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It's Finally Kevin Love's Time to Be a True Superstar

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterApril 2, 2018

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 1: Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives around Dwight Powell #7 of the Dallas Mavericks during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena on April 1, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Mavericks 98-87. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — Few things have remained constant in Kevin Love's four seasons with the Cavaliers.

He's had a coaching change, a roster overhaul, a position switch (and switch back) and an increased offensive role. He's also battled through a variety of injuries.

Offseason after offseason and trade deadline after trade deadline, his name continues to pop upfor Paul George, Carmelo Anthony or in some other deal that ultimately falls through.

In the end, Love has endured much and spoken out little. As a willing third option on a franchise where ego, fit and soldier mentality has been tested, Love has always taken a backseat personally if it meant a better outcome for the team.

Through it all, one thing hasn't changed: Love is a bona fide NBA star.

After years of sacrificing both shots and role, the Cavaliers now need Love to be a superstar.

Love was just 25 years old when the Minnesota Timberwolves traded him to the Cavaliers in August 2014. In six professional seasons, he had never even been to the postseason, much less an NBA Finals. The Cavs were careful to surround his locker with veterans over the years, starting with Mike Miller and James Jones and eventually forming "the triangle' of Love, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye.

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Even though he averaged a ridiculous 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists the season before coming to Cleveland, it seemed inevitable that he would be the third offensive option behind LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. His first two seasons with the Cavs confirmed as much, as Love's scoring dropped to 16.2 points on a measly 42.6 percent shooting.

Cleveland even completed its historic 3-1 comeback against the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals almost in spite of Love. He averaged just 7.3 points and 5.9 rebounds while shooting 36.2 percent overall and 26.3 percent from deep. Love missed Game 3 due to a concussion, a contest the Cavaliers won by 30 with 34-year-old Richard Jefferson starting at power forward.

Fast forward to the present, where Love is enjoying his second straight All-Star season. For the first time, he'll enter the playoffs next to James as the second option, a role Irving once owned and excelled in.

LeBron James and Kevin Love
LeBron James and Kevin LoveJason Miller/Getty Images

"Certainly, we're gonna ride Kevin," Cavs' acting head coach Larry Drew told Bleacher Report. "Obviously we depend on LeBron a lot; he's the head of the snake. Kevin is a guy that we really depend on now with our situation and personnel standpoint."

Cleveland's "situation" involves 33-year-old James, Love and a collection of role players with limited playoff experience. This is a far better roster than it was two months ago, but it carries perhaps the most uncertainty since James, Love and Irving's first season together in 2014-15.

The Cavs are no longer the runaway favorites in the Eastern Conference and are closer to falling out of the playoffs than they are to even reaching the Boston Celtics for second place. The last time a James-led team didn't finish in the top two spots in the conference was 10 years ago, when his 2007-08 Cavaliers went 45-37 and ranked fourth.

Behind James and Love, Cleveland's leading scorers are Jordan Clarkson (13.6 points per game), Rodney Hood (10.8) and Jeff Green (10.5). Some nice talent, but a far drop from Irving's 25.2 points a season ago.

"Now with [Love] being the second guy, we'll look to go through him a lot," Drew said. "Particularly in the post, because we know what his capabilities are down there, and then he's a big man that can step out to the three.

"It's important that when he gets the ball, particularly down in the post, we want him to score, but we also want him to make the right play out of the post if there's a double-team. He's committed to that. We're gonna ride him. We're gonna put ourselves in a position to where we have to make sure that Kevin gets touches."

When brought up, Love scoffs at the notion that "Minnesota Kevin Love" has ever gone away. If anything, the high-scoring, high-usage 6'10", 250-pound All-Star has been preparing for this familiar role for years.

Love is scoring at the third-highest rate of his career (30.4 points per 100 possessions), the best total in his four years in Cleveland. His field-goal percentage (45.5) and three-point shooting (40.1 percent) also rank as his best measures since being traded to the Cavs. This is all while recently coming back from a broken hand and watching his numbers plummet for an 11-game stretch playing with Isaiah Thomas in January.

His usage rate (25.6 percent), points in the paint (5.4) and player efficiency rating (22.5) are all returning to Minnesota-like levels as well.

Heading into the Cavs' first Kyrie-less postseason since James returned, Love doesn't foresee his increased workload changing from the one he's been carrying all year.

"It won't be too much of a different role," Love told Bleacher Report. "When my number is called on, I try to step up as best I can and try and show my value to this team and be efficient. I just have to go in there with confidence knowing I have to be one of the leaders of this team. We've only got four guys left."

From left to right: JR Smith, LeBron James, Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love
From left to right: JR Smith, LeBron James, Tristan Thompson, Kevin LoveTony Dejak/Associated Press/Associated Press

The four Love refers to are himself, James, Tristan Thompson and JR Smith that helped deliver the Cavaliers' first-ever championship. Just 22 months later, 11 of the team's 15 members are gone. Of those four still here, general manager Koby Altman "tried hard" to trade Thompson and Smith at the deadline but couldn't due to their bloated contracts, per USA Today's Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt.

This roster turnover puts more pressure on Love off the court as well, something he's never had to do before. Earlier this season, Love said part of his job would be to "keep my damn mouth shut and try to perform." Always more of a quiet leader, he now must become a primary voice in a locker room that no longer has the likes of Jefferson, Frye, Miller or Jones.

"I've always tried to let my play and my hustle speak for itself and kind of lead by example that way," Love told B/R. "But there are times where I'll be able to step up and be vocal, especially when we go through our preparation, being able to kind of guide these guys.

"We all have to pick it up because our newer, younger guys may not be accustomed to playing in the playoffs, so they'll have to learn on the fly. I'm definitely comfortable [with being a leader]."

In James' run of seven straight Finals appearances, this will be the first time he enters a postseason without two All-Star-caliber players by his side. While various members of the Warriors, as well as Love and Irving, have been plagued by injury this season after making three straight trips to the championship, James is somehow on pace to play all 82 games for the first time in his 15-year career.

This kind of incredible workload puts even more pressure on Love to perform and has made the Cavs' coaching staff a little nervous with everything James has been asked to do this season.

"With LeBron, certainly, yeah as a staff you're worried about it. You're concerned about it," Drew told B/R. "Bron's just one of those guys; he's so durable. He wants to play [big minutes]. We just have to stay the course with what we've been doing."

There may be nights this postseason where Love has to lead the team in scoring. Cleveland can't afford for Love to have an off series or a bad matchup that forces him off the floor. This postseason will also be the Cavaliers' last audition before James becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer.

"Man, we're really going to depend on himeven more so now," Drew said of Love, pausing.

"He knows how much we need him."

           

Greg Swartz covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for Bleacher Report. Stats provided by NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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