What’s Next for Kevin Love?

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Last July at summer league in Las Vegas, David Griffin, the Cavaliers GM who had just landed the biggest signing of his life, noticed Flip Saunders, president and coach for the Timberwolves, as the two men crisscrossed a crowded gym. Griffin barely broke stride as he quipped to Saunders, “It might be time to revisit our talks,” both men recall now.

Saunders knew by then he was almost certainly not getting Klay Thompson for Kevin Love.1 Saunders was prepared to keep Love, even as the Wolves star forward entered the final year of a short-term deal the Wolves had botched. Saunders and Love are close, and Saunders was confident Love, after a series of weird injuries, would sign the five-year deal only Minnesota could offer. “Everyone said I was crazy,” Saunders says with a chuckle.2

Before that July walk-by, Cleveland had not offered Andrew Wiggins, and Saunders had already made it clear there would be no deal without the no. 1 pick — just as he had stuck to a “Klay or nothing” stance in negotiations with Golden State.

The Warriors might have offered David Lee, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green for Love — there is some debate about that now3 — but talks never got that far, since everyone involved understood that Saunders wouldn’t listen to any deal that didn’t include Thompson. “Nothing else ever got off the ground,” says Warriors GM Bob Myers. “Flip is a pretty straight shooter.”

About the same time Griffin and Saunders passed each other in Vegas, first-year coach Steve Kerr was plotting out his rotations under the assumption Golden State would pass on Love — the preferred outcome of Kerr, Ron Adams, and most of the coaching staff. Kerr had Green penciled in for 10 or 12 minutes as Lee’s backup, and as both men tell it, Myers took Kerr aside to deliver a gentle message: “If we don’t do this trade, you’re gonna have to play this guy a lot more.”

Flash forward 11 months, and it’s incredible how much has changed on the power forward front. Lee doesn’t play, and Green has emerged as a borderline star who received strong consideration for defensive player of the year, most improved player, and even an All-NBA team. Even the loudest Green boosters didn’t expect this. That group includes Adams, who pushed the Bulls to draft Green in 2012 when he worked as Tom Thibodeau’s lead assistant. “As a coaching staff, we were very disappointed we didn’t get him,” Adams says. “He is definitely a Chicago kind of guy. This is no reflection on Kevin Love, but every team wants a Draymond Green. He has internalized the parts of the game that are the winning parts: the hustle, the grit, the defense, making the right play at the right time. I love that guy. I’m glad he’s on our team.”

It’s an easy thing to say now, three wins from the championship, but no one on the Warriors would trade Green for Love straight-up. “Thankfully, we didn’t pull the trigger,” Andrew Bogut says. “I don’t know if that trade would have gotten us to this point. I didn’t think it would be a huge upgrade. David Lee provides the same output, besides the 3-point shooting. I thought we could have just found a stretch 4 at the veteran’s minimum — someone like James Jones.”

The howlers would have laughed Saunders out of a job had he accepted Barnes and Green for Love, but that package looks intriguing now. Saunders liked Green in college but has no regrets. “We wanted someone who could carry us offensively,” he says. “Draymond makes everyone else better, but he doesn’t do it himself on offense.”

“Looking back, [Golden State] made a great decision,” Saunders adds. “It worked out for everyone.”

Well, maybe not everyone. The Cavs are also three wins from the title — without Love. They’ve discovered a gritty, anti-modern, defense-first style that demolished the East and came within inches of sweeping the Warriors at home, where Golden State is supposedly invincible. Their success has team executives across the league wondering if Love just isn’t as good as they thought, or whether Cleveland’s success without him is more about LeBron’s presence than Love’s absence. By not playing, Love has become the league’s most confusing and polarizing player.

Golden State’s non-trade was a big bet on Thompson, but it morphed into a bigger accidental bet on Green — with a massive payoff. Green on offense sucks an opposing big man a few feet farther from the paint than Lee could, and he is the roaring soul of the league’s best defense — a human Tetris piece capable of switching onto almost any player and filling whatever need emerges at a given moment.

“He didn’t just fill the power forward position,” Myers says. “He overfilled it.”

The season did not start this way. “Draymond’s training camp was awful,” Kerr says.

“I was atrocious,” Green recalls over dinner, laughing. Green was doing too much, searching out highlights, trying to prove he had skills the coaches didn’t know he had. He earned the nickname Draymond James among some Golden State officials for his habit of imitating LeBron-style feats — and failing.

Kerr and Alvin Gentry, the team’s associate head coach, pulled Green aside and showed him clips of things he did well: cinder-block post defense, swiping steals with his meat-hook hands, driving in from the 3-point arc and dishing to shooters in the corner. “Just be dirty,” Kerr remembers telling him. “Guard everybody. Be a playmaking 4.”

The lessons made Green angry at first, the coaches say, especially since Lee was lighting it up. Then Lee hurt his hamstring during the preseason finale and Green became the de facto starter. The Warriors looked like a different team with Green in Lee’s spot. After a win at Oklahoma City, the Warriors were 10-2, and Kerr took Lee aside for a painful conversation. “I just said, ‘Draymond is gonna remain our starter,’” Kerr remembers. “‘It’s unfair. You didn’t do anything to deserve this.’”

