Few superstars have enjoyed a bigger benefit of the doubt than the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Kevin Love, whose failure to make the playoffs even once in six NBA seasons is purely a product of forces beyond his control, or so the powers that be would have you believe,
To be sure, the Wolves haven’t exactly knocked it out of the park in building around the burly power forward.
Jonny Flynn and Derrick Williams, anyone?
But with his trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers looking more and more likely by the day, per Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Love is about to experience a level of pressure he never imagined existed, let alone believed would ever be his burden.
The reason should, at this point, be all too obvious: In Love, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, the Cavs would boast by far the league’s most productive and potent Big Three—an inside-out troika unrivaled in its sheer stat-stuffing prowess and off-court star power.
LeBron? He’s won his titles. Time, therefore—even in a city starving for sports redemption—is on his side.
Irving? Being the little brother means seldom having to say you’re sorry. At least not right away.
Love, by contrast, presents a complex case: a player accomplished enough to earn All-Star nods and Team USA accolades, and proven enough to guarantee his stock as a top-five fantasy no-brainer, but somehow—savage as the Western Conference has been—unable to will the Wolves to so much as an eighth seed.
James’ global clout all but assures he’ll have the most media microscopes trained his way.
The ones with the subatomic, impossibly nitpicky power: those belong to Love.
One thing’s for sure, Love isn’t exactly shying away from the scrutiny.
"No matter what the outcome is, I just want to end up in a great place where I can win," Love said during a recent interview on ESPN’s SportsNation (via ESPN.com) "At the end of the day, I've played six years, haven't made the playoffs yet, that burns me and hurts my heart, so I really want to be playing."
At the same time, never has Love had an easier row to hoe on the court than he will under the wings of the King. As far as paradoxes go, it doesn’t get much more agreeable than that.
From a purely strategic perspective, it’s not difficult to imagine Love as a kind of next-level Chris Bosh—a guaranteed double-double machine with three-point range to boot.
The biggest difference, of course, being Love’s comparably turnstile defense. Still, having James to check the foe’s foremost threat—in today’s NBA, a lot of 3s and 4s—means less pressure on Love. That, coupled with James and head coach David Blatt’s top-tier tutelage, could help him trend toward league-average levels.
More to the point, as Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley recently noted, the Cavs must take an altogether different defensive approach than that which defined Miami’s more freelance philosophy:
For the Cavaliers, their key to success could be relying on the two things James no longer had in Miami: youth and athleticism. Rather than turning teams back at the rim, they'll need to cut off the attacks before they happen.
Varejao, when healthy, is a 6'11", 267-pound ball of energy. ESPN Insider David Thorpe (subscription required) called Thompson "a long and elite athlete" in 2012, and that description still fits.
In other words, Cleveland might have some of the pieces needed to play the swarming type of defense like James' Heat did. If the middle is vulnerable—and it definitely will be—then the Cavs need to prevent teams from getting inside.
The Cavs will have ample time during the regular season to iron out the schematic wrinkles. Once the postseason rolls around, though, those margins for error are bound to narrow to a degree directly disproportionate to the level of pressure surrounding them.
Stars may be born on paper, but they’re made in the playoffs. That, more than any single factor, stands to emerge as the narrative thread running through Cleveland’s season.
And if Love somehow doesn't get traded this offseason? The pressure will most certainly remain, albeit in a different form. Then, it becomes a question of how the All-Star forward conducts himself—whether he approaches his last season in Minnesota hell bent on making the playoffs, or whether the looming lights of free agency render it an afterthought.
Then again, with so many suitors at his stoop, Love’s fate seems, by now, all but set in stone.
Regardless of where he lands—be it with the Cavs, the Golden State Warriors, or some altogether different team—Love is about to enter a set of expectations so categorically different than those he’s thus far faced, it might as well be a different league.
Luckily for him, it’s looking like he’ll have a different league of player there to guide him through the gauntlet.
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