How did Kevin Love become part of LeBron’s “I’m Coming Home” package to Cleveland even before that signing went down? LeBron passes 40,000 career minutes during the seventh minute of opening night in October, that’s how. The King doesn’t have time to wait for two Canadian kids to evolve into trusted playoff commodities. Nothing personal, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. But you were omitted from that Sports Illustrated letter for a reason.
And so the worst-kept secret in recent NBA history was finally revealed by Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski: Love is going to Cleveland; Wiggins, Bennett1 and a future first are going to Minnesota; and Love may or may not sign a five-year, $120 million extension. From what I’m hearing, the trade has been done — in principle, anyway — since before LeBron sent Ohio into a euphoric tizzy. I thought the Cavs should have waited a few months, if only to make sure that Wiggins wasn’t the Pippen to LeBron’s Jordan. But new Cavs GM LeBron James wants to win now.
(And “NOW” means “I’m the best player since MJ, and now I have an All-Star power forward and last year’s All-Star MVP as my sidekicks … let’s do this!!!!”)
Of everyone involved, Love might have the most at stake. From May to August, he became the league’s most polarizing player without ever playing a game. When Golden State’s brain trust agonized over dealing Klay Thompson and David Lee for Love (ultimately deciding against it), that launched a barrage of “Is Kevin Love even that good?” columns/posts/tweets/sports radio segments. Few watched him regularly in Minnesota; everyone had an opinion. Lousy defender, chased his own stats, couldn’t lead his team to the playoffs, needs help. That’s where many landed.
And if you landed there, you were wrong. But history says there are 26 different reasons why an NBA star becomes polarizing. Let’s see …
• He can’t stay in shape (Charles Barkley), doesn’t try all the time (Derrick Coleman), can’t stay out of trouble (Bernard King, Micheal Ray Richardson) or can’t stay on the court (Chris Webber).
• He gets paid way more than he’s worth (Spencer Haywood, Shawn Kemp, Joe Johnson) or he doesn’t come through when it matters (Elvin Hayes, Karl Malone).
• He chases his own stats (Jerry Lucas) or puts up empty stats on non-playoff teams (Walt Bellamy, Pete Maravich, Chris Bosh).
• He’s too nice (David Robinson) or he can’t handle his emotions (Boogie Cousins).
• He’s a little too selfish (Dominique Wilkins, Kobe Bryant, early Allen Iverson, Hayes again) and/or he’s a ball stopper (Carmelo Anthony, George McGinnis).
• He cares about too many things that aren’t basketball (Shaq), or he’s a little too outspoken (Barkley again).
• He didn’t live up to massive hype (early Bill Bradley, early-NBA Doctor J, early Jason Kidd), or his prime wasn’t as great as we hoped it would be (Patrick Ewing, Ralph Sampson).
• He pretends to be sweet when he’s really a vicious competitor (Isiah Thomas).
• He’s difficult, demanding and just generally hard to like (Rick Barry), or he hates practice and admits as much (Iverson again).
• He’s loonier than loony (Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas).
• He’s way too detached, way too mechanical and always seems like he’s on autopilot, to the point they even made fun of these things when he played himself in a movie (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
• He choked his coach, got kicked out of practice, then came back to assault his coach again (Latrell Sprewell).
• He refused to go back into a huge playoff game because they didn’t call the game-winning play for him (Scottie Pippen).
• He ditched his hometown team on a live TV special to join forces with his biggest rival in an unabashed ring-chasing move (LeBron James).
• He’s considered to be an All-Star or a superstar even though his teams never win (too many guys to count).
• He’s Wilt Chamberlain (Wilt Chamberlain).
That’s a lot of reasons! Kevin Love hit a polarizing grand slam: He’s been criticized for chasing his own stats, putting up empty stats, being difficult and demanding, and earning “superstar” status without his Minnesota teams ever winning. Love spawns enough arguments and counterarguments to fill three BuzzFeed lists, as you’re about to see.
Fact: Love is one of the NBA’s 12 best players. It’s LeBron and Durant, then it’s Blake, Curry, CP3, Carmelo, Harden, Westbrook, Howard, Love, Aldridge and Anthony Davis in some order.2
Rebuttal: Joakim Noah, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka weren’t on that list … but their teams would NOT trade them straight up for Love.
