CLEVELAND -- His team’s sixth-leading scorer Sunday — who didn’t reach his once customary double-double game all evening, let alone by halftime — Cleveland’s Kevin Love sat half-clothed at his locker stall after beating Memphis and spoke about what was, is and could be.
On Tuesday night, Love will meet a Timberwolves team for which he toiled six NBA seasons before he forced the seismic trade last summer that sent him away for three players, including No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins.
Love was once the rarest of all things, a three-time All Star who never even sniffed the playoffs. Now he is an ancillary piece on a reconstituted Cavaliers team that — featuring superstar LeBron James and Kyrie Irving — reeled off eight consecutive victories recently but still, at 16-10, is considered something of a disappointment so far.
His scoring average is down by nearly 10 points a game and his rebounding average off by a couple per night since he left the Wolves, but his winning percentage has nearly doubled.
So, too, purportedly has the former fantasy-league superstar’s happiness and contentment.
“It’s a different feeling in the locker room, the plane, the bus ride, practice,” he said, his feet soaking timed in an ice tub. ”It’s just a different feeling when you’re around a winning atmosphere. To be around that — especially those eight in a row and eight of our last nine at home — it’s definitely different. It feels good. We just want to keep it going. It makes me happy.”
He had grown increasingly discontented as his time in Minnesota passed. Embittered by the Wolves’ refusal in January 2012 to offer him a prized five-year maximum contract that peers and pals Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook received while conceivably saving that “designated player” slot for Ricky Rubio, Love finally forced his way out by insisting he’d walk away free as an unrestricted free agent next summer after every move the team made to build a winner around him faltered.
New president of basketball operations Flip Saunders dined with Love frequently last season and tried to build a bridge that would keep him happy in Minnesota. On Monday, Saunders said Love’s departure was “pretty much set in stone the minute he got his four-year contract” and stated Timberwolves fans won’t ever forgive Love for forcing his way out.
Getting what you deserve
That contract decision — and the opt-out clause Love threatened to use — was made by owner Glen Taylor and then-executive decision maker David Kahn 15 months before Saunders replaced Kahn on the job. The difference in money was substantial — $80-plus million compared with the $62 million contract Love signed — but perhaps more important was the statement such a max contract would have made about Love’s earned place as the franchise’s foundation.
Love was asked Sunday if that contract decision ultimately was something he just never could get over and accept.
“I don’t know, I think more than anything I just wanted to win,” he said “Now that we’re doing it here, I’m very happy. I think that was very shortsighted when it first happened, but in the end it was more the constant losing.”
In November, the Wolves signed Rubio to a four-year contract extension that guarantees him $55 million, considerably less than the five-year max deal. Nearly a year after he signed his extension, Love’s interview with Yahoo!Sports caused quite a national commotion because he clearly still was stung by the matter and how it was handled. He had called leaving that contract slot open in 2012 for Rubio “a projection over a sure thing.”
Love smiled and nodded his head Sunday when asked if he had followed Rubio’s contract negotiations.
“He did great. I was very happy for him,” Love said as he gestured toward teammate Anderson Varejao sitting in the stall next to him. “We talked about it in here; Andy and him have the same agent in [Dan] Fegan and I thought [Fegan] really did a great job, and I was happy for Ricky.”
Forgive, or not?
Love will recognize relatively few faces when he plays his former team, four months after the Wolves finalized August’s three-way trade among the Cavs and Philadelphia: Pal Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf just got traded away last week and Rubio and Nikola Pekovic stayed home to rehab injuries.
Only Chase Budinger, Gorgui Dieng, Robbie Hummel and (injured) Kevin Martin remain from last season on a team, loser of 11 of its past 12 games, that is right back completely rebuilding again with Love gone. Also expected to play are the three players — Wiggins, 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett and veteran Thad Young — the Wolves received in the trade.
When the Wolves announced those three new players at the Minnesota State Fair in August, Taylor questioned whether Love would accept being a third option behind James and Irving and wondered if the Cavaliers would demand Love play better defense than he did the Wolves.
Love said he wasn’t hurt by Taylor’s typically blunt comments.
“No, no, it was to the point where I knew I was getting traded and between the players he got, especially Wiggins, I thought he got a lot of value,” Love said. “Just sometimes you don’t press send and sometimes you do and wish you had it back.”
Love said he hasn’t talked to Taylor since the trade, but said he had a telephone discussion with Saunders that gave both some closure, and he predicted he’d give Saunders, now the Wolves’ coach as well, a “big hug” and “we’ll be talking and laughing” and discussing where they’ll have lunch when Cleveland makes its only Target Center appearance this season Jan. 31.
Saunders suggested Wolves fans won’t be as receptive to the return of the prodigal son.
“Minnesota people are pretty loyal,” Saunders said. “You turn on Minnesota, they don’t forgive you.”
Just wait ’til next time …
Love won’t have to face those fans for another five weeks.
“I’m sure going back to Minnesota will be a lot more emotional,” Love said, referring to Tuesday’s game at Quicken Loans Arena.
By then, Love and the Cavaliers will be that much further along determining where he fits with what Cleveland coach calls “some guys who take up a good piece of the pie as well” and that James himself calls a process of self-sacrifice for every player involved. Along the way, there have been some alarms, such as last week’s 29-point home loss to Atlanta.
“Team sports, it’s not about you, it’s about the team,” James said. “If you’re not about the team, you should play golf. Or there’s one other sport, too: Tennis.”
So far too often relegated to being a spot-up or pick-and-pop shooter, Love is trying to find where and how he can also establish a low-post game on a team in which James is evolving, at 6-8, into its point guard and Irving is settling into a scorer’s role.
All the while, Love is wowing a new audience with the same freakish outlet passes that Wolves fans came at accept as commonplace.
“Things are continuing to grow,” Love said. “We’re out of our infant stages now.”
When the Cavaliers lost four consecutive games in November and started the season 5-7, the sky was falling. “I tell you what,” he said, recounting his two previous games when he shot 21 percent and scored 14 points total but the Cavaliers won both. “I was 1-for-10 the last game and thought I played my worst game in years and I was happy we got the win. It’s a lot different. In the past, I might have had a game like that and we would have ended up losing.
“Obviously, it’s more gratifying when you win, no matter what your numbers are. Some nights, I’ll have not the greatest stat line in the world and some nights I will, but when we’re winning it changes everything.”