Kevin Love is a good sport. That might not be what he set out to prove in 2014, when he made it clear that he wouldn’t re-sign in Minnesota, leading the Timberwolves to deal him to Cleveland. But it’s what he had to be to function on a team with the greatest player in the league. Next to LeBron James, a star can become dismayed by a shrunken role, he can become a good sport, and he can become an NBA champion. Love flirted with the first at times, but ultimately chose the second two—i.e., the Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh route.
Each year as an Ohioan has been rocky for Love, whose acceptance of his new reality over time looked like a before-and-after Crossfit picture on Instagram. LeBron called out Love on Twitter, without ever mentioning him by name, in the middle of their first season in Cleveland, asking that he “Stop trying to find a way to FIT-OUT and just FIT-IN. Be apart of something special! Just my thoughts.” Then, after Cleveland lost to the Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals, Love got the full-blown Mario Chalmers treatment. James posted Instagram pictures of the team that excluded Love, captioning one “Clique Up!!” When Love appeared on Mike & Mike later that week, he said in response, “I think our relationship is evolving.” Good sport.
Love was called out this season for “faking” an illness, only to disclose later that the absence was a result of a panic attack. But for the most part, the finger-pointing seemed to slowly dissolve. As the seasons went on, there was too much blame to go around to concentrate it exclusively on a 17-and-10 guy. But Love also dealt with multiple knee, back, and hand injuries, and is the subject of never-ending trade rumors. Now, with LeBron teetering on the edge of free agency, one of those rumors may finally actualize.
“I like to be here,” Love said last week after the Warriors swept the Cavs for their second straight title. “I’ve always said that. Always wanted to win here.” When asked about LeBron’s impending decision, Love was hardly the FIT-OUT teammate of 2014. “I’d love to play with LeBron the rest of my career, but that will be a choice that he makes.”
Without James, the Cavs wouldn’t have much to rebuild with. Cleveland owns the eighth overall pick in this year’s draft, but on the current roster, Love is the trade asset with the most possible return—I wonder if he ever imagined LeBron not being on the team would put his future in Cleveland in even more jeopardy—which means he may be starting in a new city next season. What version of Love would show up in a new situation? Tyronn Lue shifting him to the center spot this season was the closest he’s been to Minnesota Kevin Love in terms of scoring efficiency. With the Timberwolves, Ricky Rubio was Kevin Love’s personal chef, feeding him the ball for sometimes close to 20 shots a game. Love was relegated more to the 3-point line in Cleveland while the rest of his game went underutilized. LeBron needs to be surrounded by spot-up shooters, and Love tried to fill that role to the best of his ability.
But if Love is traded (to anywhere but Oklahoma City), those restrictions will no longer apply. Moving to a new team might mean more touches. If he’s traded to one of the league’s teams with cap space galore, such as the Hawks or the Magic, Love’s role will be expanded significantly. But that may not necessarily be what’s best: Though limited next to LeBron, Love is no more equipped now to be the only offensive option on a roster than he was in Minnesota. He’s the sommelier at a five-star restaurant; what he offers is extremely valuable, but complementary.
For a team already on the rise, though, Love could be the missing piece. Utah, for example, seems like a good fit. If any defense can afford to take on his slow feet, it’s the one Quin Snyder used to snuff out the Thunder. Derrick Favors will be a free agent this summer; putting Love next to Rudy Gobert in Favors’s place would give the Jazz a new scoring dimension without losing the rebounding Favors provided. Being reunited with Ricky Rubio would mean Love would get the ball more often, and being paired in the same offense as Donovan Mitchell would lead to a lot of open shots.
Teams stuck somewhere between “on the rise” and contention could also trade for Love if they’re desperate to switch things up. He’s long been associated with the Blazers in trade rumors because Oregon is home, and if there were ever a pressing time to break up the backcourt of C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard, it’d be now, in the wake of being swept out of the playoffs for a second straight year. Cleveland would be more likely to take on some of Portland’s bad contracts if the package includes someone of McCollum’s caliber, and with Jusuf Nurkic hitting restricted free agency, it’s the ideal time to start anew.
Love may be ready for a change, too. At 29, he might be over being a good sport.