X

Kevin Love Is Healthy, Happy and Ready to Bring Cleveland Cavs a Championship

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterOctober 22, 2015

Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love poses during the NBA team's media day, Monday, Sept. 28, 2015, in Independence, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Ron Schwane/Associated Press

CLEVELAND — A tumultuous first year with the Cleveland Cavaliers came to quite a painful end for Kevin Love.

After feeling his shoulder being ripped out in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Boston Celtics on April 26, the past few months have been a difficult time for Love. He's admitted to feeling upset and bitter about suffering such a significant injury when Cleveland needed him the most.

This was the capper on a season that witnessed his being called out by LeBron James, fielding constant questions about his upcoming free agency and never truly fitting into the Cavaliers offense. Love would often be seen sitting at his locker after games, feet soaking in a bucket of ice, lethargically answering reporters' questions but rarely making eye contact.

After such a trying first season in Cleveland, Love decided to do what many believed to be unlikely: come back.

"Knowing that I could be in a place where I could win and be happy and get paid long-term was absolutely a big deal for me," Love tells Bleacher Report. "It was a very proud and happy moment in my career, but the chase never really stops, and that's the most gratifying and fun part of it. It's back to work. I signed my deal, got my shoulder right and have continued to work and get back on the court."

Love's decision was anything but drawn out. He inked a five-year, $110 million deal on the first day of free agency, making him the highest-paid Cavalier in franchise history (until James inks a long-term deal, at least).

While the money is certainly nice, Love could have made more. Signing a one-year deal and opting to test free agency again next summer would have resulted in a far greater payout with the expected rise in the salary cap.

He remained true to his desire to stay in Cleveland, however, adding that this new five-year agreement had a different feeling than any other he had signed before.

"It's funny. There's certain points of your life every three to five years you look back and say, 'I'm really happy with where I was at that point,' 'I'm happy I did this' or 'What was I so stressed about?' Initially signing as the fifth pick to Memphis and getting traded to Minnesota on draft night, that was a big deal for me, which had a different feeling. It was a different feeling when I signed the four-year deal in Minnesota, and this one was a big, long-term commitment, which is what I always wanted."

NEW YORK - JUNE 26:  NBA Commissioner David Stern shakes hands with number five draft pick for the Memphis Grizzlies, Kevin Love during the 2008 NBA Draft at the Wamu Theatre at Madison Square Garden June 26, 2008 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expr
Nick Laham/Getty Images

Love certainly seemed relieved to end the constant questions about his future and is happy to pass that torch to next summer's prize free agent.

"You see Kevin Durant going through the same thing. All the speculation, where he's going to end up, you know it's something, whether you like it or not, it's going to weigh on you, and people are going to continue to ask. Now it's nice to have it behind me. Just focus on doing my rehab, getting myself better getting out on the floor and focusing on basketball. That's the most gratifying thing right now for me."

A Summer to Refresh

Extensive traveling is necessary as a professional athlete, but it's the summer trips that really allow NBA players to relax and refocus.

While rehabilitation of a torn labrum prevented Love from completely enjoying his summer, the 27-year-old found plenty of time to get away, just not always in the most conventional locations.

"People always ask, 'Where you gonna go? Are you going to go anywhere this summer? Are you going to clear your head?' I went to Paris, a number of places in Italy. I was well-traveled this summer. When I told people I was going to (Park City) Utah people would say, 'What?' It's one of those things where, if you've never been there and don't know what it's about, you don't realize how magical and great of a place it is."

This is where Love would train for hours a day at elevations over 7,000 feet. Hiking through Park City's mountains, paddle-boarding on its lakes and enjoying the breathtaking scenery all helped Love heal his body and clear his mind, an experience he now wants to share with fans in a video series entitled Singular Focus.

"Singular Focus is a three-part series that highlights my journey up to this season having come back from an injury and leading up to the point we're at right now on The Player's Tribune. Having partnered with Built With Chocolate Milk, its benefits helped get my range of motion back and put on some muscle mass in my shoulder."

This was Love's summer. Rehab. Extreme cardio. Weights. Recovery.

Eventually, basketball would follow.

Curly Hair and Posing Naked

A somewhat shy, reserved personality who rarely makes an appearance on social media, Love also used part of his summer to step out of his comfort zone.

An appearance in ESPN The Magazine's 2015 Body Issue and a new hairdo certainly turned many an eye toward Love, although he doesn't seem confident in sticking with either.

"Would I do something like that again? (pauses) Maybe not? ESPN does such a great job with that every single year. It's kind of beautiful to see all the athletes' bodies and how different it is in each sport with the way people train. The response has been good in some areas, great in some areas. And then from my dad and brother and family and friends it's been pretty funny (laughs)."