Fact: Last season, Love averaged 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. Only Kareem, Wilt, Elgin and Billy Cunningham ever averaged 26, 12.5 and 4 in the same season. Nobody has achieved that feat in 38 years. Bird, Barkley, Baylor, Lucas and Malone never did it.
Rebuttal: Love has played six NBA seasons and missed the playoffs every time.
Fact: Love finished with a 26.9 PER in 2014 (same as Duncan’s 2003 MVP season, higher than Barkley’s MVP season, and higher than all three of Bird’s MVP seasons) and .245 win shares per 48 minutes (higher than Bird’s three MVP seasons, LeBron’s first Miami season and Barkley’s MVP season).
Rebuttal: The Timberwolves finished below .500 with Love for six straight years.
Fact: In 2014, Love averaged 6.6 3s per game (tied for fourth highest in the NBA, the same number as Klay Thompson and James Harden) and made 37.6 percent (better than Ray Allen, James Harden and Chandler Parsons). He also made 50.2 percent of his 2s and 82.1 percent of his free throws. Oh, and he finished third in the whole league in rebounding. Offensive power forwards like Love are basically created in Dork Elvis’s basketball lab.
Rebuttal: Love leaves Minneapolis with a lifetime record of 125-239. He did only slightly better than he would have done on the Washington Generals.
Fact: Love grabbed 12.5 rebounds per game in 2014, but he also became one of the 41 NBA players who hoisted 500 3s in one season. Of that group, no other player averaged more than 9 rebounds in that same season. Think about THAT for a second.
Rebuttal: Yeah, and his offensive rebounding dropped from 4.5 in 2011 to 2.9 in 2014. Do you really want the league’s best offensive rebounder standing 24 feet away from the basket? How does that help the team? (See Kirk Goldsberry’s piece yesterday for more details.)
Fact: The 2014 Wolves were 6.1 points better than opponents when Love played … and 5.6 points worse when he rested. That’s almost a 12-point swing.
Rebuttal: Poor defensive teams usually miss the playoffs, right? Well, SportVU measures the opposing field goal percentage of every rim protector (from 1 to 5 feet). Of anyone averaging 30-plus minutes per game at power forward or center last season, the NBA’s five worst interior defenders were Thaddeus Young (60.2% FG), Tristan Thompson (59.1%), Kevin Love (57.4%), Nikola Vucevic (56.4%) and Nikola Pekovic (55.2%). By that same criterion, the NBA’s worst shot-blockers were Zach Randolph at 0.3 blocks per game, David Lee, Thompson and Pekovic at 0.4 blocks, then Love, Young and Glen Davis at 0.5 blocks. Yes, Love and Pekovic were Minnesota’s two highest-paid players last season.
Fact: Even though Love’s 2013-14 PER (26.9) cracked the top-90 all time, he probably hasn’t reached his offensive prime. Duncan’s highest PER happened in Year 7 (27.1). Bird’s highest: Year 9 (27.8). Dirk’s highest: Year 8 (28.1). Barkley’s highest: Year 7 (28.9). Garnett’s highest: Year 9 (29.4). Karl Malone’s highest: Year 12 (28.9). Even Durant peaked last year in Year 7 (29.8).
Rebuttal: Bird, Duncan and Malone never missed the playoffs — not once. Dirk missed the playoffs his first two years, then made it for the next 12. Barkley missed the playoffs just twice in his first 15 years (1988 and 1992). Durant is on a five-year playoff run. You know Love’s record.
Fact: In the 2012 Olympics, Love played crunch time in Team USA’s biggest game, joining forces with LeBron, Durant, Kobe and Chris Paul to hold off Spain.
Rebuttal: That happened only because Tyson Chandler struggled and Team USA didn’t have any other bigs to battle the Gasols.
Fact: Love made the All-NBA second team in 2012 and 2014.
Rebuttal: And in 2014, he made history by becoming the first player since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976 to receive top-10 recognition twice without (a) making the playoffs in those seasons, and (b) EVER making the playoffs.
