Set for a more prominent role with the Cavaliers after LeBron James’s departure for the Lakers, Kevin Love became the latest NBA player discuss the challenges of playing with the four-time MVP. As others have done, Love noted that his acceptance of a lesser role and a greater amount of stress also came with increased opportunities to contribute to contending teams.
During James’s second stint in Cleveland, when the team went to four straight NBA Finals and won the first title in franchise history, none of his teammates appeared to have as difficult an experience as Love did. Love, an established star with the Timberwolves, was suddenly a third banana behind James and Kyrie Irving. He not only had fewer chances to show off the full range of his skills but also seemed to struggle to mesh with James’s head-of-the-family approach.
In one noted 2015 episode, James posted a cryptic tweet in which he told an unidentified person widely presumed to be Love, “Stop trying to find a way to FIT-OUT and just FIT-IN. Be a part of something special!” Earlier this year, Love revealed that he had suffered a panic attack during a Cavs game in November.
In comments published Thursday by ESPN, Love told Brian Windhorst that while he made sure his “voice was heard” by James even when they disagreed, he was well aware that he and anyone else on a team with the superstar forward would never be “the top guy.” He added, “I just tried to continue to be myself and not fake it,” and claimed he would tell potential teammates of James that the overall experience was worth it.
“You have to be resilient. I had a lot of hard nights. There were dark times,” Love said. “But I always believed, keep fighting, I was stubborn about it.
"And LeBron makes sure you have a chance to win every year. He’s gotten a lot of guys rings. You’re going to win at the highest level. We won and we bonded and we’re going to continue this brotherhood.”
Those remarks echoed comments made by another former teammate of James’s, J.R. Smith. In the wake of his infamous gaffe in Game 1 of the Finals, which generated a popular meme based on James’s exasperated reaction, Smith said that playing with him involved “a lot of pressure.”
“It’s a gift and a curse,” added Smith, who, like Love, is back with Cleveland this season. “You play on his team, and you’re playing with the best player in the world, and you get to witness some great historic things and be a part of it. Then, on the other side, if you don’t help that person win, they’re looking at you, too. So it’s a lot of pressure, depending on how you look at it.”
Shortly before that, another member of the Cavs talked about how “tough” it had been to be traded to Cleveland in the middle of the season from a comparatively low-pressure environment in Utah. “You lose a game and you feel like the world is coming down,” Rodney Hood said. “You win, it’s like, you’re supposed to win. It’s still a struggle to me to adapt to that.”
Even Irving, who was drafted No. 1 overall by Cleveland three years before James returned to the team, keenly felt the expectations that came with playing alongside him. “I went from being in Cleveland to having half the fans show up, to now ‘Bron shows up and now every night is packed, every road game is like a home game for us,” he said on Bill Simmons’s podcast in July. “You think of the media attention that comes with all of that and the elevated pressure of, ‘Now it’s championship or you fail.’ And then you gotta figure out how you fit within the system.”
That last point was certainly an issue for Love, who thrived in the low post for Minnesota, both in terms of scoring and turning rebounds into nifty outlet passes, only to be stationed at the three-point line for much of his time on the court with James. When James and Love teamed up on the Cavs in 2014, a former teammate on the Heat, Chris Bosh, offered some advice on what Love could expect.
“It’s a lot more difficult taking a step back, because you’re used to doing something a certain way and getting looks a certain way,” Bosh, a star in Toronto who took a back seat to James and Dwyane Wade in Miami, said at the time to Bleacher Report. “It’s going to be very difficult for [Love]. Even if I was in his corner and I was able to tell him what to expect and what to do, it still doesn’t make any difference.
"You still have to go through things, you still have to figure out things on your own. It’s extremely difficult and extremely frustrating. He’s going to have to deal with that.”
According to Channing Frye, another veteran member of the Cavs, some of the same things that make James so great also work to the individual detriment of his teammates. “When you play with LeBron, he does so much,” Frye told USA Today in August. “Whether he likes it or not, it’s just him. Everyone else fits into a role. You’re a scorer, you’re a passer, you’re a defender, you’re a shooter, you’re a rebounder.”
Now it is the Lakers, including a mix of talented young players already on hand and veterans brought in this offseason, who will be tasked with figuring out their places in James’s orbit. “That’s going to be the hardest part for the Lakers,” Frye said. “Who is going to sit in the corner? Who is going to be a defender? What is your defining role?”
That dynamic — with teammates having little choice but to defer to James’s alpha-male status — could be an issue for the Lakers next summer when their front office aims to land another top-tier free agent. As Windhorst noted Thursday, Irving left Cleveland even before James in the hope of becoming the focal point on another team. And James’s commitment to Los Angeles did not seem to make much of an impression on Paul George, who re-upped with the Thunder, and Jimmy Butler, who reportedly left the Lakers off a shortlist of preferred destinations.
For now, though, this season’s Lakers may have it easier psychologically than previous members of James’s supporting cast. Unfortunately for all concerned, that would be because for the first time in a decade or so, expectations for major playoff success are decidedly low.
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