I’m done criticizing Kevin Love.
From the moment the Cleveland Cavaliers acquired the power forward in exchange for former No. 1 overall picks Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a future first round pick, the noise has been palpable. That’s true both here in Cleveland and on the national level.
Some have questioned how he fits in. Others have watched the growth of Wiggins with a close eye, questioning the trade every step of the way.
That was again true on Friday after Wiggins scored 22 points to lead the World team to a 121-112 win and earn MVP honors in the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend. That’s been true in two contests between the Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves this season in which Wiggins scored 27 and 33 points, respectively.
This will also be true for the foreseeable future. Because of Wiggins’ high ceiling and the magnitude of this trade, Love will forever be linked to the former Kansas standout. Even if the Cavaliers win a title this season, there will be naysayers who choose to question the trade.
For much of the past six months, I could be counted among the naysayers. For me, Wiggins had it all. The athleticism, tenacity, maturity beyond his years — I fell in love with it the moment the Cavaliers won the lottery, earning the chance to draft him.
Since then, I routinely have found myself questioning the trade, especially as Wiggins continues to evolve with every game. His scoring has increased each month (11.6 points per game in October and November; 14.6 points per game in December; 19.8 points per game in January), and it’s clear that he’s growing and adapting to the Association at a remarkable speed.
In comparison, Love’s transition has been somewhat of a bumpy ride. We knew that his scoring was going to take a hit, but his shooting percentage and 3-point shooting percentage has even dipped down to 42.9 and 34.5 percent, respectively. This comes on the heels of a season in which he shot 45.7 and 37.6 percent in those areas.
As expected, the criticism has been constant. Perhaps none bigger than LeBron James, who chose to post the following message on Twitter just nine days ago:
Stop trying to find a way to FIT-OUT and just FIT-IN. Be apart of something special! Just my thoughts
— LeBron James (@KingJames) February 8, 2015
The comment was directly linked to some words made by Love in the preseason: “I’m comfortable and just not trying to, I guess, fit in so much. I had a talk with the guys on the plane ride over [to Brazil] and also at different practices off the floor and they told me to fit out, just be myself.”
In fact, James confirmed as much later in an interview with reporters when he smiled and said, “It’s not a coincidence, man.” There’s always a method to the King’s madness, but it’s hard to exactly pinpoint it in this case. Love had been facing criticism from every direction, so it’s difficult to understand why James would pile it on as well.
However, the reality is that Love’s performance to this point should not be that unexpected. Chris Bosh predicted as much in the preseason, saying “It’s going to be very difficult for him. Even if I was in his corner and I was able to tell him what to expect and what to do, it still doesn’t make any difference. You still have to go through things, you still have to figure out things on your own. It’s extremely difficult and extremely frustrating. He’s going to have to deal with that.”
Many of us dismissed Bosh’s comments at the time, but why? No one would have more insight into this matter than Bosh, who was coming from a similar situation when he left the Toronto Raptor to join James and Dwayne Wade on the Miami Heat.
And to Bosh’s credit, it’s true that it has been frustrating and difficult for both Love and Cavalier fans alike. As noted earlier, Love’s shooting percentage is down significantly, and so are his points (17.0) and rebounds (10.4) per game.
But here is the point that many of us are still missing. Who are we talking about right now? Is it Kevin Love? Or Earl Clark, Marreese Speights, Luke Harangody or Ryan Hollins? Get the picture? Have we already gotten so spoiled that we choose to beat down on a player who is averaging a double-double and scoring 17 points per game? Did we suddenly forget the recent alternatives who played power forward on this team?
After 55 games, the Cavaliers are 33-22, and Love has played in 52 of those contests. The team’s record in the games he has missed? 1-2. The two losses, one of which was this past Thursday against Chicago, have also come by an average margin of 15.5 points.
As you saw on Thursday, the Cavaliers’ entire game plan changes when Love is not in the contest. Spacing becomes a huge issue when Love is not there to bring defenders out to the 3-point line. Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah were then able to pack the paint, making it difficult for the Cavaliers to generate any easy buckets.
Love’s presence is a game changer for the Cavaliers, and it’s hard to believe this team could make any type of serious run if he were to be out for some time.
James warned us that this would be a process from the getgo, and the beautiful thing is that it seems as if this process might be coming to fruition. Yes, the acquisitions of Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith play a big part in that, but Love has also evolved in his role this season, and his comfort level seems to be coming together.
That was evident last Sunday against the Los Angeles Lakers when Love scored a season-high 32 points on 11-of-18 shooting in 35 minutes of work. Advanced statistics also suggest that Love is finding his way.
The big-three contingent of James, Love and Kyrie Irving has an offensive rating (An estimate of points produced (players) or scored (team) per 100 possessions) of 114.3 and a defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions) of 107.3. Even better, the current starting unit of those three players plus Mozgov and Smith has an offensive rating of 114 and a defensive rating of 107.
This current Cavs unit can score and defend. Translation? It can win, and it can win now.
Which brings us back to the entire reason as to why Love was acquired in the first place. Winning and winning now.
Forget about Andrew Wiggins. Forget about Love’s decreased scoring and rebounding. Forget about James’ cryptic tweet.
All that matters is if it’s working? After 14 wins in their last 16 games, it’s safe to say that the answer to that question is a resounding yes.
But remember this. It wouldn’t — and it doesn’t — work without Love.