There is life after LeBron, says Cleveland’s Kevin Love
He may wear size-19 sneakers, but Kevin Love still has some big shoes to fill.
For the first time since arriving in Cleveland four years ago, Love is expected to play the role of Cavaliers’ floor general — a position previously filled by a certain someone named LeBron James.
Now that the megastar has taken his scoring and leadership skills to the Los Angeles Lakers, Love will begin his 11th season as the Cavs No. 1 option on offense and a senior voice in the locker room.
“I think everybody has their own process as a leader, and I think for me it’s ever-evolving,” Love told CNN Sport earlier this month in a telephone interview.
But this experience will be vastly different from his first go-around as a team leader with the Minnesota Timberwolves, who failed to make the playoffs in Love’s first six NBA seasons.
“We didn’t have that veteran, or guys who we could really look up to and learn from, whether it be on or off the floor,” the says the 6-foot 10-inch forward of his time in Minnesota, where he averaged 26 points and 12.5 rebounds in his final season.
“It seemed quite a bit like a revolving door; we never had that continuity.”
‘I’ve learned a lot by watching’
Arriving in Cleveland at the behest of James, Love played on four finals teams in four years — including the 2016 squad that brought the first championship to Cleveland in 52 years — while watching one of the greatest motivators in team sports lead by example.
“All four years in Cleveland, we were expected to win the championship,” he says. “We had a personality who was a huge leader in LeBron James, who brought it every single day, who put his time in, and was very vocal, and continued to grow in his sense as a leader.
“I’ve learned how to follow on that end. I’ve learned a lot of leadership tendencies and qualities in watching him,” he adds, including being “vocal and leading by example and being punctual.”
One more trait inherited from James was his willingness to reach out to teammates privately during the offseason to form personal relationships.
James is famous for including current and former teammates like bestie Dwayne Wade in his offseason workouts, but the veteran privately reached out to Love after their first season together in Cleveland.
It was a transitional year for the former UCLA man, who went from first scoring option in Minnesota to third wheel behind James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland.
Out of contract, Love was reportedly unsure of whether to stay in Cleveland or look to return to the West Coast.
With that in mind, James organized a poolside meeting at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont hotel in the summer of 2015, where he reassured Love of his importance to the team.
Ten days Later, Love inked a five-year deal with the Cavs. One year later the two clutched in glee during the final buzzer of a thrilling Game 7 of the NBA Finals in Oakland — where Love played a pivotal role.
“I think that’s something that is part of leadership as well,” Love reflects, “trying to find players that fit with your culture, someone who is going to be a really key addition to who we already have, and who we want to build with.
“That’s a very special way, especially in the offseason, because you don’t have much time to use to your advantage and better your team,” he says, pointing to the Cavs’ pre-season training in Miami as his time to bond with younger players.
“Being away from Cleveland, (before) we go back to the grind, it’s a very positive experience for us.”
‘We have to be a bit grimy’
The Cavaliers will launch their bid to reach their fifth straight NBA Finals in the team’s opening game on Wednesday at Toronto.
Fellow veteran Tristan Thompson recently challenged other Eastern Conference teams to dethrone the Cavs. “We’re still four-time Eastern Conference champions, so until you take us down from that, teams ain’t got much to say,” he told reporters in the preseason. “Boston, Philly, they ain’t got much to say.”
Realistically, however, expectations have been reset, and Love concedes that a playoff berth, which would require a top eight finish in the Eastern Conference, should qualify as a successful season.
“Yes, I think only because people are expecting us not to make it,” he says about the playoffs. “That’s the expectation of the experts.
He adds that apart from success in the wins column, success should be measured by building a winning culture shaped, in part, by the mentality ingrained in young talent like Larry Nance Jr., Sam Dekker and the four rookies currently on the roster.
“It would take a huge step in a positive direction there, so I think that’s success as well,” he says, adding that sheer hustle will have to make up the slack from losing James this season and All-Star Irving to the Celtics in 2017.
“We have to be a team that’s going to be a little bit grimy,” Love says. “We’re going to have to go after every loose ball that we can, we’re going to have to be the team that dives on the floor.”
Although Love played just one season of college hoops at UCLA before entering the 2008 NBA draft, 10 years later he stands by his decision to turn pro early.
“I don’t have any regrets about leaving,” says the former No. 5 lottery pick, who grew up between California and Oregon. “I wish I could have stayed more because it’s such a happy and carefree and joyous occasion being there at school.
“I wish it made sense to go back … but when the NBA is right there at arm’s reach, it’s hard to say no,” he says.
“I’m very fortunate and very happy where I am now in my 11th year.”