Once the relationship between Kevin Love and the Minnesota Timberwolves fell apart, there was no putting it back together again. Love's mind was made up, and industry insiders believed from the moment David Kahn and Glen Taylor failed to offer him a maximum-level contract extension, he was as good as gone. If that really was the case, he spent the entire 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons chafing under an organization he felt had slighted him. Thursday night, Love will take the floor for a new team, having finally orchestrated a move out of the Twin Cities and into the lap of a contender.
The now-infamous Adrian Wojnarowski piece that made Love's frustrations public featured a curious and cryptic quote from Love: "I always remember the people who have done right by me, and the people who have done wrong by me... there's no telling what will happen. I would love to compete for a championship in Minnesota, but..."
Kevin Love stands at the precipice of just about everything he says he wants - to win. He's still playing under the terms of that bargain contract he signed in October of 2012, but it's unlikely he'll talk much about it this season, not when there are things to figure out, new teammates to gel with and expectations to meet. When the Cavs tip it off against the Knicks two days from now, the chatter will be over. So, what should Cleveland fans expect from their new power forward now that the games will really count?
Love's impact on the offensive end is difficult to understate or quantify. Because he's a threat from beyond the arc, teams must respect his presence on the perimeter, freeing up lanes for others to drive and finish or kick to shooters. If he's on the block, he often commands a double team, and since he's a willing and able passer, he routinely makes defenses pay for it. When he catches passes on the elbow, he's an expert at hitting cutters to the rim or using his body to free up teammates circling around for a handoff. He's an exceptional roll man in the pick and roll game. And although he doesn't do it often, Love is better at putting the ball on the floor and creating than many give him credit for.
If you believe that Cleveland's offense will be multifaceted and deep, you probably believe that everyone's raw numbers (points per game, especially) will decline a bit, but their efficiency statistics (field goal and three point percentage) will rise. Love can be the focal point of a very good offense, and was the leader of the 10th-most efficient offensive attack in the league last season, but this year, don't expect 25 points, 13 rebounds and 4 assists per game, which were his per-game averages over the past three years in Minnesota.
However, his shooting line (44% from the floor, 36% from three over that same time) should experience a bump. For one thing, he's got two elite ball handlers (Kyrie and LeBron) to collapse the defense, which ought to afford him better looks. For another, he'll excel as a trailer in run-outs, swooping in from behind the play for a look from beyond the arc. And if he ends up on the floor with a few reserves, Love can always operate from the post and let his teammates work around him. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect something like 50/40/80 shooting splits while averaging 22 points, 11 rebounds and 3 assists. Know how many guys have done that in NBA history? None.
On the other end of the floor, Cleveland fans, brace yourselves for the reality of Kevin Love's defense. I'll break it to you gently... It's not that bad. It's not great. It's not even good, sometimes. But Love's not a bad defender, and he at least offers value being a ferocious rebounder and ending opposing possessions that way. He's a solid one on one defender in the post. He isn't a leaper and won't protect the rim, but those guys are few and far between.
One thing that drove people a little crazy during his time in Minnesota was his penchant for keeping his hands down rather than contesting shots, in part because he was already jostling for rebounding position. Love also has a bad habit of occasionally complaining about missed calls on the offensive end and failing to get back on defense, which is hardly unique to him, but troublesome nonetheless. Some view his low foul rate as a positive thing, but if it did pick up a bit, it might not be an unwelcome change.
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor made some unwise and uninformed comments about Love after the trade finally went down, but one thing he said had a kernel of truth: Love got away with a few things in Minnesota, especially on the defensive end of the floor, he won't be able to get away with in Cleveland. After yearning to play for a winner for so long, it's hard to believe Love wouldn't be invested in improving his defense and eradicating his bad habits now that he's finally going to do so.
As far as how Love will fit into the team, I've written on the topic before, but to recap: in Minnesota, he was miscast as a leader and a culture changer, and after covering him for a year, the impression I got was that he's the type of person who responds to his surroundings rather than tries to change them. This is LeBron's team, and Kyrie Irving is a star with a longer track record in Cleveland. Love's game, on the court, fits well as a complementary piece; he rebounds, he knocks down catch and shoot threes, he's a good passer, and he's a decent team defender. In the locker room, it'll go much the same way. Love can be affable and funny, and now that he is on a winning team, I expect to see a little more joy, and a little less surliness, out of the star power forward.
Assuming health, Kevin Love is going to be part of one of the most dynamic offenses we've seen in a long, long time. He's finally going to make the playoffs. His 2014-15 player preview can be summed up this way: Love is going to have a lot of fun, and so will we.