BOSTON – So, Kevin Love, this is a little weird, right?
It’s a little after 10 a.m. ET on Tuesday when Love and the Cleveland Cavaliers trickled into the TD Garden for shootaround. What was once a major event attended by a dozen or so reporters and a handful of cameramen has been reduced to an everyday media availability with a smattering of local writers.
That’s what happens when LeBron James leaves town.
Love remains, now the leader of a four-time-defending conference finalist that will be lucky to scrap for a playoff spot. And he will likely be in Cleveland for a while, courtesy of the four-year, $120 million extension he signed this past summer.
But why? The Cavs are light years from contending. Cedi Osman is occupying James’ spot. The remnants of the roster are built to play around a player — James — who is no longer there. Cleveland has an interesting rookie in Collin Sexton, but it’s a lot to ask of a 19-year-old to be a difference-maker.
Interest in the Cavs has vanished. Once staples to play on Christmas Day, Cleveland will suit up in Memphis … on Dec. 26. Over the last four years, the Cavs appeared on ESPN, TNT or ABC 102 times. This season, the only national network exclusive is Nov. 21 — when James makes his return.
So, Kevin, how are you feeling about the team these days?
“You know, I feel good,” Love told Yahoo Sports. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s definitely going to be a growth year for us. We feel like if we’re in shape, if we play physical, if we shoot the ball well, we’re going to give ourselves a chance.”
But why does Love want to be here? He’s 30 and could have been a free agent next summer in a talent-rich offseason for which teams are clearing the deck. Love could have played out his contract and sought out a contender. He got some financial security — for a player who has battled injuries in recent years, a $120 million guarantee isn’t nothing, and at the end of the deal Love will top $250 million in career earnings — but was it worth tying himself to a losing situation?
Love doesn’t see it that way. Let’s backtrack a little. In the aftermath of Golden State’s sweep of Cleveland in June, Love sat down with Cavs GM Koby Altman. “We went over every scenario,” Love said. “The first was if ’Bron came back and we compete for a championship. Then it was trying to build with the young guys that we have.” In the meeting, Love made it clear: regardless of what happens with James, Cleveland is where he wants to be.
“I love it here,” Love said. “I wish I could pick my house up and move it everywhere I go in the summer. I love where I live. I’m comfortable here.”
But Love wanted some assurances. Losing a player of James’ caliber can be catastrophic. The Cavs should know. That’s what happened when James left town the first time in 2010. Love wanted to know if Altman intended to take that route.
“Anytime you lose the best player in the world, you take a step back,” Love said. “I didn’t want to be a part of something where we were tanking or we were going to be in the lottery every year.”
The Cavs had no intention of tanking, Altman said. And they didn’t want to trade Love, either. James was gone, but the culture that was built over four straight Finals trips remained. The veterans who were on the roster would stay there, and the influx of young players would contribute to a more up-tempo style of play.
Love was sold, he signed and now finds himself the top offensive option for the first time since his days with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Cavs coach Ty Lue says the system won’t feature a bunch of new plays for Love, just a lot more of the ones the team already runs. On Tuesday, Cleveland ran its offense through Love, who responded with 17 points in the first half of a win over Boston.
Indeed, Love seems at peace with his decision. He knows the trade chatter around him will always be there. “I’ve pretty much seen everything and anything to this point,” Love said. “It’s tough to be fazed.” And he admits that having a championship ring in his pocket made it easier to stay out of next summer’s free-agent frenzy. But he has embraced his role as a teacher (“I need to be more vocal,” Love said) and believes the Cavs could sneak up on some people.
“Having seen it all, in a lot of cases done it all, it’s prepared me for something like this,” Love said. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge for us. We’re going to have to scratch and fight for everything we get here. I think that will make it fun. It’s a new challenge.”
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