CLEVELAND, Ohio — Nearly three years ago, Kevin Love was playing in his third All-Star Game in four years, sharing the court with the league’s brightest stars, watching as Cleveland Cavaliers youngster Kyrie Irving put on a show.
Love had gotten used to those midseason trips and the individual acclaim. At 25, the Minnesota Timberwolves power forward was in the midst of another season with eye-popping numbers. Equipped with a versatile skill set, ideally suited for the NBA’s new style of play, it looked like Love would be a future All-Star lock.
Instead, Love has been outside looking in for the last two seasons — needing to sacrifice stats, touches, post-up opportunities and comfort after being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Love needed to make numerous changes to fit in with his new teammates. But, an NBA champion now, Love looks like an even better version of the player he was with the Timberwolves.
In a few weeks when the voting is complete, Love has built a strong case to be named an All-Star again — in label, anyway.
“I think you come in every year hoping to play well, play your best and I believe in my heart every year — and it’s not like I forgot how to play — I’m an All-Star caliber player. I don’t necessarily need All-Star appearances to show that,” Love recently told cleveland.com. “If we continue to win and we keep playing well I think there’s a goal and it’s within reach. But it’s not something I’m going out every night saying I have to be an All-Star.
“I also think the fact that us winning a championship and winning changes a lot of people’s perspective on things and you don’t really know what that means until you go through that. I think that is different. You mentioned that being the end goal. You have individual goals, but it has to fit within the landscape of what we’re doing.”
With head coach Tyronn Lue making Love more of an offensive focal point, Love is averaging 21.7 points on 45.8 percent from the field, including 41 percent from beyond the arc. He’s also collecting 10.8 rebounds, making him one of 13 players averaging a double-double this season.
“He’s the Kevin Love of old and this is everything we expected out of him,” LeBron James said. “That’s what we want out of him. But there’s no added pressure for him. He’s going out and just playing his game right now. He’s at a point where he’s just comfortable with everything and it’s great to have him.”
Comfort seems to be a common explanation when discussing Love’s resurgence. It’s another year in Lue’s system, he’s surrounded by the same teammates and he knows what the Cavs need from him. It all helps.
Love’s talent has never been in question. But he had to refine his game — no longer consistently operating from the elbow or initiating the offense and getting as many shots as he wanted.
“I’ve seen it coming,” teammate James Jones told cleveland.com. “Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s not as simple as just uprooting yourself from one situation and putting yourself in another situation and things not changing. Kev had to change. The way he played, the way he approached the game and just his whole outlook on what it took to be successful changed because there was another level of success he was trying to reach. A lot of times people will tell you that you have to tear it down before you rebuild it back.”
That disassembly included Love’s body. Healthy again, Love used the summer to get stronger and leaner. It helped that he didn’t have to rehab a shoulder injury like last off-season.
“Finding a way to kind of flip the script and reset everything he learned and everything he had to become was tough mentally,” Jones said. “When you couple the mental transition and the physical transformation I knew it was a matter of time before he became comfortable with himself, the scheme and his body. Now, if you see him out there, you see him playing with a full toolbox – every skill, every strength and every ability — and he’s honed it. Now you see just how dynamic of a player he is on a very good team.”
During Love’s first two years, the finger-pointing became unavoidable and there were countless questions about fitting alongside James and Irving. After the Cavs lost by 33 in Game 2 of last June’s NBA Finals and the team rebounded in Game 3 without him, some wondered whether Cleveland was better with Love sidelined.
During the tough times, Love leaned on Jones, singling him out in a heartfelt Instagram message shortly after winning the title.
“I told him all along just be yourself,” Jones said of his advice. “At the end of the day the only thing you can control is who you are and what you do and people can like it, they can dislike it, but I’ve learned over my years that when you win they love it. I think he embraced that.
“In order to do that he had to take his bumps and bruises and he almost had to become hard-headed about it, which meant you don’t let anyone shake your confidence and you don’t let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t do because it’s your career and your life and your legacy. If you do that you will be a winner, you’ll create a legacy and all the naysayers and everyone else on the sidelines will just shut up and watch you perform.”
The changes haven’t solely been on the court either. Love has grown off it as well, becoming more vocal and emerging as one of the Cavs’ leaders.
“Everything he does now as far as his free time and personal time — his body, his mind — is geared towards becoming the best basketball player he can be,” Jones said. “Very few guys have the capability or skill-set to be able to play this game at a high level and manage all the things that come with it and continue to grow and not plateau once they are financially well off and once they’ve had success on the court and off the court. … But he’s unique in that he understands that and embraces it. If you ask him what’s the most important thing in his life, he will tell you it’s basketball. And it’s winning.”
The Cavs are seeing the results. James says Love is playing the best basketball of his career. Opponents point to Love’s usage when asked about Cleveland’s growth in Year 3. Hornets head coach Steve Clifford called defending the Cavs “hopeless at times” earlier this season, believing they have three stars.
James and Irving get that kind of recognition. Love hasn’t. Not since leaving Minnesota. Will this be the year that changes?
Tyronn Lue on if Kevin Love should be an all-star: “We should have three.” pic.twitter.com/VHASgL4IBD
— clevelanddotcom (@clevelanddotcom) December 10, 2016
“It’d be great,” Lue said. “We should have three this year, especially the way these guys are playing and being No. 1 in the East right now. Usually when that happens and you’re winning, guys are rewarded. Kevin has been playing at a high level all season along with Kyrie and LeBron. It’d be great for him as well as the team and the organization. It’s something we’re looking forward to.”
Chris Fedor’s 2017 NBA All-Star selections for Eastern Conference