Beginning with remarks made in a 2012 interview with Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears, Kevin Love has made it clear that, incendiary individual statistics aside, playing for a winner is the only thing that matters.
In joining LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Love’s long-deferred dream finally came true, accompanied in close tow with an entirely new set of expectations: Win now, win big and win often.
Still, there’s one warning in particular Love would be wise to heed, burdened as he's about to be with unprecedented pressure: Be careful what you wish for.
After six years of serving as the Minnesota Timberwolves’ unquestioned cornerstone, Love’s Lake Erie exodus finds him arriving as Cleveland’s de facto third fiddle—something with which the former McDonald’s All-American, Pac-12 Player of the Year and three-time NBA All-Star isn’t exactly familiar.
While his stint as a seldom-used reserve for Team USA at the 2012 Olympics may seem like a mark in his favor, never has Love been expected to take such a distant backseat on an NBA team.
In an interview with ESPN Radio 1500 (h/t ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst), Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor expressed doubts over how readily Love will adapt to his new role as Cleveland’s second or third option:
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 the team," Taylor said. "I don't think he's going to get a lot of credit if they do really well. I think he'll get blame if they don't do well. He's around a couple guys that are awful good.
While it’s easy to view Taylor’s remarks as disgruntled handwringing, he’s not completely off base in his analysis.
Prior to Love’s arrival, the Cavaliers—while certainly boasting the stuff of a conference contender—were by no means an NBA Finals shoe-in. In fact, James himself admitted as much in his now-famous Sports Illustrated essay, deeming that he and his charges faced “a long process, much longer than it was in 2010.”
For Cleveland fans, the sheer goodwill wrought by James’ return could’ve been enough to buy the team a year or two of championship demands deferred before the pangs of the city’s 40-plus-year championship drought turned from hunger to anger.
Love’s arrival completely changed the competitive calculus, turning Cleveland from possible contender to near-unquestioned favorite almost overnight.
James is sure to feel a ton of pressure, of course, just has he has every day of his life since the fourth grade.
As will Irving, charged as the former No. 1 overall pick will be with striking the difficult balance between his near-peerless abilities as a scoring point guard and the need to feed his fellow all-world counterparts—not to mention Irving's maximum extension being something of an impetus for LeBron and Love's eventual arrival.
But in being the piece that’s supposed to complete the puzzle, Love is certain to attract more flak still—the perfect narrative scapegoat, should Cleveland’s Finals coronation fall flat.
Then again, it seems just as likely that Love’s play will work the other way—as validation for years of hard work and proof positive that his public remarks were nothing if not genuine.
Indeed, as Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal parsed out back in March, shedding the stigma of being a stats-obsessed prima donna isn’t as simple as one might think:
It may be a ridiculous, inaccurate reputation, but it's still one Love would presumably love to shake. And there's no easier way to do that than by winning.
Playing on a contending team lends validity to Love's superstardom, even if he needs help to get there. Should it really be a crime to want more help than Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin can provide him?
Love's predicament is an interesting one, simply because he's reached a level of dominance that allows him to basically choose between these two ideals. He can keep chasing numbers and individual glory, or he can experience a taste of success.
In Love’s defense, if merely being the best player on a good team were his ultimate goal, capitulating to a trade pairing him with the unquestioned best player in the world would seem counterintuitive.
Even if it means playing in deference to a living basketball deity, Love wants to win. That he faces far more pressure now than he would have had his second NBA act been as the best player on a perennial playoff team is, unfortunately, equally true.
Luckily for Love, he need look back no farther than James’ old team—the Miami Heat—as a cautionary tale for embracing high expectations too readily and fervently.
Rest assured, Cleveland won’t be playing hopes to any preseason parades or fireworks displays, no champagne toasts to titles yet to be tallied. James will make sure of that.
Still, the lessons are there for the gleaning, and Love—who, like Irving, has always maintained something of a quiet countenance—is better suited than most to learn them the easy way.
Make no bones about it: The hard stares and media heat Love’s about to meet will make crashing the playoffs in Minnesota feel like a nap in the hammock by comparison. Should Cleveland somehow fall short, the critical crosshairs will be trained on Love first, foremost and—if a banner is never won—forever.
Perhaps our mistake, though, is in believing a player this talented, whose on-court instincts are borne out in every perfectly timed rebound, somehow didn’t expect this pressure to begin with.
Maybe in our rush to remind Love that he’s about to face his biggest test yet, we conveniently ignored one critical fact: He’s wanted it for years.
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