His face, the one I see when I think of him, is in the middle of a sentence that’s trailing off. Can somebody else finish this thought for me?
Kevin Love chose Cleveland, sort of, in 2014. He wanted to come, because things weren’t going well in Minnesota and the Cavs were on the rise, but there was also an element of him being plucked from a warehouse shelf and shipped to LeBron James’s front door. If then-Cavs GM David Griffin had his choice, he might have tried to swing a trade for someone else, or rolled with number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins for a while, but LeBron wanted Kevin Love, or he wasn’t coming home, so Griff made it happen.
Almost immediately, Love became what Chris Bosh was early in his Miami career, a nice enough yet dubiously sufficient third piece, a sponge for everyone else’s anxieties and laments. Hadn’t he averaged 26 and 12 the year before? Why was he spending so much time standing in the corner? His defense was as bad as Wolves fans had said it was; it really stuck out against athletic opponents. Away from the court, Love was introverted, which LeBron, who is inclusive in a bullying sort of way, didn’t like. The team figured itself out, finishing second in the East, but he never totally found his place. Without his consent, a hierarchy was established: LeBron was the hero, Kyrie Irving was the sidekick, and Love was either misused or tremendously overrated. Just as it seemed like he was settling into a productive role, Kelly Olynyk yanked his arm out of its socket in the first round of the playoffs. He was out for the rest of the year, including the Cavs’ eventual Finals loss against the Warriors.
He could have left in free agency but instead signed a new four-year contract in 2015. “We’re all on the same page and we’re all in. We have unfinished business and now it’s time to get back to work,” Love announced in a brief Players’ Tribune piece. And then he proceeded to play at the exact same level he had before this surge of motivation so moved him. His back was acting up. The coaching wasn’t top-notch. Sharing the court with LeBron can be difficult. For whatever reason, Love was not going to be what he or anyone else expected when he was initially traded to Cleveland. He could rebound and space the floor. He was a skillful passer. But Kyrie was considerably more important to the team’s success. You could argue Tristan Thompson was too.
That was definitely the case in the Cavs’ championship-winning series against Golden State. When Love left Game 2 with a concussion, the consensus was that Cleveland was just about cooked, but it turned out they hardly needed him. He missed Game 3, a 30-point blowout win for the Cavs, and contributed very little over the next four contests. His only notable moment was shutting down Steph Curry for a single, crucial possession late in Game 7. Other than that, he was anonymous. A title is a title, but the guy had been elected to a pair of All-NBA teams a few years previous. Ejecting himself from the bench, he leapt into LeBron’s arms at the final buzzer. The most joyful moment of his career was more like something that happened to him than something he achieved.
After Kyrie left to captain his own team and LeBron left in search of another title or two in Los Angeles, Kevin Love stayed in Cleveland. In the summer of 2018, the Cavs offered him a huge extension, well in excess of what anyone else would have paid him this past offseason, enough for him to talk himself into accepting the aging, air-quoted “star” designation on a franchise at the outset of a rebuild. He would put up numbers and set an example for the gaggle of 20-year-olds management brought aboard. Hopefully by the time they were ready for a playoff run, he would still be humming along comfortably in his post-prime.
That vision has soured. The Cavs were terrible last year, and Love sat out injured for most of it. This season has been similar, though he’s been slightly healthier. The front office recently leaked to Adrian Wojnarowski that they’re wiling to listen to trade offers for him. This development was inevitable. Rebuilding franchises insist on retaining a small contingent of veterans until they realize that, within the context of an otherwise miserable squad, one or two pretty good players don’t make much of a difference. They cut absurd, annoyed figures. They tap their feet, thinking about what they could accomplish if they were flanked by real NBA talent rather than trainees.
There’s a question as to what Kevin Love’s trade value is, whether it’s even slightly positive. He’s 31 years old and owed $120 million over this season and three more. The number that kept him in Cleveland might be the one that maroons him there permanently, if nobody wants to take on that contract, or can’t figure out how to cobble together salaries that land somewhere in the neighborhood of his $29 million cap hit. The Cavs say they want young players and/or draft picks in return for him. That feels like a starting position. In the end, they might be lucky to get off his deal for a less arduous multi-year contract and a mediocre asset or two.
What lingers in the meantime is a sense of incompleteness and malaise. Like Kevin Love is waiting on a bus, like the bus might not stop. It’s been five-plus oddly frictionless years in Cleveland, where he has not been a leader or standout performer. Fine and less than fine, are the points between which he’s vacillated. It’s time for him to leave. Everyone involved knows that and they’ll work toward that end, for the good of the organization, but also his. Love has been, if not what anyone envisioned, a sober and professional disappointment; he deserves an opportunity elsewhere. Yet there’s a real possibility he might be stuck, fittingly and frustratingly. And what appears in the mind’s eye is that face: shy and spent, trying to answer and running out of breath, hoping help will arrive soon, so he doesn’t have to keep doing this all by himself.