Kevin Love sat in front of the same locker where he has always been since joining the Cleveland Cavaliers, with a revolving door to his right — where Joe Harris sat next to him in 2014-15, Dahntay Jones in 2015-16, Derrick Williams in 2016-17 and now John Holland in 2017-18 — serving as a reminder that change is never far away.
Love has become a mainstay for the Cavs in the greatest run in franchise history, with three trips to the NBA Finals and one championship in the past three years, but his role on the team has been anything but stationary.
With all of the attention being paid to the peaceful protests in the NFL, James wanted to do something on opening night to raise awareness himself.
“My identity? It’s still ever evolving,” Love told ESPN following Cleveland’s 102-99 opening night win over the Boston Celtics.
From the squeaky third wheel behind LeBron James and Kyrie Irving clamoring for more touches his first season, to an empowered yet sometimes underperforming cog his second season to a bona fide All-Star his third, Love enters this season in Cleveland with yet another new role: the Cavs’ starting center.
“Tonight I was just thinking, ‘All right, so I got to figure out this 5 thing,'” Love said after putting up 15 points and 11 boards against Boston. “Because in practice it looks different, at least for now. Just not having many people around and gone through the plays and been there with Bron where he’s playing the 4 or Jae [Crowder] playing the 4, it just is a different feel going through it, so I just have to try to learn on the fly.”
No one could have predicted things would have gone this way following the Cavs’ loss to the Golden State Warriors back in June. First, Love was nearly traded as part of a three-team deal that would have brought Paul George to Cleveland, before the Indiana Pacers backed out in the 11th hour. Then, it was Irving demanding a trade of his own, leaving Cavs coach Tyronn Lue to figure out the best way to maximize the trade return (for now, Crowder, and eventually Isaiah Thomas) while still allowing Love to flourish with James as Cleveland’s remaining Big Two.
There was bound to be more opportunities for Love as the remaining roster would absorb Irving’s 19.7 shots per game, but unlike James, who is guaranteed to have the ball in his hands while the Cavs go through their transformation, Love can only teach himself to be in the right spot and then hope the ball finds him there.
James and Love spent a lot of time in Los Angeles during the offseason, the pair says, whether it be dripping in sweat at workouts at Love’s alma mater UCLA or drenched in wine-induced bliss during low-key, lingering dinners where they laughed, shared stories and enjoyed the fruits of NBA superstardom.
While James and Love might not have explicitly reaffirmed their commitment to the Cavs and one another in those summer moments, the message was clear.
“What’s known doesn’t need to be said. We’re still here,” James told ESPN. “When I came here and I found out we had an opportunity to get him, I wanted him. He was the main guy that I wanted. I knew [with] everything that was going on in Minnesota there was a possible chance they were trading him — and I wanted him.”
Added Love: “I think for me and him it’s more of an understanding. … I think there’s really an appreciation there and that’s continued to grow because he knows I’ll go to war with him.”
While Cleveland tries to fit eight new players on this season’s team into the mix, Love again finds himself patiently waiting to find his optimal place among players who will control the action — the Cavs’ starting backcourt of Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade, for instance.
His flexibility is a strength when it comes to team building, yet after Lue spent the summer touting how Love would take a big step forward in the Cavs’ offense, he was left wondering when exactly that would occur. Like, what about those “mythical” elbow touches that he has been promised ever since he arrived in Cleveland?
“Ooh. They are mythical,” Love said with a smirk. “They’re still mythical. I think that will also be a process. We’ve talked about it for a while, but you’re not going to hear me say a word. I’m going to keep trying to be efficient. I want to make sure that when I’m out there we’re always in the plus. So, whether I’m getting those touches or not … And Ty knows. I just looked at him tonight like, ‘We’re good,’ and he looked at me like, ‘Yup.'”
Love attempted only nine shots against Boston, yet he hit the biggest bucket of the night — a 3-pointer from the right wing off a cross-court feed from James. The Cavs were clinging to a one-point lead with 46 seconds left, with Irving threatening to steal a win in his homecoming, leading Boston all the way back from down 18 in the third. Love’s 3 put Cleveland up four, essentially icing the win.
“The fact that we’re still here and the fact that I made the basically game-winning pass to him tonight is basically just kind of special,” James said. “It’s kind of special.”
And it’s something special to hear that kind of talk from James when it comes to Love. He, of course, famously called out Love on Twitter their first season together for wanting to “fit out” instead of “fit in” and later declared he would come off the bench if it would help the Cavs win to drive home his point about Love needing to accept his role for the greater good.
Now, James sees a person and a relationship that has matured.
“You know what? Adversity builds character,” James said. “People s—-ing on you builds character when you realize that it doesn’t really mean anything. But it tests your character. And the ones that can get through it [grow stronger]. I’ve seen it with Chris Bosh early on when he was in Miami because it was testing his character. Because you look at both of their similarities coming from Toronto, coming from Minnesota, it’s 25 [points] and 10 [rebounds], 25 and 12, usage rates high. And it’s hard to get to that point when you got to adjust to a role where your usage rate is not as much, your numbers go down and it’s like, ‘Oh s—. Did I really make the right decision?’ And then your name is in trades and things of that nature, you get to a point where you just say, ‘Man, who gives a f—?’ I think that’s where he’s at and I think that’s why he’s so good. He finally, I don’t know when, you’d have to ask him that, but it’s like, ‘Who gives a f—? I’m here.'”
With that, James — still draped in a towel with ice bags affixed to his body more than an hour after the final buzzer sounded — chomped down on a forkful of his postgame meal of grilled chicken and greens and gestured to his left to the only Cavaliers player besides him yet to call it a night: Love, who, like James, was icing his joints before he’d make his way to the parking lot.
“Look at it. You see the last two in here?” James said. “The last two guys in the locker room.”