It usually pays to be the last star standing after the fall of a superteam, at least until the real bill comes due. Kevin Love found this out the hard way. Just weeks after LeBron James left Cleveland for Los Angeles—and a year after Kyrie Irving fussed his way out of town via trade—Love agreed to a four-year, $120 million deal with the Cavaliers. Most everything since has been a debacle. Cleveland has won less than a quarter of its games in the past two seasons, wobbling through baby steps in a marathon of a rebuild. The ordeal has been maddening enough for Love to throw actual, in-game tantrums. In the moment, Love could be venting his frustrations with Cavs coach John Beilein over a play call or rolling his eyes at a young teammate for missing yet another opening. More fundamentally, he rails against his lot on a team LeBron left behind.
It doesn’t require very sophisticated calculus to explain that a team losing the best basketball player of this generation would be worse for it. Unfortunately for players like Love, that doesn’t make the day-to-day reality all that much easier to manage. Building around James is the NBA at its highest stakes—an all-out push that overtakes a team’s priorities and trajectory and reshapes the roster around one superstar’s sensibilities. It’s a framework that no longer makes sense from the moment LeBron steps out of it. Following The Decision, Cleveland was left to fend for itself with the likes of Anderson Varejão, Ramon Sessions, and J.J. Hickson. Winning 19 games, in retrospect, seems a towering achievement. The Heat were far better positioned to move on when they lost James in 2014. Still, they plunged to what would be their worst record in a 12-year span, leveraged as they were after four years of championship contention.
Life after LeBron often means starting over with an aging roster and a bloated cap sheet. It can require a team to begin a rebuild without much in the way of draft assets, considering that James’s very involvement comes with the implicit pressure to flip future picks for immediate help. Cleveland resisted that urge two years ago, clinging to Brooklyn’s unprotected first-round pick even as LeBron led a team in desperate need of secondary playmaking. What difference it made depends on your view of Collin Sexton, which is to say that it depends on your appetite for junk-food offense.
Which brings us back to Love. Historically, playing alongside LeBron has brought titles, credibility, and lucrative new contracts. It also holds the curse of knowing what it really means to compete; once you pull off the greatest comeback in the history of the NBA Finals, you tend to lose your patience for Darius Garland looking off teammates to botch a difficult runner. Maybe Irving, in his own backward fashion, was on to something. The only reward for outlasting LeBron is a compromised, slowly degrading roster, or a team of middling prospects well before its time. Everything around Love has to get worse for anything to get better. He could accept that fate—that, as they say, is what the money is for—or he could lash out at seat cushions, teammates, and, reportedly, his team’s general manager. It’s possible for Love to be both embarrassed by the way he’s behaved and somewhat justified in his discontent.
It is almost antithetical for a professional athlete, after a lifetime of striving to dominate their field, to suffer losing seasons gladly. Some manage, whether through greater perspective or a complete lack of it. Love doesn’t seem to fit either category, if these outbursts are any indication, and that’s fine. Love should want more than this. Rewarding as it is for an organization to draft and develop its way to a winning team, the process is far more arduous for the veterans who trudge through their 30s to help make it possible. There will always be something awkward with any franchise in transition, considering that priorities shift more quickly than a roster possibly could. Love is a vestige. That much was already clear the moment his extension was signed, and affirmed by the unfinished roster Cleveland took into the 2018-19 season. Adding Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. would not change that. Hiring Beilein, who has already found new and exciting ways to alienate his players, would not change that. There are clearly ways for Love, a 12-year veteran, to better help his young teammates, but good citizenship has no bearing over the fact that an established star and a developing team are fundamentally at odds.
“I don’t know what the next few weeks are going to hold, and this has been a frustrating situation,” Love told reporters this week, while addressing his recent behavior. “I know this is a team that’s rebuilding and wants to go young. I’ve accepted that. Let the chips fall where they may.” Spoken like a man with $120 million in chips of his own, and no other reason left to stay.