The two players were hanging out the following year at Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday party all-star weekend in Houston. James pulled Love aside for a private chat and Love told James that he probably seemed standoffish in London because he didn’t know him, but it meant a lot to hear those words of encouragement.
James made it known last summer that the United States wouldn’t have won gold without Love controlling the boards and spreading the floor. And, as James attempts to finally deliver that gold-plated Larry O’Brien trophy he promised Cleveland, he is looking for Love to once again make an impact, this time by making the Cavaliers into a title contender.
“LeBron coming here wasn’t enough. It was more so finalizing the deal with Kevin Love. That sold it,” veteran Shawn Marion said when asked what led him to sign with Cleveland as a free agent. “That made it more realistic, like we do have a shot to win the championship this year.”
By teaming up with James, Love will now be able to convince others – especially those who felt his production with the Minnesota Timberwolves was the empty calorie variety – that he really is good.
Love has been a consistent, 20-point, 10-rebound player for much of the past four years and finished third in player efficiency rating behind Kevin Durant and James last season but his next meaningful NBA game will be his first.
Six seasons in Minnesota ended with Love collecting more winter coats than wins and never coming close to reaching the playoffs. But Love still earned the respect of his peers and opposing coaches as he made three all-star teams and became a highly-coveted commodity after he made it known through his agent, Jeff Schwartz, that it would be in Minnesota’s best interest to deal him before he exercised his option to become a free agent in 2015.
The Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics were among the teams that actively pursued Love, while the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers hoped he would consider them when he hit the open market. The Cavaliers tried to acquire Love before the NBA draft, believing his presence would attract James. But without James, Love wasn’t going to Cleveland and trade talks collapsed.
“It’s always been appealing,” Love said of playing with James. “In our first conversation that we had after he had signed this summer, we had just mentioned to each other how unselfish by nature both of our games are and how that would bode well with this team and have a snowball effect with this team.”
Love carried most of the scoring load in Minnesota, where he played with one of the worst supporting casts of any all-NBA player and his production mostly helped fantasy league owners prosper. But his statistics won’t be as gaudy surrounded by better talent in Cleveland. A common refrain, first expressed by Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, is that Love will have to modify his game and get used to being the third option in Cleveland because James and Irving will have the ball in their hands most of the time. Love has only played one preseason game with Irving, who is currently sidelined with a sprained right ankle, but he is prepared to glance at a less impressive stat sheet in exchange for a better spot in the standings.
“It’s tough to say. There will be things. I don’t know one stat in particular that will have to take a hit,” Love said. “I’ve been fortunate and unfortunate. Very, very, very bittersweet to say the least that I’ve had to watch playoff basketball for the last six years. I’ve watched [Chris] Bosh. I’ve watched guys like [Dwyane] Wade and different players throughout that teams have to sacrifice. I’d be lying to myself and everybody here if I was telling you I didn’t have to sacrifice. I’m willing to do whatever it takes for this team to win because at the end of the day, that’s what we want, is to win.”
Bosh recently stated Love was going to face a difficult and frustrating adjustment playing with James, whose incredible talent leaves teammates with little choice but defer. But Love is the perfect complement for James and has the advantage of already being the player that Bosh was forced to become in Miami. Love is the quintessential stretch four – a power forward with shooting range – and connected on 37.6 percent of his shots from three-point range last season in Minnesota. He hit 190 shots from long distance last season, while Bosh has made 161 in his entire 11-year career.
The Cavaliers agreed to a three-team deal for Love in early August but needed to wait another two weeks before they could move Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall last June. Love described the uneasy waiting period as “purgatory.” Though he was eligible to sign a two-year extension when the deal was completed, Love decided to hold off to sign a long-term deal next summer, when he could make $2 million more per season and possibly earn an additional $70 million over the life of a five-year deal.
When asked how seriously he considered signing with New York in 2015 before Minnesota traded him, Love said, “I’m a Cleveland Cavalier. And I’m happy to be here. All that is in the past now, I’m here now and I’m not really focusing on 2015. I’m focused on today.”
Love has never won more than 40 games in a season but is now expected to help push the Cavaliers over the top. Mike Miller was in Minnesota during Love’s rookie season and said he could tell from his conversations with him that Love is serious about making his current situation work.
“Just seeing his growth, first of all, has been awesome,” Miller said. “Here’s a guy averaging 25 [points] and 10 [rebounds]. Yeah, he hasn’t made the playoffs yet but he’s dealt with a lot in Minnesota. You get a guy now who individually knows what he can do on the basketball court, where he wants to be as a player but has that hunger to win. No one ever wants to be considered a person who hasn’t won. He understands that. To talk to him in the locker room now, to see where his mind’s at, that hunger is something that’s very important and good to see.”
James recognized that talent and hunger during the summer of 2012 and wanted to make sure Love was by his side for his second run with the Cavaliers.
“I’m very hungry. I know that there’s not a lack of hunger throughout our entire lineup,” said Love, who plans to lean on his experience with USA Basketball to help him adjust to another star-studded team with Irving and James. “Whether it was 2010 or 2012, in Turkey or in London when I played for Team USA, that was one of the things I realized — the onus doesn’t necessarily always have to be on me. It’s going to take a concerted effort from everybody to bring our knowledge of the game, to bring our competitive streaks and to bring our strength and honor to this team. It’s not going to be just us three.
“The good advice I got early on in my career and early on in life is that if you chase the game, all the good things will chase you,” Love said. “That’s just always what I’ve taken to heart.”