Five hours before a recent game against the Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat assistant coach Anthony Carter’s phone buzzed with a text. It was Kevin Love, asking to get some extra work in during pregame warm-ups.
Love had already been ruled out for that night with a rib injury but wanted to make sure he got in a sweat. Love, a power forward, usually works with assistant coach Malik Allen, a former NBA power forward himself. But after years of honing his shot and establishing himself as one of the premier floor-spacing bigs of the last decade, it’s not surprising that Love wanted to go through shooting drills with Carter, who usually works with the team’s guards. Carter obliged.
Love went through his scheduled routine with Allen, then Carter directed him through shots from different areas of the court. After more than half an hour—typical pregame routines last roughly 15 minutes—Carter pointed Love to the free throw line to wrap up. Love asked if he could go around the horn one more time. In all, Love’s pregame warm-up lasted 50 minutes.
“He just wanted to keep going,” Carter tells me.
Even for Love, an NBA champion 15 years into his career, there’s a sense of urgency to get on the court. It’s what prompted him to negotiate a buyout with the Cavaliers in February after eight and a half seasons and what ultimately drew him to Miami, a postseason-bound organization that offered him the chance to play meaningful minutes. Although the Cavaliers have a better record than the Heat and could be headed to their own deep playoff run, Love had slipped out of the rotation. At 34, Love isn’t interested in riding the bench or ring-chasing. He believes he can still play and will be able to for several more years.
So, during the All-Star break, Love and the Cavs agreed to go their separate ways, and Love began the next and possibly final stage of his Hall of Fame run. Love started his career in Minnesota, where he posted dominant numbers and served up double-doubles like In-N-Out before going to Cleveland to be a part of LeBron’s super team. He won a championship, then stuck around after LeBron left to see through the Cavs’ latest rebuild. Now, with the Heat, who are facing the Hawks in the play-in tournament, his NBA future is more uncertain than ever, but Love knows what he’s looking for: to play a part in another deep playoff run.
“That,” Love tells me, “is what you crave most.”
Love’s jersey will hang in the rafters in Cleveland one day. With two All-Star appearances, four trips to the Finals, and a victory at the 2016 championship, his legacy as a Cavalier is rock-solid.
But it’s been a long time since Love last experienced playoff basketball. If the Heat get past the Hawks in the play-in, Love will play his first playoff basketball in more than four years.
As he speaks to The Ringer after a recent Heat practice, Love’s black and red T-shirt is drenched in sweat. It’s a little strange to see Love in these colors instead of wine and gold, but it’s not the first sudden change Love has had to get used to. This one was difficult but necessary for someone who feels he still has something left to accomplish.
“He has a lot of experience in this league and has seen a lot of different situations and circumstances and has played so many different roles,” Kyrie Irving, Love’s former Cavaliers teammate, tells me. He also credits Love for staying in Cleveland long after he and LeBron left. “He’s still a representation of our championship years.”
From 2018 to February 2023, that’s what Love was: an artifact from the greatest run in Cavaliers history. Just as quickly as a super team formed in Cleveland in 2014, it disintegrated. Kyrie Irving requested a trade and was sent to Boston in 2017. LeBron James left for Los Angeles in 2018.
Love, meanwhile, re-signed with the Cavaliers and endured an arduous rebuild. Although he was coming off an All-Star season and was just 29 years old, he seemingly aged from a prime star to an elder statesman in the blink of an eye. His job went from spacing the floor for the GOAT to shepherding young players like Darius Garland, Larry Nance Jr., and Collin Sexton.
As the Cavs roster grew, Love’s role shrank further. He came off the bench last season and was a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, but this season saw even that job slip away. By February, Love was out of the rotation as Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff funneled more minutes toward Cleveland’s promising young frontcourt. After the final game before the All-Star break, Love asked for a buyout.
“Professionally, it was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” Love told a group of Cleveland-based reporters after the Heat recently hosted the Cavaliers.
Teams such as the Heat and 76ers reached out, hoping to add Love for the stretch run. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra sold Love on joining the team with the promise of consistent minutes, a competitive atmosphere, and a familiar role spacing the floor for Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Tyler Herro.
“I simplified it, understood that I could come in here and step in and play right away, whether it was start or come off the bench,” Love tells me. “That was something I wanted to be a part of, was a team that was gonna make the playoffs and hopefully go on a run.”
Love stepped into the Heat’s starting lineup in the first game after the break and started his next 17 games. He has provided size and the occasional vintage outlet pass, but his shot has yet to arrive in downtown Miami (he has made just 28.9 percent of his 3s since joining the Heat). With little more than a week to go in the regular season, Spoelstra made another lineup change and began bringing Love off the bench.
“I didn’t come here to shoot 15 shots a game or ask for more,” says Love, who is averaging 7.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in 20.5 minutes per game. “I just wanted to be able to make my impact, make my stamp on the game. Sometimes it’s not going to show up in the stat sheet; sometimes it is, but you’re affecting winning. That’s kind of where I’m at in my career right now.”
When Love arrived in Miami back in February, he took a car straight to the Heat facility and met with coaches and trainers. Both parties knew it was a good fit and hoped to put ink to paper later that day, but first, Love had to take a physical.
The Heat may have the toughest conditioning standards in the NBA. There are several examples over the years of players not being allowed to play because they didn’t reach certain body composition requirements. As is often repeated on Biscayne Boulevard, We’re not for everybody. Love wasn’t worried though. After working out for coaches, the staff measured his weight and body fat.