Has Love become this generation’s Jerry Lucas, a gifted power forward who chases his own numbers without making anyone else better? Did he become a not-as-gifted, more depressing version of Barkley in Philly, a statistical marvel who wasted a piece of his prime carrying subpar teammates? Could he become a better version of Bosh, someone who submitted big numbers on bad teams before recalibrating his game to fit in with a champion? Is he doing something wrong? Or has he been wronged? Or both?
The big question for me: How can someone experience that much individual success without having it translate to team success? In baseball, Mike Trout can lead the American League in WAR on a 65-win team and it’s fine. We know baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. In basketball, you play only five guys at once, so one elite player carries inordinate influence. Ideally, everyone falls into different roles — most contenders feature an alpha-dog scorer/creator (LeBron, Durant, Griffin, whomever), along with a second scorer and/or distributor as his running mate, then an interior defender/rebounder, two or three shooters and some role players.
The 2014 Timberwolves followed much of that model on paper.3 They hoped to be an exceptional offensive team that concealed their defensive flaws by outscoring everyone else. Instead, they turned into one of those fatally flawed movies that saddles a well-known cast with an insurmountably sloppy premise. Like the Sex Tape of basketball teams. To their credit, the Warriors didn’t want to follow Minnesota’s lead and collect a bunch of assets that didn’t make sense as a whole. They could have flipped David Lee and Klay Thompson for Love, but they were as equally concerned about building a contender around Curry and Love (two below-average defenders) as they were about breaking up Curry and Thompson.
You can pick apart Thompson’s résumé on paper — he’s only good for 18, 3 and 2 every night and can’t create shots for anyone else. Still, he’s a beloved teammate who stretches the defense in a Korver-like way and defends three positions well. If Andre Iguodala’s all-around play keeps slipping (a safe bet),4 then they need everything Thompson brings to the table. So they kept him over sacrificing him for the considerable Lee-to-Love upgrade.
I disagreed with the Warriors because, in my opinion, they severely overrated Thompson. But at least they put real thought into their decision … you know, as opposed to how last year’s Timberwolves team was slapped together. Rubio might be a fantastic passer and an underrated defender, but he’s also one of the worst shooters ever (an impossible 36.5 percent for his career, the third-lowest mark since 1975). Opponents didn’t bother to defend him or Corey Brewer; if they played together in crunch time, Love basically lugged a “TRIPLE-TEAM ME” sign around (one big reason why he settled for so many 3s). Pekovic might be a crafty pick-and-roll guy and a solid rebounder, but he’s a lousy interior defender (as described above); teaming him with Love was like building a human layup line. And Kevin Martin couldn’t defend anyone five years ago.
Throw in Rick Adelman’s family issues and nobody should have been surprised when the T-Wolves capsized in a loaded Western Conference. The “Come on, they would have been a 5-seed in the East!” argument barely flies; the Timberwolves finished only 17-13 against the East.5 They outscored opponents by 2.7 points, and Basketball-Reference.com had their “expected” record at 48-34, but they struggled in close games. During one three-month stretch from November 1 through January 31, they went 1-13 in games decided by five points or fewer. Then again, saying they had “bad luck in close games” is like saying “My buddy would get laid all the time if he knew how to close with girls.” They couldn’t get stops and their offense kept abandoning them. That’s why they kept self-destructing.
Minnesota’s defining collapse happened in Phoenix in late March, a must-win game that I happened to watch. The good news: Love finished with a 36-14-9, and the Wolves scored a whopping 73 points in the first half. The bad news: They blew a 22-point lead and scored 17 points in the fourth, missing 16 of 21 shots and committing six turnovers. Adelman even broke out his classic “Uh-oh, we’re collapsing and I can’t stop it!” face; you would have thought C-Webb, Porter, Drexler and Peja were out there.