Only, Kerr didn’t tell Green he had won the job. “I wanted him to stay motivated,” Kerr says. When Lee returned to practice a few weeks later, he strolled onto the floor with the starters, according to multiple Golden State coaches and players. Green appeared confused. Kerr signaled for Green to take his place, and everyone finally knew: The power forward spot was Green’s. Starting Barnes over Andre Iguodala was Kerr’s plan from the beginning. Starting Green was an accident — a lucky break.

“I had no idea Draymond was going to be this good,” Kerr admits. “But you look at the way the game is played now, and it’s all about versatility and two-way players. Can you score a basket and then go guard three positions?”

Gathering as many two-way players as possible seems like an obvious goal, but it has become even more urgent for front offices to do this as teams trend toward fast-paced, drive-and-kick offenses heavy on passing and 3s.4 It’s harder to be one-dimensional, on either end, when everyone is moving. Doing everything at a “B” level is the new NBA skill.

Thompson’s defense was among the central reasons Adams came out against the Love trade. In Boston last spring, where Adams was the lead assistant, Brad Stevens divided up the four or five most important players on every NBA roster and assigned his assistants to do detailed scouting reports on them. Adams drew Thompson and spent almost 10 hours watching film of him. “I had a strong bias after that,” Adams says. “This guy’s got size. He defends. He shoots like crazy. What’s not to like?”

Love is not a two-way player — at least not now. And even if his defense improves, he’ll never be quick enough to regularly switch onto wings during the pick-and-roll — a skill more coaches crave from big men as the league gets smaller and faster. Most perimeter players can switch among themselves without creating fatal mismatches, but that doesn’t do much good against a pick-and-roll involving a point guard and a big man. A power forward who can switch that play has unique value. He is the pivot point between a normal NBA defense and a switching machine that walls off the paint.

In a pick-and-roll league, more teams want that player. More teams want their own Draymond Green.

There aren’t many power forwards who can switch as often, and onto as many different types of players, as Green can. The Warriors might be more outlier than harbinger of a switching counterrevolution aimed at terminating the spread pick-and-roll revolution. But if teams can’t find a Green, they at least want big men who can switch at the end of the shot clock, or when all other coverages fail.

Love has never been that kind of player. Some members of Golden State’s brain trust had nightmarish visions of how teams would attack the Stephen Curry–Love combination in the pick-and-roll. Love’s inability to switch wasn’t a major concern last season, when we all anointed him a top-10 guy, but the league evolves quickly, and executives have taken note of Golden State’s style — and of Green. The question would have seemed insane a year ago: Is Draymond Green just flat-out better than Kevin Love? Ask a dozen team officials today and you’ll get a dozen answers: yes, no, maybe, perhaps if he improves his jumper (his biggest offseason project), and a lot of stammering about roster context. But no one thinks that question is nuts, and that alone is kind of nuts.

Green might be able to approximate Love’s value, but only if he’s on a team with at least one ball-dominant star. Green could never serve as the fulcrum of an above-average NBA offense, the way Love did tap-dancing around the elbow for Rick Adelman’s limited and injury-riddled Minnesota teams. But slot Green on a team with one or two stars who create shots, and the things he does become more valuable.

Love’s value slides along the opposite trajectory. Cleveland has LeBron and Kyrie Irving to create shots, and Love can’t recalibrate by ramping up his defense and enabling the Cavaliers to switch across the board. Love talked big about improving his defense this season, but all the bad habits were still there — the lazy slouches into transition, the ground-bound indifference at the rim. The Cavaliers didn’t need him to make the Finals, and they have defended better without him.

Love is still valuable to the Cavaliers, but it becomes a question of resources: Can you really give max contracts to three players — LeBron, Love, and Tristan Thompson — who should all play heavy minutes at power forward, and with two other rotation big men already on the books? Doing so would put Cleveland in the ballpark of the biggest luxury-tax bill in league history next season, and when you lap Mikhail Prokhorov’s embarrassing Brooklyn debts, you’ve really done something. Splurging on everyone could even imperil Cleveland’s ability to add talent as the cap rises in 2016 and 2017.

Griffin insists the Cavs want Love back, and Cleveland walloped opponents by 15 points per 100 possessions when Love, LeBron, and Thompson shared the floor, per NBA.com. Thompson has stepped up his rim protection in the playoffs, indicating he might be able to play bigger than his height. The Cavs will need more punch over a full season; the ground-and-pound style they improvised in the playoffs may not be sustainable.

“This new identity has worked for us because of the matchups we’ve had,” Griffin says. “But we were the best team in the league with the Big Three healthy. We want to be that juggernaut again. We want to be a more talented version of this group of gritty overachievers.”

