Can Kevin Love Accept Diminished Role with Cavaliers?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 28, 2014

Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor isn't wrong about the difficulties Kevin Love will face with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he may have missed the mark on how well the superstar big man will respond to them.

Taylor, in an interview with Derek Wetmore of ESPN1500, said:

I question Kevin if this is going to be the best deal for him because I think he's going to be the third player on a team. I don't think he's going to get a lot of credit if they do really well. I think he'll get the blame if they don't do well. He's going to have to learn to handle that.

I think he's around a couple guys are awful good. Now I'm not saying that Kevin's not good, but I think where maybe he got away with some stuff, not playing defense on our team, I'm not sure how that's going to work in Cleveland. So I would guess they're going to ask him to play more defense. And he's foul-prone.

Tempting as it is to dismiss those comments as sour grapes, much of what Taylor said was fair. Love didn't play much D for the Wolves, and he'll probably receive disproportionate helpings of credit and blame in Cleveland. The only thing Taylor was very obviously wrong about was Love's tendency to foul:

As for the rest, well, it fits nicely with the narrative we've ascribed to Love this summer. By forcing his way out of Minnesota, Love made himself a target for criticism. He seemed selfish, somehow small, for not frankly addressing his desire to leave the Timberwolves.

He's not the first star to want out of a small market, and Love also has a legitimate gripe about the talent he was surrounded with and the treatment (see: sub-max contract extension) he received from management. Nonetheless, perception is powerful, and the traits we've lately assigned to Love make it seem like Taylor has a point about his unwillingness to accept a less glamorous role.

Before we go further, we have to concede that Love will be the member of Cleveland's Big Three who takes a backseat to the other two. Taking touches and shots away from James would be ridiculous.

James is a deity in Ohio again, and you don't reduce the role of a basketball God. You just don't.

Kyrie Irving, by virtue of his ball-handling and skills as a shot creator, will be in much greater control of the shots he gets. Love, on the other hand, is more dependent on his superstar teammates for opportunities. Well, teammates and his tenacity on the offensive glass, a quality that could serve Love very well if he's hungry for extra looks.

At any rate, it's simply unrealistic to assume he'll get the same number of chances he did when his most dangerous teammate was Kevin Martin.

You have to wonder: Would Love ever alter his game to the degree Chris Bosh did with the Miami Heat in order to fit in? Perhaps more interestingly, should he?

Love is a better player today than Bosh has ever been. He's a more established perimeter threat, a more dominant rebounder and a superior passer. You could argue that taking chances away from Love is a bad strategic move, especially in an age when big men who can space the floor are more valuable than ever.

If Love subscribes to that logic, we could see some unrest.

Not right away, of course. We're still in honeymoon territory, and Love's all smiles.

Eventually, though, might a reduced role rub Love the wrong way?

Short answer: No.

Love came into the league very differently than James or Irving did. Those guys were heralded immediately; they were top picks and franchise saviors, afforded all the responsibility they could handle from the moment they shook David Stern's hand on draft night.

If you're worried about entitlement hurting team chemistry, look at those two before Love—who was the fifth overall pick in 2008 but got the immediate "you're not so special" message of a draft-day trade when the Memphis Grizzlies sent him to the Wolves for O.J. Mayo.

Love wasn't even a regular starter in his first two NBA seasons. It took him until the 2010-11 campaign to crack the 30-minute-per-game barrier. He came into the league as a dirty-work specialist—a big man who toiled on the glass and grew into a bigger role over time. Love wasn't given the superstar mantle.

He earned it.

So, if you're going to push one guy toward the margins a little, it makes sense to pick the one who's been there before. You can't do it with James. Irving just received a max deal and has a reputation for moodiness that makes reducing his role a little scary.

Don't mistakenly assume this is a simple decision for David Blatt and the Cavs, though. Love is the guy the organization has the least control over; it should want to keep him happy enough to re-sign as a free agent next summer.

Love claims he's in for the long haul, per Brian Windhorst of "An extension hasn't been talked about. I'm committed to this team and committed long term to the end goal, which is to win a championship."

That's great, but the fact remains that Cleveland has a very strong incentive to treat Love well, which probably means getting him as many minutes and shots as he wants until he officially signs that extension.

Ultimately, Taylor is justified in asking whether Love is in the best place to succeed. When superstar egos and expectations are thrown together in a single summer, it's foolish to expect instant harmony.

But what's happening in Cleveland isn't exactly new. In fact, it's not even the most extreme recent example of three No. 1 options suddenly forced to find a balance.

Everybody uses the 2010 Miami Heat as a measuring stick for modern superteams, and they're an intriguing comparison here. Check out the pre-Heatles usage rates for James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade in 2009-10:

High Usage, Pre-Heatles
2009-10Usage RateNBA Rank
Dwyane Wade, MIA34.91
LeBron James, CLE33.52
Chris Bosh, TOR28.79

And then dig on the way they changed over time:

Viewed as a trio, James, Love and Irving will face a smaller usage-rate conundrum than James, Wade and Bosh did. All three of the Cavs stars got plenty of touches in 2013-14, but overall, they didn't dominate the ball to the degree James, Bosh and Wade did before they came together in 2010.

2013--14 Usage for Cavaliers New Big Three
2013-14Usage RateNBA Rank
LeBron James, MIA31.04
Kevin Love, MIN28.88
Kyrie Irving, CLE28.211

That's a long way of saying more complicated mashups have worked out just fine in the past. And before anyone goes about mentioning the ill-fated 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers, remember that injuries derailed that group from the outset. Perhaps they would have found a way to play together if Steve Nash hadn't gone down two games into the season..

Maybe you don't like the way Love got himself out of Minnesota. Maybe it seemed selfish.

But you can't say Love's exit was foolish or shortsighted. He's a smart guy who saw an opportunity to leave a bad situation, and when he had a chance to join a team with a much higher ceiling, he jumped at it. A guy with that kind of calculated thinking has to be aware of the potential complications that go along with joining other stars.

He's heading into this scenario with eyes wide open, and you can bet he understands sacrifice will be necessary.

More than anything, Love has labored for six seasons without a playoff berth, and there's nothing like a half-dozen years of disappointment to make a guy appreciate a championship opportunity. There's always a chance that the Cavaliers' new trio just doesn't fit well together, but there's no way it'll be because Love is unwilling to take on a different role.

In more ways than one, his entire career has prepared him to do everything possible to make this situation work.


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