What Kevin Love Trade Says About LeBron James' Clout in Cleveland

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What Kevin Love Trade Says About LeBron James' Clout in Cleveland
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It was only a matter of time (and will only be a matter of time now) until Kevin Love joined (and can join) the Cleveland Cavaliers as LeBron James' next superstar sidekick.

According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cavs will send the last two No. 1 picks (Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins) and a protected first-round pick in next year's draft to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Love. The deal, though, can't be made official until Aug. 23, when Wiggins' rookie deal can be moved with impunity.

In truth, this trade has been nigh on a foregone conclusion since mid-July, when James announced his return to Rock City. Less than a week after James dropped a bomb on the basketball world, Wojnarowski and colleague Marc J. Spears reported that the four-time NBA MVP had "reached out" to Love about them joining forces in Cleveland.

Notice, too, which two youngsters James failed to mention in his letter for Sports Illustrated:

I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys. I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league. I think I can help elevate Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. And I can’t wait to reunite with Anderson Varejao, one of my favorite teammates.

No Bennett. No Wiggins. Coincidence? Maybe, but less likely for someone as meticulous and methodical as James.

To be sure, the Cavs were as much "Last Comic Standing" and "Survivor" as they were "American Idol," benefactors of attrition and talent The Golden State Warriors' refusal to part ways with Klay Thompson and the Chicago Bulls' dearth of assets aided Cleveland's cause, as ESPN's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst explained.

Realistically, though, this trade is—or, technically, will be—about LeBron James getting what LeBron James wants.

This isn't to suggest that James' desires and the Cavs' efforts to fulfill them are antithetical to the team's prospects for success. On the whole, adding a player of Love's age (25) and elite caliber, and presumably locking him up for another five years for $120 million, would be a boon to any club, but particularly to one that's run by James.

Love's combination of size, shooting ability, passing acumen and low-post prowess is rare, if not entirely unmatched, in the NBA and should fit snugly beside the game's best player.

So, too, should his production. Last season, Love became just the seventh player in NBA history to average at least 26 points, 12 rebounds and four assists over the course of a campaign, per Basketball Reference. The other six (i.e. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Bob McAdoo and Billy Cunningham) are all enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Love's arrival won't come without concerns, though. As The Washington Post's Thomas Johnson noted, Love's ability to protect the paint is no better than lackluster at this juncture:

Last season, Love allowed 9.1 rim attempts per game, 11th most in the league, while allowing opponents to shoot 57.4 percent on those attempts, which ranked 159th in the league among qualifying players per NBA.com’s sportVU data. Sure, Love grabs a ton of rebounds, but mediocre doesn’t begin to describe Love’s help defense.

The trade could be doubly problematic for Cleveland's defense when considering what the team might be losing in Wiggins. The Kansas product projects as a plus perimeter defender from the outset, thanks to his otherworldly physical gifts, and could develop into an all-around superstar in time.

With Wiggins gone, the Cavs will be left with just one player (James) who can be considered a positive quantity on that end of the floor. Anderson Varejao can be effective disrupting the pick-and-roll, but he can't be counted on to play consistently due to his perennial physical problems. He's missed an average of 41.5 games per season over the last four.

It's no wonder, then, that, according to a source who spoke with Cavs GM David Griffin, the team's front office resisted the notion of parting ways with Wiggins. Griffin has long been a fan of athletic wing players, dating back to his days in the Phoenix Suns' front office. Wiggins just so happens to fit this description better than anyone has in years.

The matter, then, would appear to have been removed from Griffin's hands once James gave the word. James has had his run of the asylum in Cleveland before and seems to have regained that power over team owner Dan Gilbert—and then some—in a matter of weeks. As Woj wrote shortly after LeBron's "Decision" in 2010:

Listen, [former Cavs GM Danny] Ferry and [former head coach Mike] Brown always warned Gilbert that giving James everything he wanted—giving it when and where and how—wouldn't be the way they would keep him. LeBron didn't respect them because they never demanded it.

Gilbert always believed he should do everything James wanted—hire his buddies into jobs, throw them on summer league rosters, allow him to do those stupid pregame choreographed dances—that James would love him, that he would never leave. Only, James is a taker, and he took and took until he had bled Gilbert and that franchise to the bone.

Sound familiar? The Cavs have already signed two of James' former Miami Heat running mates (Mike Miller and James Jones) and might soon add a third (Ray Allen), even though each is already well into his 30s and far over the proverbial hill.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Lost in those diatribes, though, is the fact that the Cavs failed to surround James with top-tier talent during his first seven seasons. Only once did James play with a concurrent All-Star in Cleveland: Mo Williams in 2008-09.

The 2005 signing of Larry Hughes was a flop. Shaquille O'Neal was on his last legs by the time he came to Cleveland in 2009.

To that end, Gilbert and the Cavs have already outperformed their previous fealty to King James. They had a two-time All-Star (Irving) in place before James arrived. With Love, they'll have a three-time All-Star at power forward to complete arguably the most talented trio in basketball.

It helps the Cavs' case, too, that James has come home a changed man. No longer is he dogged by questions about his maturity or ability to win a championship. Four Finals appearances and two titles during his four-year Rumspringa in South Florida did plenty to shift the perception of and conversation surrounding James.

None of this guarantees that James will be around for the long haul, though. As sincere as he may be in his desire to transform not only the Cavs, but the entirety of Northeast Ohio, James can still walk whenever he pleases. His new contract runs just two years, with the second season coming at his option.

This isn't to suggest that anyone should expect James to bolt. He's already defied Thomas Wolfe's famous credo once and would be hard-pressed to do so again.

Jason Miller/Getty Images

And, really, where else is he going to take hold of the reins of an organization to the extent that he has in Cleveland? Certainly not in Miami, where Pat Riley's power remains practically bulletproof, even after watching his former prized recruit walk away from an historic run.

If anything, the terms of James' new deal are indicative of his sway along the banks of Lake Erie. Whatever the Cavs want to do will be subject to James' approval, lest they risk crossing him and watching the best basketball player on Planet Earth threaten them with another flight.

That being said, James is far from free of the pressure under which the Cavs now find themselves. They've done their part. They've acquiesced to his demands and brought in another of the top-10-to-15 players in the NBA in one fell swoop.

Griffin, Gilbert and head coach David Blatt will bear some responsibility for how the situation proceeds from here, but ultimately, that burden, for better or worse, will fall on LeBron's shoulders. If James' great experiment fails, he'll have to wear it. If it succeeds—if he brings the Cavs their first title ever and Cleveland its first championship in a half-century—he'll get to wear it.

And with the talent James will soon have around him, it may only be a matter of time until he does.

 

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