NBA Sunday: Love With Lots To Prove


As the Cleveland Cavaliers await the winner of the Western Conference Finals and learn whether they will begin the 2016 NBA Finals on the road or at home, LeBron James, not surprisingly, has reentered the national conversation. In defeating the Toronto Raptors, James, has done something that this league hasn’t seen since 1966—he is heading to the Finals for a sixth consecutive year.

Regardless as to who their opponent may be, many people are already predicting the demise of the Cavaliers, with a select few looking at the prospect a 2-5 record in the NBA Finals as some sort of indictment against LeBron James’ individual greatness.

And while it is true that both James and the City of Cleveland have something major at stake in the 2016 NBA Finals, it is probably Kevin Love whose legacy will be most impacted.

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Ask Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant—being at the top of the game inevitably causes you to become polarizing. In that regard, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that many view James’ lack of success in the Finals as some sort of blemish on his record. They will go as far as to completely overlook the fact that Jordan needed Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc and Dennis Rodman to win his championships while Kobe Bryant needed Shaquille O’Neal, Glen Rice, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum to win his.

James, for some reason, took the “easy way out” after it became obvious that the Cavaliers lacked the brainpower in the front office to get him a team actually capable of winning the entire thing. James “needing” Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to win a pair of championships, for some reason, makes him less worthy than the likes of Jordan and Bryant.

And now, what most of the detractors will say, is that James—sensing that the Miami HEAT’s time had come and gone—decided to return to Cleveland merely because the prospect of teaming with their young nucleus gave him a better opportunity to collect a few more rings.

Winning the 2016 NBA Finals will enhance James’ legacy, certainly, but losing it should not allow anyone—even for a second—to try to convince themselves that James is not one of the top 10 NBA players in history.

Love, on the other hand? That’s a completely different story.

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Since being drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies with the fifth overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, Love’s true potential as a building block on the NBA level has been unclear. The Grizzlies ultimately decided that they would be better off trading Love to the Minnesota Timberwolves for O.J. Mayo, and to this point, Love has clearly had the superior career.

By his third year in the league, Love had been mentioned as being one of the top power forwards in the game, putting together an impressive junior year: 20.2 points, 15.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game on about 47 percent shooting from the field and 42 percent shooting from beyond the three-point line. Before long, even as Love became a more prolific scorer, people began to question whether his numbers were hollow. Despite being considered one of the best power forwards in the league, Love was never able to help the Timberwolves even qualify for the playoffs, much less contend.

When Love was finally traded to the Cavaliers for a package featuring Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, he left behind a reputation as being a malcontent, a player whose defensive deficiencies would always preclude his winning a championship and one who became increasingly polarizing.

It seems so long ago that the Warriors had to heavily weigh whether or not to trade Klay Thompson and David Lee for Love—a move that seems outrageous to even ponder today, especially after Thompson’s brilliant Game 6 performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Back in 2014, though, as it became clear that the Cavaliers were in fact making the move to form a triumvirate of James, Love and Kyrie Irving, Grantland ran a comprehensive piece discussing Love and the way in which he is viewed.

The gist of it was this: at the time, there were more than a few reasons to consider Love to be a “superstar,” but for each one of them, there was a very, very interesting rebuttal. The truth, then, was probably somewhere in the middle. Love, while certainly a useful player, was looked at by many as a player who had some talents, but one whose shortcomings essentially canceled out the positives that he brought to the table.

In other words, Love may be one of the few players in the league even capable of recording a 30-point, 30-rebound game, but what good are those stats if they can only come against woeful teams like the New York Knicks?

Since then, Love has slowly but surely become one of the more talked about players in the NBA. Kobe Bryant famously opined that the Cavaliers were making the same mistake in dealing Wiggins for Love that the Charlotte Hornets did back in 1996 when they agreed to trade Bryant to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Vlade Divac.

What’s amazing is, at this point, not much has changed. What has Love proven in the two years that he has worn a Cavaliers jersey?

Right now, the answer is “not much.”

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Over my years of covering the National Basketball Association, Chris Bosh has become one of my favorite people. I constantly chastise and call out many of today’s basketball observers for not being able to see past their own noses and view the bigger picture. Bosh is one of the most talented power forwards that this league has seen in quite some time and had proven that during his years with the Toronto Raptors. Then, suddenly, Bosh relocated to Miami, completely changed his game, became an unbelievably effective defender and, at the request of his coach, subjugated his personal want for touches and scoring opportunities for the betterment of the team.

Often, it almost seems as though we watch the game of basketball through some jilted prism where numbers are the only thing that determines one’s worth.

For Bosh, his true value to the Miami HEAT with LeBron James was with his ability to impact basketball games on multiple levels. Because of who James is as a player, he was and perhaps is most effective playing on the basketball. He has a rare combination of size, strength and athleticism that makes him a matchup nightmare for just about everyone. Those that are quick enough to stay in front of James usually lack the girth required to provide any resistance, while those that possess the girth simply can’t stay in front of him.

Early on, that was the quandary that Bosh was faced with. Having developed primarily as a post-scorer, Bosh needed to find a way to co-exist with James and he did so beautifully. His immediately reverting to a primary scoring option for the HEAT after James’ departure proved that the scoring talent hadn’t gone anywhere, it was just strategically suppressed.

The harmony in the HEAT locker room and their brilliant four-year run, to me, was further evidence of Bosh truly “getting it” as a professional basketball player, his conscientiousness and ability to impact a game on multiple levels.

Now, as the 2016 NBA Finals are set to tip off, Love hasn’t really proven anything. Across the league, he is still viewed as someone who doesn’t deserve the moniker of being a “superstar” and he is still a player, unlike James, who is trying to prove his worth.

What makes Love’s situation in Cleveland ever more interesting is the fact that he was traded for Wiggins. Until he retires, Love with be connected with Wiggins in a way that he will be unable to escape the comparisons to the neophyte who may be on the cusp of superstardom, especially as Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns form the nucleus of what should be a formidable core in Minneapolis.

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Agreed, Kevin Love wasn’t the player whose high school games were televised nationally and he doesn’t have a “chosen one” tattoo. He never signed up to wear Michael Jordan’s number and he never called himself the “greatest player in the world” in a press conference.

But still, without any rings of his own, without any First All-NBA Team selections and without being universally regarded as a superstar, there are still just as many questions about Kevin Love as there were when he was acquired by the Cavaliers two years ago.

After sustaining a dislocated shoulder in the first round of last year’s playoffs, finally, the opportunity for redemption has arrived.

Finally, Love will have the opportunity to answer some questions.

And finally, if the city of Cleveland is fortunate, he will prove to have been a worthy investment.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.