All year, the Cavaliers were acutely aware that star forward LeBron James was likely to leave in free agency this summer. And all year, the goal in Cleveland was to ensure that the team did not completely plummet into an annual lottery-bound mess when it happened.
Throughout the season, especially as Cleveland struggled with the veteran group it originally put together, teams would call the Cavs with one player especially targeted: All-Star forward Kevin Love. Each time, the inquiring team — among them, according to sources, were Miami, Charlotte and Portland — was given a polite “No, thanks.”
Even as rumors persisted that the Cavaliers were shopping Love, the reality was that the Cavs were moving to secure him long term. On Tuesday, the team agreed to a contract extension with Love, adding four years and $120 million to the final guaranteed year of his current contract.
Moving Love back into the role of superstar first option was Cleveland’s backup plan for the departure of James. Might be hard to remember, given that it has been four years, but it’s a role with which Love is familiar.
Go back to the 2013-14 season, Love’s sixth in the NBA, and things were just coming together for him in Minnesota. He was, finally, healthy after a snakebitten season in which he played just 15 games. The Wolves finally had a credible coach, Rick Adelman, working with a credible executive, Flip Saunders, pulling the organization out of the wilderness that had beset it after years of Kurt Rambis, David Kahn and the last gasps of Kevin McHale.
Minnesota hovered around .500 that season, finishing at 40-42 in a particularly difficult Western Conference, the team’s best showing in 10 years. Love averaged 26.1 points and 12.5 rebounds, shooting 37.6 percent from the 3-point line and adding 4.4 assists. He was a bona fide star, an All-NBA player.
That summer, everything changed. Love was nearly dealt to Golden State for Klay Thompson, a move that was nixed because of objections from coach Steve Kerr and others in the front office. Instead, Love went to Cleveland, and for the past four years, adjusted his game first to playing alongside both James and Kyrie Irving, and then just with James.
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That came with varying degrees of success. Love averaged 17.1 points and 10.0 rebounds in his four years in Cleveland but he had struggles in the postseason, especially in the Cavaliers’ four NBA Finals appearances.
As his career next to James proceeded, Love became more and more of a spot-up perimeter shooter. With the Wolves, 23.6 percent of his field goal attempts were 3-pointers. In Cleveland, that was 44.0 percent.
Now, he will be a featured player on the block more, a skill he will have to dust off and revive. Each season in Cleveland, Love was used on post-ups less frequently, down to 19.4 percent of his possessions this year, from 23.2 percent last year and 24.6 percent two seasons ago.
The Cavs are banking on Love’s ability to return to his Minnesota form. It’s part of a patchwork plan pocked with question marks, but one that, should enough of those questions get positive answers, figures to keep Cleveland in playoff contention next season. The Cavs were encouraged by the summer league showing of three key rotation players — draftee Collin Sexton, center Ante Zizic and forward Cedi Osman — and remain hopeful that they’ll keep restricted free agent Rodney Hood.
With veterans like Larry Nance Jr., Tristan Thompson, George Hill and Kyle Korver on hand, the Cavs’ front office believes it has a nice mix of developable young talent, veteran presence and tradable chips on hand going into next season.
But resuscitating the Kevin Love we all saw in Minnesota is the key for Cleveland in the short and long terms. It was not too long ago that he was a top-tier talent in the league, and for their own sake, the Cavs are now committed to helping him return to that form.