Four head coaches. A multitude of general managers. The second return of an Akron-born star and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first NBA Championship in 2016.
Kevin Love was there through it all.
Though nothing has been finalized, one of the Cavs’ most significant constants in recent memory may try to find a new home.
The very last player from Cleveland’s historic championship run formally requested a buyout on Wednesday, wrote Cleveland.com Cavs reporter Chris Fedor. Cleveland’s decision-makers will “discuss that possibility among themselves and with Love’s representation over the next few days,” Fedor continued.
Love is in the final year of a four-year, $120.4 million contract he signed with the Cavs just after LeBron James packed his bags for the bright lights of Los Angeles in 2018. He was not expected to be a buyout candidate after he was removed from the Cavs rotation in favor of forward Dean Wade.
Love’s request for an exit from the Cavaliers was far different from his grand entrance through a Cavs-changing trade in 2014. It was quiet. It was hours before another playoff-type matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers.
And it was officially brought to the attention of the NBA world through a 1 a.m. tweet from the Athletic Senior lead NBA Insider Shams Charania.
A former teammate of Russell Westbrook at UCLA, Love was taken with the No. 5 pick in the 2008 NBA draft by the Memphis Grizzlies before he was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves. He averaged 19.2 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game in six seasons with the Timberwolves, earning three All-Star selections for a Minnesota team still trying to find an identity after it traded forward Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics in 2007.
Kevin Love helped create an era when he first suited up for the Cavs following the blockbuster trade. James moved from one star-studded team to the other, transitioning from a Miami Heat team that featured Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to a Cavs team with a former first-overall pick in Kyrie Irving and a recent All-Star who averaged 26.1 points and 12.5 rebounds the season before.
Love stuck around in two more Cavs eras before the recent request for a buyout, watching the Cavaliers grow into a playoff contender once again after struggling through growing pains with Cleveland’s young core.
Kevin Love shouldn’t be remembered for the way his Cavs career ended.
He should be remembered for the legacy he left behind.
The Larry O’Brien Trophy Comes Home
Nothing can better define the impact of Cleveland’s big three than one set of just a few minutes.
The game was tied at 89-89 with 3:39 remaining. The Oracle Arena crowd flooded the stadium with “Warriors” chants as guard Stephen Curry brought the ball to the halfcourt. History would be made that night, but it was far from how the Oakland crowd initially hoped.
Where James had the Block and Irving had his version of the Shot, Kevin Love had the Stop.
After Irving hit the biggest shot of his young career to put the Cavaliers up by three in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, the then-27-year-old forward took on the impossible task of locking down the league’s first unanimous MVP when he quickly switched onto Curry at the 3-point line.
Curry sank 45.4% of his 3-point shots that year, guiding Golden State to becoming the first team in NBA history to hit over 1,000 3-pointers in one season during the peak of the team’s “Pace and Space” era. The Warriors broke the NBA’s single-season wins record set by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls when they won 73 games in the regular season. Questions of Kevin Love’s defensive ability continued into his Cavaliers days, a point Cavs guard Darius Garland lovingly joked about in late January.
None of that mattered when Love made the switch.
He kept Curry from taking a comfortable shot not once but twice. Curry hesitated and continued to dribble while Love matched his movements, dumping the ball off to forward Draymond Green before he was forced to throw up a high-arcing shot soon after he got the ball back.
Though Love called it a “legacy-defining moment,” he recalled the moment in more of a bad light during a 2019 interview with GQ.
“I let him get the ball back,” Love said. “When you have a guy who you’re double-teaming or trapping, and you’re trying to get the ball out of his hands, you don’t let him get it back.
“It was actually a poor defensive sequence. I just happened to keep my feet down and played great individual defense when the time came.”
Two straight years of fighting the nearly-unstoppable Golden State Warriors in the Finals followed the improbable win, ending in two straight Finals losses for the then-top team in the Eastern Conference. A flurry of players came and went as the team desperately reshaped its roster to match the Kevin Durant-led Warriors. Still, nothing could seem to give the Cavs enough firepower to beat the overwhelming super team.
As high as Love saw the Cavaliers fly, he stuck around even as the team started to sink to its recent lows.
The Rebuilding Years
The first of the big-three dominos fell when Irving requested a trade in 2017.
Shortly after not retaining general manager David Griffin, a group of Cavaliers decision-makers discussed Irving’s future, wrote ESPN Staff Writer Dave McMenamin.
“The discussion, characterized as ‘small talk’ by one source familiar with its content, was less a formal straw poll of what the Cavs should do with their All-Star point guard should trade opportunities present themselves, and more of a thought exercise anticipating what the market could bear for a player of Irving’s caliber,” McMenamin wrote.
“The talk got back to Irving, multiple team sources told ESPN, and that served as the tipping point that led to Irving formally requesting a trade a little more than two weeks later.”
According to ESPN, Irving would be traded to the Boston Celtics for point guard Isaiah Thomas, forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 unprotected first-round pick.
James would again depart from Cleveland one offseason after, signing with the Lakers on a four-year, $154 million contract in 2018.
Where James and Irving left, Kevin Love stayed.
He signed his four-year extension in the weeks following James’ departure to the Lakers, choosing to opt out of the 2019-20 season on his previous five-year deal.
Cleveland won 104 games and lost 197 in the four seasons before this one, loading up with young talents like guards Darius Garland and Collin Sexton while rotating through four head coaches before they finally landed on J.B. Bickerstaff.
As the Cavaliers changed around him, so did Kevin Love.
The then-sixth man had a renaissance as a young Cavs core was assembled during a rebuilding era. Though he had earned his fair share of shots from beyond the 3-point line, he seemed to further embrace his shooting role as time passed. He started taking more long-range attempts, peaking at seven shots per game in the 2019-20 season.
Kevin Love’s patience paid off when the Cavaliers put themselves in the conversation as one of the East’s top contenders with just one trade. Even as his role declined after the Donovan Mitchell trade, the 34-year-old forward was an impactful part of the Cavaliers franchise.
Kevin Love in The Current Era
Not even Love thought his Cavaliers tenure would last as long as it has.
“To be completely honest and transparent with you, no,” Love responded when asked if he expected his career to be as long as it was with the Cavs.
His minutes and overall field goal percentage may have declined as the season marched forward, but Love continued to be a valued part of the team’s comradery. He called center Jarrett Allen “your favorite player’s favorite player” in December. He hyped up forward Cedi Osman after he earned a plus-minus of +41 as the Cavs ran over the Bulls in a 128-96 October win. He even said Irving’s jersey should be retired “without a doubt” once his career ends.
Kevin Love may leave the Land behind and restart his historic stretch with the Cavs. But where one era officially ends, another can take its place.
Despite a gut-wrenching loss to the 76ers on Wednesday, the Cavaliers still sit at fourth in the East and are two wins ahead of their pace from last season. The Cavs will have two players represent them on All-Star weekend, including forward Evan Mobley in the Rising Stars Challenge. Should they continue the winning ways they found in early February, they can find themselves in the playoffs for the first time since the team’s last Finals run in 2018.
Here’s to hoping Kevin Love returns soon, Cavs Nation, should he be bought out. Maybe next time, it’ll be with his jersey hanging in the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse rafters.