“He was already at an elite level,” Spoelstra tells me.
“He’s already gone through that transformation,” Spoelstra continues. “You just have to look at his photos and footage from college and high school compared to what he is now, and he’s in world-class shape.”
It’s true. Find a picture of Love at UCLA or in Minnesota, and he looks like a different person. As the league nudged big men away from the basket, Love continued to get leaner and adjust his game. One scouting report before his draft said Love “could stand to lose another 20-25 pounds.” Since making changes to his body, Love has modeled for ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue and Banana Republic.
Years ago, Love hired an L.A.-based nutritionist, revamped his diet, and started planning meals around his metabolism: lots of protein, high-iron vegetables, and slow-burning carbohydrates for fuel. He prioritizes foods that prevent inflammation. He has to be more selective about when he indulges in red wine (a favorite). Teammates have made fun of him for how strict he is about his diet.
Love admits it can be difficult to stay disciplined, especially during the season, but he has a bigger goal in mind: 20 seasons.
“I don’t know if I’ll make it to 20, but I’ve always had my eyes on that,” Love tells me.
Twenty years is a long time for an NBA career, but advances in sports science have made it more feasible. LeBron will make it to 21 seasons next year, and Love has said he’s been inspired by his former teammate’s day-to-day discipline when it comes to taking care of his body.
One of Love’s new teammates, Udonis Haslem, will retire this summer after completing his 2oth season. When asked if Love can make it to 20, Haslem doesn’t hesitate: “For sure.”
“He fits right in,” Haslem tells me. “He’s not behind. He’s not hands on his knees, huffing and puffing for air or anything.”
Those close to Love agree. If he keeps up with what he’s doing, and health permitting, two decades in the NBA could be an achievable goal.
“I’d like to play as long as the wheels aren’t falling off,” Love says. “My body feels really good right now.”
On the subject of retirement, Love has mixed feelings. He knows it’s sensible to plan for the future, but it also forces him to confront his basketball mortality. For Love, who has publicly acknowledged struggles with his own mental health, it can be a source of anxiety.
“That’s ... that’s a tough one,” Love says when asked about his plans after his playing career.
Perhaps a role in an NBA front office?
“Building culture and putting a special group together to win is something that I’d love to do,” Love says.
What about coaching?
“I don’t think I’m made for coaching,” he says.
That’s as far as Love will allow himself to discuss retirement before steering the conversation back to playing.
More decisions are coming soon. After these playoffs, Love will be a free agent. Besides this year’s buyout and his quick decision to re-sign with the Cavs in 2018, it will be the first time he’ll be a true free agent.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been unrestricted for more than five minutes,” Love says.
If he stays in Miami, Love is eligible to sign a deal slightly above the projected minimum for players with 10 or more years of experience. If he leaves, the veteran minimum or portions of the mid-level exception would be the likely options.
“I know it’s like a rental-type situation when you’re in a buyout, but I’ve really enjoyed my time here so far. So we’ll see,” Love says.
These playoffs will determine a lot. If the Heat can make a sustained run, perhaps they’ll decide to bring Love back. If not, sweeping roster changes could be made, and Love—who played for just two franchises across nearly 15 years before joining Miami—could suddenly be playing for his third team in six months.
“Let’s say he didn’t play well,” says 76ers coach Doc Rivers. “You’d still want him in the locker room. He’s still high character. He’s won a title. He knows what it takes. So he brings a lot of stuff to a team.”
For the reasons outlined by Rivers, it’s common for a player in the twilight of their decorated career to bounce around the league. Blake Griffin, currently on the Celtics, is playing for his third team in three years. Peers like Russell Westbrook and Mike Conley have already bounced around and could be looking for new homes again in the future.
Just as much as conditioning, longevity at this stage requires adaptability.
“It takes a unique individual to be able to embrace that possibility of having a different kind of role than when you were a star in this league,” Spoelstra says. “But it still can be extremely gratifying and purposeful to be able to be in this association and find meaning in a different way. Almost a reinvention. That can keep you young for a few more years.”
Spoelstra knows this firsthand, having coached Dwyane Wade when he agreed to come off the bench as a sixth man and Haslem, who has been racking up DNP-CDs for years while being a locker-room leader. Spoelstra sees similar traits in Love, who has accepted a lesser role while keeping his competitive fire.
For someone who was once at the pinnacle of their sport, Love admits it’s been difficult these past few years to watch former teammates and peers compete deep into the spring. Now, he’s hoping he’ll get another chance to be part of a playoff run.
“You want it again,” Love says. “Because [you] know how to get it done and know how hard it’s going to be. And that becomes your vice.”
However, that run isn’t guaranteed. A year removed from finishing the regular season as the East’s no. 1 seed, the Heat will be forced to earn their spot in the playoffs in this week’s play-in tournament. Win once, and the Heat will be the first-round opponent no one wants to face. Lose twice, and they’ll miss the playoffs altogether.
Love admits he didn’t expect to be playing for his playoff life at this point in the season when he signed with the Heat. Then again, the rush of playing meaningful basketball with real postseason stakes is exactly what he’s been looking for.
“The joy,” Love says, “is in the chase.”
Wes Goldberg has written for the Miami Herald, Mercury News, Bleacher Report, Forbes, and more. You can hear him on the Locked on NBA and Locked on Heat podcasts.