And here’s where numbers deviate from intangibles …
(And why Golden State ultimately avoided Love … and why people have been picking Love apart these past few months … and why so many basketball junkies and NBA lifers are down on Love … and why Coach K warned him before the 2012 Olympics to tweak his attitude if he wanted to play a meaningful minute … and why so many basketball people wonder if LeBron might ultimately regret pushing Cleveland to mortgage its trade assets for someone who hasn’t played a big game since he was in high school … )
When the collective personality of an NBA team is off, you can see it. There isn’t a more naked sport, especially if you’re seeing these games live. We watch the players interact on the court and in the huddles. We study their body language. We come to know their every expression. It’s like going out to a marathon dinner with another couple — you just know them better after the check comes. And anyone who watched the 2014 Timberwolves regularly, or fairly regularly, knew something was amiss. Love has always been a lead-by-example star, not a galvanizing, get-on-my-back guy. Adelman looked like he wanted to be anywhere else. And too many bricks, tough breaks and Adelman tirades had sapped Rubio’s once-sizable confidence.6
When your best player, your coach AND your point guard aren’t on the same page? Uh-oh. Their off-court issues bubbled over when Love publicly (and probably stupidly) called out two bench players for sulking during games. But I knew something was wrong sooner than that. In December, when I caught them in Lob City, Minnesota choked away a winnable road game (surprise!) despite Love exploding for 48 points and doing everything short of drinking Blake Griffin’s milkshake.
But on the game’s biggest play — overtime, down one, final seconds — Rubio inexplicably ignored a scorching-hot Love (open near the 3-point line) and fed Pekovic for the game-losing shot, followed by a perplexed Love slowly backpedaling in disbelief. I wanted Love to tear into Rubio right there. What are you doing? I HAVE 48 POINTS, YOU DUMBASS!!!! Instead, he remained in WTF mode for two extra seconds before glumly walking back to the bench. Long enough to show Rubio up, not long enough to really make his point.
It’s the nightmare scenario for any modern basketball star — jump to the NBA after one college season, land on a few lottery teams, never meet the right veteran teammate, never play for the right coach. We pay them like franchise players before they’re ready, and we expect them to magically evolve into leaders by watching a few dozen sports movies or getting advice from their buddies from home. Too many times, they end up like Kevin Love did: mired for six solid years in the wrong situation, learning all the wrong lessons on the wrong team. And then we wonder why they can’t lead a mediocre team to the playoffs. They can’t win, and they can’t win.
You can pick apart Kevin Love’s first six seasons in a variety of ways … just as long as you admit that he was the league’s secret League Pass MVP last year, as well as someone who needs to be seen in person to be believed. For one thing, he’s a freak rebounder — as gifted as Rodman and Moses at their respective peaks, blessed with magically soft hands and a psychic ability to read where caroms are headed. He’s just inventive enough on the low post that you probably need to send a second guy at him, and he’s good enough from 24 feet that you can never leave him alone. He’s a flat-out weapon and an underrated heat check guy. And whenever he grabs a rebound and flicks a 60-foot outlet in one motion, it’s genuinely breathtaking to watch.
I mention these things only so people will stop comparing 2014-Love-going-to-Cleveland with 2011-Bosh-going-to-Miami. Bosh was never, at any point in his life, THAT good. Bosh never could have eviscerated 10 or 11 teams in one season like Love just did. When Bosh played for Toronto, he never made me say, “Oh, cool, he’s coming to town tonight and I get to go!!!!” Love lives on that short list with LeBron, Durant, Westbrook, Blake, Davis and Curry.7
So forgive me if I make some more excuses for him. If you remember, a much doughier Love jumped from UCLA to a rebuilding lottery team in Minnesota, went through two coaches and two GMs, lost 58 games and watched Al Jefferson tear his ACL. And that was just his rookie season. During the 2009 draft, the immortal David Kahn passed on Curry twice — with the no. 5 and no. 6 overall picks — to take Rubio (knowing he might spend an extra two years in Europe — which he did) and Jonny Flynn (bustaroo). So much for some help.
The following June, Kahn passed on 19-year-old Boogie Cousins for 23-year-old Wes Johnson with 2010’s no. 4 overall pick, then he spent 2011’s no. 2 overall pick on Derrick Williams (who played the same position as Love).8 Kahn also gave Jefferson to Utah for two non-lottery picks;9 wasted valuable cap space on Brandon Roy, Martell Webster and Darko Milicic; and sacrificed a future no. 1 to dump Johnson’s contact so he could sign Andrei Kirilenko (who left a year later). And if that wasn’t enough, Rubio blew out HIS knee during a promising rookie campaign in 2012. So how is the following sentence an excuse?
