Teaching moments can happen when you least expect them. They can also happen out of necessity. In an adapt-or-be left behind situation, it’s a basic element of survival. Professional athletes live in their own ecosystem. And the same survival-of-the-fittest rules that exist in nature also apply to sports. While not quite on the same life-or-death scale, last season Kevin Love had a learning moment that helped him find not only his role on the Cleveland Cavaliers, but may have also preserved his spot on the team’s roster. And his place within the league’s hierarchy. A move meant to be insurance against Love’s production continuing to drop turned out to have a great positive impact. It was the move that made Kevin Love’s career. At least better at Love fitting in with the Cavaliers.
The Move that Made Kevin Love’s Career
This is Love’s third season in Cleveland. Which means his role has been subject to questions for most of those first two NBA seasons. Love was all but completely phased out of the game plan around the time of David Blatt’s firing last season. His statistics were at their lowest since he was a rookie. He wasn’t playing in crunch time was the assumed subject of cryptic messages from LeBron James and others. Love was seemingly playing out his last days as a Cavalier until they unloaded him while his trade value was at an all-time low.
Heading into last season’s trade deadline, the man who Cleveland traded two number one overall picks and other assets in order to meet the Minnesota Timberwolves ransom so as not to let the Golden St. Warriors net Love by caving on dealing Klay Thompson was now virtually untradeable. Nobody was willing to give up anything of consequence for a max-salary guy whose numbers were sinking.
To some, the Blatt firing was directly tied to Love taking the lion’s share of blame for Cleveland not assuming the role of juggernaut. It was Blatt who took the axe because he was an easier scapegoat – At least until a Love trade came along, that in the end never materialized.
A Cheaper Version of Himself
The trade that made Kevin Love better did not involve Love. It came in the form of the arrival of Channing Frye. It wasn’t an easy move for Cleveland to make, since it involved getting rid of Anderson Varejao (who had spent his entire career as a Cavalier) and Jared Cunningham (who had a small, but definable role on the team) and a couple draft picks.
Frye immediately found a role on the Cavaliers. He was (and is) not as good as Kevin Love. But he did all the things Cleveland expected Love to do (mainly rebound and provide outside shooting as a stretch big). Once Frye ate into Love’s minutes, his fit was much more natural than Love’s. And it was that way from the second Frye took the court.
The Learning Moment
While Kevin Love’s learning moment might exceed the limits of qualifying as a “moment,” it nonetheless had a lasting effect. For Love, a front row seat to watch Channing Frye do the on-court things meant for him had to be eye-opening. In an honest assessment, Channing Frye would have to admit he’s not the player Kevin Love is. Yet he was so much better for the Cavaliers in the Kevin Love role during the final stretch of the regular season and much of the playoffs.
Give Channing Frye Some Love
For the first time in his basketball life, Love faced the prospect that he was the disposable piece. In hindsight, we remember Love’s fantastic defense on Steph Curry as the clock wound down during Game 7 of last season’s NBA Finals. We forget Love missed Game 3 with an injury, and did not start Game 4. At the time, there was a near-unanimous consensus that benching Love was the right move. Many even advocated for the benching of Love altogether, or playing him strictly as a second-teamer.
Channing Frye challenging him for his place on the Cavaliers is just one piece of Kevin Love’s career puzzle. But it was a pretty important one. The shoulder injury that ended his 2014-15 Playoffs directly, and negatively influenced his 2015-16 performance. Tyronn Lue deserves credit for making Clevland’s offense better. But if Love’s role was a blank slate when he joined the Cavaliers, Frye provided the much-needed outline. Love then just had to color within the lines.
While his raw production will never be what it once was, his efficiency numbers are now on par or better than Kevin Love’s career bests. He’s finally became the player the Cavaliers want him to be. And he went from the NBA’s most awkward superstar fit to an invaluable piece on the reigning champions’ roster. Kevin Love went from on the verge of getting traded for a bag of balls to totally redeeming his superstar status. Thanks in part to a trade he was not a part of, Kevin Love’s career was saved.