How We'll Know If Kevin Love Is Ready to Be a Winner Next Season

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How We'll Know If Kevin Love Is Ready to Be a Winner Next Season
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

For six long years, Kevin Love has watched the NBA playoffs from the comfort of his own home.

While the All-Star forward has put up some historic numbers during his young career, Love failed to lift the Minnesota Timberwolves into the postseason.

"It's tough seeing all these guys that are young and older who have all played in the playoffs," Love told Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports at the 2012 Summer Olympics. "When they start talking about that, I have nothing to talk about. If I don’t make the playoffs next year I don’t know what will happen."

Well, Minnesota didn't advance to the postseason the next year. Or the one after that.

We now know what happened next. Love informed the Timberwolves he planned on opting out of his contract following the 2014-15 season and wasn't interested in re-signing.

For all the flashy stats, All-Star appearances and popular commercials, Love has been adamant about just one thing.

"No matter what the outcome is, I just want to end up in a great place where I can win," Love said in June, via ESPN.com.

Love has declared his desire, putting winning above personal stats and accomplishments.

The question is, can we believe him?

 

What Stats Will Tell Us

For years, Love has put up some monster numbers for the Timberwolves.

This has been both extremely impressive and disappointing due to their empty nature. After all, 25 points and 12 rebounds a night isn't worth a whole lot if the team still comes away with a loss.

Love has been the Timberwolves' leading scorer and go-to guy for the past four seasons. Because Minnesota failed to surround him with additional scoring threats, Love was free to shoot as much as he pleased. He finished last season fourth in the NBA in scoring, with 26.1 points per game.

With the Cavaliers, adjustments will need to be made.

Love certainly won't hit that 26-point plateau again. He may not even average 20 a game.

Cleveland already has plenty of scoring with LeBron James (27.1), Kyrie Irving (20.8), Dion Waiters (15.9) and Tristan Thompson (11.7). Last time we checked, the NBA only allowed one ball on the court at a time.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Shots will be more spread out on the Cavaliers than ever before.

Shots will now be spread out in a manner Love isn't accustomed to. He'll have to defer to teammates more often and act as just a role player when James or Irving has the hot hand. Love will still get plenty of open three-pointers and put-backs off of offensive rebounds, something he loves to do already.

Consider this: The average NBA team puts up about 82 total shots a game. Last season, Love (18.5 field-goal attempts), James (17.6) and Irving (17.4) all ranked in the top nine most frequent shooters in the league. Waiters, serving primarily as the Cavs' sixth man, put up 14.2 attempts per game himself.

For those at home doing the math, that's nearly 68 total shots between just four players. If all were to keep chucking at the same pace, that would leave Thompson, Mike Miller, Shawn Marion, Anderson Varejao, Matthew Dellavedova and Co. about 14 total shots to fight over.

Clearly, sacrifices will have to be made.

That responsibility will fall primarily on Love.

The good news is that Love has become a willing passer as he's matured. His 4.4 assists per game last season led all power forwards. This number should increase even more with Love's ability to find open teammates on outlet passes and cuts to the basket.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

He's the new kid in town. This is James' team now. Irving needs the ball to continue to grow into a superstar. Even Waiters will demand the rock off the bench.

For Love to truly show that winning matters more than anything, he'll have to take far fewer shots than he's used to.

Instead of his averages last year of 26.1 points on 18.5 shots, Love may have to settle for 18-20 points on 14-16 shots a night.

Love can no longer go stat-chasing with the Cavaliers.

 

Improvements on Defense

Jordan Johnson/Getty Images

Love is known for being less than proficient on the defensive end, something his former boss wanted to remind everyone of recently.

"I think where maybe he got away with some stuff not playing defense on our team, I'm not sure that's how it's going to work in Cleveland," Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said on ESPN Radio 1500 AM, via ESPN.com.

Truthful? Possibly.

Necessary? Probably not.

Taylor's statements about Love may have been a bit immature, but they are not entirely inaccurate.

Love allowed the highest opponent field-goal percentage at the rim (57.4 percent) of any NBA player last season (min. six per game, via NBA.com.) Despite being 6'10", Love is a poor shot-blocker, averaging just 0.5 a game for his career.

Another issue for Love is effort.

One thing that becomes painfully obvious watching Love during games is his failure to always challenge shots. When Love's man puts up a shot from within the three-point line, he frequently turns to hunt for a rebound instead of getting a hand up in his opponent's face.

Is this a good rebounding strategy or just laziness on Love's part?

Whatever the case may be, Love has to be better. He has to sacrifice those rebounds in order to get in his defender's face, challenge shots and clog the passing lanes.

Cleveland doesn't have a shot-blocking threat and must instead rely on strong individual defensive performances from players such as Love, Varejao and Thompson. They have to commit themselves on defense and not care which teammate gets the next rebound.

Improved defense, more than anything else, may be Love's greatest obstacle when showing his commitment to winning.

 

Embracing a New Role

After years of being "the man" in Minnesota, how will Love accept being "the other guy" next to James?

How will Love embrace the change from Batman to Robin? How will he shift his focus from scoring to playing defense and moving the ball?

Basically, how will Love react to the "Pau Gasol effect?"

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Gasol, of course, put up big numbers for the Memphis Grizzlies for years before joining Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. After seven years with the Grizz never making it out of the first round of the playoffs, Gasol won two titles in L.A. after agreeing to a sidekick role.

Can Love do the same? Michael Lee of The Washington Post believes so:

This is Kevin Love’s Pau Gasol moment. This is his chance to escape the obscurity and unfair scrutiny of being a singular star on a foundering franchise. This is a chance to re-define his career and put aside fruitless debates about his greatness and whether he is overrated or underrated.

With his arrival in long-suffering Cleveland, Love can become the difference-maker on a championship contender and simply be known as a winner.

Some stars are comfortable playing with others and taking a backseat, while others are not. Chris Bosh fit in beautifully with James in Miami, going from the Toronto Raptors' first option to the Heat's third. Love did mesh well with James and other talented teammates at the 2012 Summer Olympics, accepting a smaller role for the good of the team.

Will Love be the next in line of Gasol- and Bosh-like big men who found their greatest success as second stars?

The Cavaliers' record should help reveal that answer soon enough.

 

Greg Swartz has covered the Cleveland Cavaliers for Bleacher Report since 2010. Connect with him on Twitter for more basketball news and conversation.

All stats provided by Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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