Nobody can do worse than McHale, Kahn, Flip Saunders and beleaguered owner Glen Taylor did running the Timberwolves these past 10 years.10
Those three made the Knicks look like the Spurs, for God’s sake. Even the SEATTLE SUPERSONICS made the playoffs since the last time Minnesota made it. Of course, Kahn’s biggest screwup was not giving Love a five-year max extension in 2012 because he was saving it for … (wait for it) … Rubio. A perturbed Love smartly settled for a four-year max with a three-year out, which Kahn foolishly gave him because he was David Kahn. Two summers later, Love is leaving Minnesota having played with zero All-Star teammates, zero quality owners and zero sensical front offices. You can’t blame him for leaving skid marks. And if Minnesota’s overwhelming incompetence inadvertently affected his spirit these past two seasons, you can’t blame him for that, either.
But one list keeps nagging at me. Here’s the entire list starting with the 1976-77 season, right after the merger, of forwards who made All-NBA first or second teams.
Karl Malone: 11 first teams + two second teams
Tim Duncan: 10 + 3
Larry Bird: 9 + 1
LeBron James: 8 + 2
Charles Barkley: 5 + 5
Julius Erving: 5 + 2
Kevin Durant: 5 + 0
Dirk Nowitzki: 4 + 5
Kevin Garnett: 4 + 3
Scottie Pippen: 3 + 2
Elvin Hayes: 2 + 0
Bernard King: 2 + 0
Grant Hill: 1 + 4
Dominique Wilkins: 1 + 4
Chris Webber: 1 + 3
Chris Mullin: 1 + 2
Marques Johnson: 1 + 2
Three second teams: Blake Griffin, Shawn Kemp, Alex English.
Two second teams: Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony, Adrian Dantley, Tom Chambers, Walter Davis.
One first team: Kevin McHale, Truck Robinson, David Thompson, Tracy McGrady.11
One second team: Pau Gasol, Paul Pierce, Chris Bosh, Elton Brand, Jermaine O’Neal, Peja Stojakovic, Vince Carter, Vin Baker, Glen Rice, Larry Johnson, Terry Cummings, Ralph Sampson, Buck Williams, Dan Roundfield, Bobby Dandridge, Maurice Lucas, George McGinnis.
Working off of that list, here’s everyone who made an All-NBA team at least twice but missed the playoffs in at least one of those seasons.
Bernard, 1985 (first team): Blew out his knee in the 55th game. Knicks finished 24-58 and had their envelope frozen by David Stern so they could get Patrick Ewing won the lottery.
Barkley, 1988 (first team): Averaged 28.3 points and 11.9 rebounds on an injury-riddled, 36-win Sixers team. Hold this thought.
Grant Hill, 1998 (second team): Did Grant Hill things (21-8-7) for a 37-win Pistons team … although this was such a shallow year for good forwards that (a) Vin Baker (?!?!?!?!??) made the second team, and (b) Scottie Pippen missed 38 games and somehow made third-team All-NBA anyway.
Garnett, 2005 (second team): ’Sota went 44-38 but missed the no. 8 seed by one game. Although Latrell Sprewell did get to feed his family.
Love, 2012 and 2014 (second team): Our only post-merger player to be named a top-10 guy twice … and miss the playoffs both of those times.
Is that a historical fluke or a major red flag?
Let’s return to Barkley for a second, because that’s the best parallel here. I was there for Barkley. The whole time. He’s one of the best 25 players ever by any calculation — good enough to steal the 1993 MVP from Jordan, good enough to tear through the 1992 Olympics as the team’s second-best player by all accounts (and yes, the Mailman, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing were on that team), good enough to average a 24-12 with 55 percent shooting during his 12-year peak, good enough to drag 53 wins and a second-round playoff appearance out of a pedestrian 1990 Sixers squad in a LOADED league, and good enough to bring the 1993 Suns within a hair of beating Jordan’s Bulls (and earn “Critically Acclaimed” status forever, which is almost as fun). Barkley was definitely a superstar, whereas Love is an almost-but-not-quite superstar. Big difference.