Cleveland’s interest in Love predated LeBron, anyway. The Cavs and Wolves had been discussing potential Love trades for two years before they finally struck a deal. Cleveland never had anything that tempted Minnesota, and when it finally landed the best possible trade chip — the no. 1 pick — it wasn’t interested in dealing it. It was only when LeBron returned that Griffin decided to go all in. “You have a finite window when you’re dealing with a player that’s 30,” Griffin says of LeBron. “The organization had wanted Kevin for a while, but we paid the price we paid entirely because of LeBron’s presence.”

Dealing Wiggins, a potential superstar on a cheapo rookie deal, was painful, especially since there was no way to lock Love in long-term as part of the trade. “Kevin was sort of approving the trade, the way it all works,” Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert says. “That’s maybe not technically true, but we’re interviewing him and making sure. We’re a young team, we got Wiggins, and we are thinking about a trade for a guy who may not be here after a year.”

The deal made sense, given LeBron’s need to win right away and Wiggins’s unproven 3-point shooting — a necessary skill for any wing playing alongside LeBron. But LeBron is winning with this Love-less crew of misfits, and there exists a reality in which the Cavaliers could have kept Wiggins, gained cap flexibility, and snagged Thaddeus Young to serve as Love Lite by simply cutting Minnesota out of the three-way deal that ended up sending Love to Cleveland.5 The Cavs with Wiggins on the wing may never have felt the need to pluck Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith from the Knicks, but they still could have managed it, and they still might have made the Finals — with a cleaner cap sheet.

“You can kill yourself when you think like that,” Gilbert says. “People forget the unforeseen domino effects of every little thing.”

Gilbert is right: The past is unchangeable. Some team will wager on Love rehabilitating his value, and that team will be happy it did — even if it’s Cleveland. This Finals run, to me, is more about LeBron’s singular talent than Love, Irving, offensive rebounding, or anything else. No other player in the league could drag this team where LeBron has dragged it. There may be only three or four guys in NBA history who could have done it.

Slot Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, James Harden, or Blake Griffin into LeBron’s place: Are the Cavs even getting by Chicago in the second round? Are they a 50-win team? Love in the right system can still be one of the 10 best offensive players in the league — a co–no. 1 option who runs dribble handoffs, bombs 3s, contorts defenses with screens on and off the ball,6 posts up against switches, and whips pinpoint passes all over the floor. Stick him in Atlanta or Boston and he would look like a star again on a good team.

Those who would emphatically declare Green the better overall player should watch tape of Golden State’s offense dying in Game 2 of these Finals and wonder how Love might have helped where Green could not.

Remember, Love’s Minnesota teams weren’t trash, even though the roster around him mostly was. They chased the playoffs in a brutal conference before fading amid injuries, and they had the scoring margin of an elite team with Love on the floor. Even if their nosedives with Love on the bench had more to do with their awful backups, that on-court scoring margin had everything to do with Love.

And you can build a functional defense with a weak spot on the front line. The Pacers, Grizzlies, and Bulls have stifled offenses with David West, Zach Randolph, and Carlos Boozer lurching around. Love can be better than all of those guys if he decides to start caring about defense. That he hasn’t done so yet is shameful — a black mark that gives credence to rumblings that Love is not the easiest teammate.

But Love is still young, and he can become a more well-rounded player in Cleveland — even if bringing him back at the max strains Griffin’s roster-building flexibility. Continuity is the NBA’s great elixir. It is really what the Warriors bet on, more than Thompson or Green, in staying away from Love. “Continuity was the biggest thing for me,” Kerr says. “When you’ve got something good, let it grow organically. We were already really good on defense, and I knew we would get better on offense. Why do something dramatic? I had a real fear of the unknown.”

The Heat looked stilted in LeBron’s first year there. If Love comes back, maybe LeBron will be more comfortable incorporating him in different pick-and-roll packages and working off of him at the elbows. Hell, there’s a reason LeBron was dying to play with the guy.

If the Cavs want to continue sacrificing floor-spacing to crash the offensive glass like mad men, well, Love can do that, too.7

Love isn’t as good as we thought he was, especially given how the power forward position is evolving. He probably isn’t a top-eight player. The skeptics were right in that regard.

But he’s still a top-15 or top-20 guy at worst — a true star. If Love opts out this summer, the Cavs could sign-and-trade him to any number of giddy suitors who know their odds of luring Kevin Durant a year from now are less than slim. If Love opts in for next season, he would draw a bonanza of interest in free agency a year from now.

We have to see Love’s future before definitely declaring the Cavs made a mistake dealing Wiggins for him, though the returns one year out are not encouraging. I hope Love is hungry, and maybe even angry about how this season has gone for him. I hope he’s gearing up to prove he’s not an empty-numbers loser. Because if he is, I’m betting on the redemption of Kevin Love next season — in Cleveland, or elsewhere.

Filed Under: 2015 NBA Playoffs, Andrew Wiggins, Bob Myers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, Draymond Green, Flip Saunders, Golden State Warriors, Kevin Love, Klay Thompson, Minnesota Timberwolves, Steve Kerr

Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA