventual success.