Oh, and in 1992, Barkley was traded to Phoenix for Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry … while Barkley was still in his prime.
We didn’t really have the Internet in 1992, but if we did, Charles Barkley would have been picked apart the same way we pick Love apart right now. Again, Barkley was a better player. (And a different player.) And Barkley was un-freaking-believable in person. He wasn’t just on my “Oh, cool, he’s coming to town tonight and I get to go!!!!” list during his first 10-11 years; he’s on my permanent all-time list with people like MJ, Magic and Julius. Seeing young Barkley was like seeing a tornado with legs. I love watching Kevin Love, but I don’t think I would ever tell my grandkids about him. I’d tell my grandkids about seeing Chuck.
Other than that, it’s easier to compare Love and Barkley than I thought. Like Love, the 6-foot-4 Barkley was a spectacular scorer-rebounder, a surprisingly good passer, a favorite of the advanced-metrics dudes, and a superduperentertaining player who always came off more impressively when you watched him in person.
• Like Love, Barkley battled weight issues early in his career that led to him dropping lower in the draft than he should have gone.
• Like Love, Barkley was a below-average defensive player who ideally needed to be flanked by a shot-blocker, although he protected the rim much better than Love does.
• Like Love, Barkley’s greatness bubbled to the surface at the Olympics when he was surrounded by better players.
• Like Love, you always wished Barkley would shoot fewer 3s and crash the boards a little bit more. (Although Love is a much better 3-point shooter than Barkley was.)
• Like Love, Barkley spent the first chunk of his career saddled by terrible luck (Andrew Toney’s feet, Roy Hinson’s knees, Johnny Dawkins’s everything) and atrocious management (the Sixers stupidly traded Moses Malone for Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson, and they inexplicably traded the Brad Daugherty pick to Cleveland for Hinson).
• Like Love, Barkley possessed one unique skill that belonged to him and only him. Love throws those incredible once-in-a-generation outlet passes that have Wes Unseld’s DNA dripping from them. Barkley could grab rebounds in traffic, take off full-court and finish the play like a runaway train — not even LeBron and Blake make opponents say to themselves, “F— this, I’m getting out of the way,” quite like Barkley did.
• And like Love, Barkley had evolved into a polarizing personality by the time that 1991-92 season ended. Here’s what Clifton Brown wrote for the New York Times in his story about the Barkley trade. My notes are in parentheses.
“The 76ers acknowledged they were trading a superstar, but they are gambling that acquiring three quality players from Phoenix will make them a better team.”
(The 76ers went 115-295 over the next five seasons. To extend that gambling analogy, Philly was the guy on your Vegas trip who lost $500 an hour after everyone got there, disappeared in a huff, found the seediest club possible, woke up in his hotel room the next day with no wallet and no pants, then texted everyone later that day saying, “Heading home — it’s a long story.”)
“The 76ers finished 35-47 last season, the poorest record in Barkley’s eight years with the team.
“Barkley’s playing style did not mesh with the passing-game offense that will be implemented by the new 76ers coach, Doug Moe.”
(First of all, that’s an insane sentence. You have Charles Barkley on your team and you’re going to trade him because your coach is fired up about his new passing offense? Hey, here’s an idea: What about building your offense around one of the best five guys in basketball while he’s in his prime? And second, Moe lasted 56 games. He finished with a 19-37 record in Philly. Is anything funnier than sports?)
“Barkley’s outspokenness and behavior were a constant concern to the 76ers. Only hours before the trade, Barkley was acquitted in a Milwaukee court of disorderly conduct and battery charges … Such controversy has followed Barkley throughout this career. On various occasions, he has criticized 76ers management, criticized his teammates and clashed with Philadelphia reporters. During a game against the Nets in New Jersey two seasons ago, Barkley mistakenly spat upon a girl who was sitting near a fan who was heckling him.”
(Read all of those things again. What did he REALLY do? Those were the reasons that you traded one of the best 25 players ever for 35 cents on the dollar??? Oh crap, I forgot about Doug Moe’s passing offense.)
“Nevertheless, no one doubts what Barkley can do on the court. And many fans in Philadelphia were already questioning whether the 76ers had gotten enough in return for Barkley.”
