Kevin Love Already Learning the Sacrifice of Playing with LeBron James

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 28, 2014

Oct 22, 2014; Memphis, TN, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love (8) looks to pass in the game against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum. Memphis defeated Cleveland 96-92. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
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It dawned on Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and now it's dawning on Kevin Love: Playing with LeBron James offers a massive payoff, but it comes at the cost of touches, stats and individual glory.

Love had to know sacrifice was a prerequisite—just like everyone observing from the outside did. And yet, for all the lessons of recent history, we've already got signs of Love's mild discomfort with his role.

"My entire life I've played the game from inside-out," Love said, per Chris Haynes of Northeast Ohio Media Group. "So the more touches I can get inside to get myself going, the better. I'm not accustomed to starting out a game shooting a three."

We should be careful not to read too much into this. It's early in the process in Cleveland, and there were bound to be some less-than-smooth transitions into new roles. Love wasn't even really complaining—just speaking to the way he's used to getting the ball.

Nothing wrong with that, James told Chris Fedor of NEOMG

I think we are all going to go through an adjustment and less touches than we would like. Anytime one of us says something it will get blown out of proportion and I think that got blown out of proportion. I read the clips of what he stressed. The first thing you see is Kevin Love wants more touches and is unhappy, but I've had zero reaction.

James is right to dismiss this non-controversy out of hand. But it would be wrong to ignore the potential difficulties it points to down the line.

 

New Challenges

Al Behrman/Associated Press

Love's having trouble adapting. That's natural. It's been forever since he had to adjust to anybody else, and it'll take time for him to come to grips with the concept that the Cavaliers are not the Minnesota Timberwolves.

In addition, Love is playing under pressure for the first time in his NBA career. Six years in Minnesota without a playoff game (or even much realistic hope of ever reaching one) didn't prepare him for the scrutiny, expectations and day-to-day discomfort of life as an NBA title favorite.

Now, there are stakes. Now, Love's historically poor defense will have consequences that count, and he'll be pressured to improve.

Now, Love will have to find ways to contribute beyond scoring.

Most of all, he'll be forced to prove he's not bothered by any of those new responsibilities and that he's happy to win games without being the sole reason for the victory. This is going to be a task of epic ego subjugation.

That's why Love's quote about touches—even if he's talking about their location and not their volume—has meaning. The fact that he's bringing them up at all is significant.

Love's messy forced exit from the Timberwolves hurt his reputation. Even before leaving, his individual success on a team that never accomplished much made critics skeptical of his overall value. To be clear, Love's numbers were remarkable in his time with the Wolves. Saying a guy who posted a 26.9 player efficiency rating in 2013-14 didn't contribute to team success is insane.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Statistically, objectively, Love was a monster in Minnesota.

But he was tagged as selfish, per B/R's Kevin Ding: "For all the gaudy individual numbers and All-Star appearances, here is the final decision on the Kevin Love era in Minnesota: He was not a defender, not a team guy and not a winner."

Every time he talks about himself, those inclined to view Love as a me-first player get more ammo.

And Love's role (and his discomfort with it) isn't likely to change.

 

Good of the Team

INDEPENDENCE, OH - SEPTEMBER 26: Kyrie Irving #2, LeBron James #23, and Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers pose for a portrait during media day on September 26, 2014 at the Cleveland Clinic Courts in Independence, Ohio.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly
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Head coach David Blatt has implemented a few tweaks to get his new power forward the touches he wants in the post, but there's just no realistic scenario in which Love is going to play as big a role as he did in Minnesota. There, his usage rate topped 28 percent in each of the last three seasons, per Basketball-Reference.com.

In seven preseason games with the Cavs, his usage rate was 22.9, according to RealGM.com—darn close to what it was in Love's formative, pre-superstar years with the Wolves.

Love simply must accept his fate as a floor-spacer. Even though he's a deft scorer on the block, his real value to Cleveland is as a pick-and-pop threat. He draws defenders away from the bucket, and the space that creates makes life on offense immensely easier for James, Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and everyone else on the roster.

For most of his career, Love has been his team's best player. Everyone else gave up shots and bigger roles to make sure his value was optimized. That's not how things are going to work anymore.

Love has to play a role that maximizes his teammates' success. He's uniquely capable of creating opportunities for the Cavs because of his gravitational pull on the perimeter, and if he embraces that role, the Cavs can be the title threat everyone expects them to be right away.

If he can't, he'll prove a lot of his detractors right. And he'll make the following passage from his contribution to The Players' Tribune ring painfully hollow:

After I was traded this summer, I kept hearing about how our challenge was going to be figuring out how to share the ball among LeBron, Kyrie and myself. Reporters kept asking me how I felt about it:

Are you the second wheel? Are you the third wheel? What about your stats?

To them I say: I don't care. I've never played in a playoff game. I came to Cleveland because I want to win. I'll grab a broom and sweep the floors if it gets me an NBA title.

As the 2014-15 season tips off, we'll soon see just how much of a sacrifice Love is willing to make.