And about the hair? Surely this was influenced by someone, right? After all, Kevin's father, Stan, rocked a rather similar look during his own NBA days.

Stan Love, Kevin's father, while with the Los Angeles Lakers.

"I'm looking at the Einstein autobiography by Walter Isaacson and looking at his hair, the Joe DiMaggio autobiography where I can see his hair. I don't know if it's something around my house that I've been looking at that influenced it? I've never really grown my hair out.

"It was funny the response it got at media day. Now I have to wear a headband to hold it down because my hair's naturally so curly and always has been. I've had it short for 10 or 15 years, and I don't know what I'll do it with it. It's pretty untamable at this point."

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Connecting With Teammates

Despite some tension last season with James, Love and the NBA's best player appeared to work things out near a Los Angeles swimming pool this past summer. The two stars talked about Love's return, his future role and importance to a team returning nearly all of its rotation.

Cleveland is set to bring back 11 players this season, a high turnover rate up from just five the year before.

This kind of continuity should only help Love ease into a comfortable role even more. As for the locker room? Love insists it's a fun place to be.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

"Bron is super funny, Ky (Kyrie Irving) is super funny, Shump (Iman Shumpert) is super funny, J.R. (Smith), guys you wouldn't expect like Mozzy (Timofey Mozgov) and Delly [Matthew Dellavedova]. Andy [Anderson Varejao] is super funny. We have a really funny group of guys.

"Champ [James Jones] is funny but is also a guy who will run a business or be the CEO of a company one day. Joe [Harris], we call him the "Tax Man" because he looks like he'll do our taxes. I wouldn't say I'm a class clown, but I like to keep things light and be in on the joke. Just everybody is super funny. We have a funny group."

This was the spirit of the Cavaliers from 2005-2010, when Cleveland consistently went deep into the playoffs. James and Danny Green would share sideline dances. The team would "pose" together for pregame photos, and it appeared everyone genuinely enjoyed each other's company.

This group has a chance to become as close. They're certainly more talented, too.

Staying Focused on the Goal

Although he could have bolted for a bigger market and role elsewhere, Love knew his best opportunity to win was always in Cleveland.

"Luckily we have No. 23 to kind of set that standard for us. He's so fun off the court, but on the court he's dialed in."

Love could only watch his teammates ultimately fall short of a championship last June, a fuel that reignited his desire to win. Summer is a long way off, but Love insists the Cavaliers have the right group to persevere through the long winter months.

"The cool thing about our team is we have guys from Australia and Russia and Brazil and all over the world and all over the country that are different and have different personalities and bring something else to the table that makes it so fun. Being together for nine months, you learn so much from so many different guys. It makes the locker room that much better."

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Although the Cavaliers will hit the hardwood without the likes of Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and Kendrick Perkins (veterans from last year who are no longer with the team), Love has been impressed with who general manager David Griffin has brought in.

"Now having guys like RJ [Richard Jefferson] and Mo [Williams], they bring so much from veteran leadership and their personalities to change things up and keep it light. They're also guys that know how to win, they're battle-tested. That will help us in the long run."

A Fresh Start

Less than six full months from his injury, Love has already returned to the court, showing no signs of limitation.

Despite all the ups and downs from a season ago and a summer full of rehabbing, he seems incredibly upbeat. Excitement has once again returned to his voice.

The Cavaliers have a serious shot at an NBA championship, one that would become the first in franchise history. Coming within two wins of such an accomplishment without the help of Love or Irving only breeds more optimism in Northeast Ohio, especially with Love back.

INDEPENDENCE, OH - OCTOBER 1: Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during practice at The Cleveland Clinic Courts on October 1, 2015 in Independence, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Pho
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Love's role needs to improve now in Year 2. Cleveland used him far too often simply as a stretch 4, when in reality, that's just a small part of his game.

While he certainly has the ability to spread the floor and knock down three-pointers, Love's also very skilled in the post and can be used as a facilitator from the elbow as well. Last year, Love set a career high in percentage of field-goal attempts from deep, showcasing how much the Cavs pulled him out of the paint. A career 81.4 percent free-throw shooter, his attempts per 36 minutes from the charity stripe were the lowest in his seven seasons.

The Cavaliers need to feature him far more inside the three-point line, a strategy that will be sure to pay big dividends over the course of the season.

For now, Love has shown his commitment to the Cavaliers, the city and fans. He knows the grind is coming.

"There's many times through so many months where there will be time to play and kind of mess around, but we have to know when to flip the switch and turn it on," Love says, with an intense tone.

"Being focused and winning trumps everything else."

Greg Swartz has covered the Cleveland Cavaliers and NBA for Bleacher Report since 2010. Follow him on Twitter: @CavsGregBR.

🚨 SPORTS NEWS ➡️ YOUR INBOX

The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.