(Those people were correct. And then some.)
And yes, Barkley was better than Love. But Barkley was just as undervalued in 1992 as Love is right now. You cannot trade for a superstar, in his prime, unless that guy has some baggage (Barkley) or he’s fleeing town in a year (Love). And by the way, Love had some baggage, too. Golden State didn’t just back off because of his defense. Like Barkley in 1992, Love doesn’t have the greatest reputation right now. Everyone respects him, everyone thinks he’s talented … but too much scuttlebutt piled up these past two years, fair or unfair, that Love was a selfish, me-first teammate in Minnesota. He doesn’t have a stellar reputation in NBA circles. It’s not a BAD reputation, but it’s not good, either.12
My defense: If you were Kevin Love, how would YOU have handled everything? What went right for him in Minnesota? The relentless mismanagement was worthy of its own basketball book. They denied him the five-year max. His best two teammates both tore ACLs. He broke his hand twice during the 2012-13 season, and last year turned into an unequivocal fiasco. And as it was happening, he kept clicking on his TV and seeing dummies who never played basketball (you know, like me) saying stuff like, “Are we sure Kevin Love is a great player? Why don’t his teams ever win?”
Wouldn’t that stuff eat away at you?
Wouldn’t you be dying to find the right team?
Wouldn’t you be leaping at the chance to play with LeBron?
Until I started researching this column, I believed that Love had to be overrated because of his 0-0 playoff record. And actually, he’s underrated. Everything he accomplished on that forgettably broken Minnesota team was BETTER than I thought. It’s all about perception, right? Barkley’s 1989 and 1990 seasons were better than his first Phoenix season, but he stole the MVP from Jordan because WE thought Barkley was better that year. Why did we think that? Because Barkley landed on a futuristic small-ball juggernaut with a devastating point guard (Kevin Johnson) and two terrific long-range shooters who spread the floor (Dan Majerle and Danny Ainge). His subpar defense didn’t matter because that team was built to win offensively. They just played hard and tried to outscore everyone. (And for that one season, they almost did.)
It’s not rocket science. Put a very good basketball player in a great situation and he’s going to thrive. Everyone knows what Cleveland acquired. But was about Love? He acquired the world’s best player, a talented point guard, a heat-check scorer, a decent group of role players and an intriguing twist to the “Uncle Drew” franchise. He won’t have to settle for 24-footers because he’s tired of being double-teamed. He can do what he does best — rebound, play the inside-outside game, throw outlets and rebound some more.
I see Cleveland playing Love as a small-ball 5 much like Coach K did.
I see David Blatt pushing them to run and run and run some more.
I see Love’s extraordinary outlet passes being celebrated around the globe.
I see him becoming a legitimate threat to be a 22-15-5 guy and maybe even average 16 boards a game (which hasn’t happened since Rodman).
I see my favorite Cavs lineup being their small-ball group with LeBron, Love, Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and a spread-the-floor shooter … and not-so-coincidentally, looking very ’93 Suns-ish.
I see Love thriving on the pick-and-pop with LeBron or Kyrie to frighteningly efficient degrees.
I see anyone who said this week that (a) Cleveland gave up too much, and/or (b) Love isn’t as good as people think, feeling stupid.
I see myself feeling sorry for Minnesota fans again.
I see this trade reinventing Love’s NBA career much like Phoenix reinvented Barkley. Love won’t win the MVP, but he’ll win our respect. And he won’t be polarizing anymore. He’s going to kill it in Cleveland. I really believe that.
But you know what’s really funny? I don’t know if Love would have killed it in Golden State. This goes back to the Carmelo-Dirk discussion from my Carmelo column — superstars can play with anyone, but almost-but-not-quite-superstars need the right supporting cast to thrive. Love has found the right team in Cleveland, and in the irony of ironies, he can thank Kahn for that. Had Kahn signed him to that five-year max, Love would be entering Year 3 of a painfully long deal. With no trade leverage whatsoever.
Instead, he gets to play with LeBron James on the league’s newest signature team. That’s right … David Kahn was Kevin Love’s savior all along. I’m going to walk outside and wait for it to rain frogs.
Final verdict: underrated.