Blockbuster Trade Between Cavs and Wolves Means Kevin Love Is Out of Excuses

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterAugust 7, 2014

Brace Hemmelgarn/USA Today

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.

Whether LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are getting something different has yet to be determined, but there will be no shortage of attention on whether Love can overturn those three verdicts in Cleveland.

No shortage of opportunity, either, given that Love won't have to do more than play a supporting role next to James with Kyrie Irving on the pumped-up Cavaliers. For some perspective, the next-best players on James' last Cleveland team in 2009-10 were Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison. Each one scored 15.8 points per game but was statuesque while Mike Brown jiggled up and down the sidelines begging for more on defense.

Love is at his best on defense standing still, in solo post defense or obviously boxing out, but his hunger for personal stats was a fundamental problem with the Timberwolves team he was supposed to lead in a far more meaningful way. After all these years, it's safe to say he's not that guy and isn't becoming that guy—and it should be even more obvious by now that this sort of trade using Love's inflated statistical value was overdue for Minnesota if it wanted to have any chance at winning.

So should Love be praised or bashed for accepting that and moving on to the cushy life of grand possibilities as a LeBron cast member?

Well, Love should be praised or bashed based on how he handles the new challenges that come with the supporting role.

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Even if everyone in Cleveland will be thrilled to have him, given his willingness to sign long-term in a locale nearly as desolate as Minneapolis, let's be clear that there will be expectations on Love: He is the biggest of the three in the basic physical sense, so he absolutely has to defend.

That means more than rebounding, as Love has been perfectly happy doing in lame, losing efforts for Minnesota, with no one ever noticing what he's doing except a couple highlights en route to that nightly double-double with threes to boost a fantasy basketball league team toward its title.

Kevin Love career stats

It means Love must grow his game to protect the paint better, maybe even at the rim every once in a while, because the Cavaliers are going to need him to be a key cog in team defense to outdo the Chicago Bulls. Cleveland's roster with Anderson Varejao is a lot like Minnesota's with ground-bound Nikola Pekovic—unable to close off the defensive paint if Love isn't going to do it.

Love isn't capable of playing the sort of scrambling, swarming, court-covering defense that Chris Bosh gave James in Miami, so the question becomes how Love is going to avoid being a major minus in a need position for James in Cleveland (where Irving has already proved to be another major minus on defense).

Love doesn't help properly and hasn't cared enough to reprioritize his energy allocation over the years. It's an easy excuse to make that Love has had to save his energy for offense after David Kahn wasted top draft picks on Jonny Flynn in 2009 and Wesley Johnson in 2010. Irving in Cleveland has had the same convenient excuse, which is why it'll be fascinating to see if those two All-Stars are willing and able to evolve into standout winners who do the little things the way Derrick Rose is already promising Bulls fans.

Love overcame a slow start to become a nice complementary player for USA Basketball in the 2012 London Olympics. He felt emboldened enough after winning the gold to promise a Timberwolves playoff berth in 2012-13, his fifth NBA season.

Despite a strong coach guiding the squad in Rick Adelman, it didn't happen—Love got injured again and played only 18 games for a team that overrated the acquisitions of Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 12:  Team mates Kevin Durant #5 of the United States, Kevin Love #11 of the United States, LeBron James #6 of the United States and Kobe Bryant #10 of the United States  celebrate winning the Men's Basketball gold medal game betwe
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Last season, the Timberwolves were sort of the same team as every other year with Love, going 40-42. As usual, Love wasn't dominant to the point of commanding double-teams to carry the offense at pivotal moments. Even though he was a little better, he again failed to carry the Timberwolves to the playoffs.

Minnesota fans and management saw the truth: There was no outcry for Love to stay, no campaign to keep him in town.

Love did his individual thing well enough to make every club with 2015 salary-cap space salivate that he still might be a top-five talent (instead of just David Lee with a three-pointer) who is frustrated and talented enough to be the ideal target to jump.

Indeed, Love has jumped at the chance—although he did it early, showing that like Carmelo Anthony in 2011, he did care about the money. Per the extension Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski is reporting has been agreed upon, Love is getting about $26 million more guaranteed via his old Timberwolves contract in Cleveland, at the expected expense of top prospects Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a 2015 first-round pick.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

But the more suitable comparison for now is Dwight Howard's trade to the Los Angeles Lakers, where Howard was expected to make instant magic next to Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash. As gorgeous as it looked on paper and on Sports Illustrated's "Now This Is Going to Be Fun" cover—and as much as health challenges limited those star-studded Lakers—Howard's winning intangible, or lack thereof, was revealed in a big way to Bryant, Gasol and Nash.

And Howard did way more winning in Orlando than Love ever managed in Minnesota.

Love has much to prove about his winning intangible now—especially to James.

Love is a fantastically skilled player whose NBA-playing dad taught him well to get his, and he comes into this situation with all kinds of potential. Maybe his skills and his mentality just work better next to guys who know how to win.

And for the record, Howard was on much better behavior in Houston after he chose the Rockets as his path, even if the results haven't come. Love is going to be invested in Cleveland as his choice and should be trying his best to show James his worth.

Love could seize a golden opportunity at a head start on the goodwill as a great teammate: He could unite with Irving and rejoin USA Basketball for the Aug. 30 FIBA World Cup (the trade to the Cavaliers can't occur officially until Aug. 23, by NBA rule) and offer the national team's frontcourt a big lift in the wake of Paul George's devastating injury.

Odds are, Love will instead just sit it out, pass on the chance to build chemistry on top of his work in Irving's past "Uncle Drew" Pepsi Max commercials and look out for himself again.

Love has a long way to go in proving he is the NBA's latest Pau Gasol, not good enough to avoid losing alone but completely ready to sacrifice for Spain, the Lakers or whomever to maximize whatever chance he has to win.

If Love is really a winner, contrary to all previous evidence, it will be revealed very soon.

If not, though, LeBron's feel-good route to redemption may never be completed.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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