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Where Has the Love Gone in Cleveland?

Under normal circumstances, teams that are toiling away with the worst record in their conference avoid national media scrutiny. Teams with records like Cleveland’s 13-39 mark normally aren’t discussed until the draft order is drawn in May. A series of on-court demonstrations by star power forward Kevin Love attracted the vultures, and a series of, shall we say, unique comments by first year head coach John Beilein have kept them circling. 

Before breaking down the drama taking place in The Land, it is important to understand that the Cavaliers were expected to be terrible this year. Sports Illustrated pegged them as the 29th ranked team in preseason power rankings, while ESPN had them slotted in the number 27th spot. In the previous year’s offseason, LeBron James departed for Laker land, leaving the Cleveland roster in full on rebuild status after a period of sustained success that included four finals appearances and the 2016 championship.

The roster was an odd mix of players central to the rebuild, such as Cedi Osman, Collin Sexton, and Larry Nance Jr., and older veterans from their championship contending days, such as Love, Tristan Thompson, George Hill, and Kyle Korver. Everybody expected last year’s  previous season to be a challenging one for the Cavs – except Tristan Thompson who claimed that, “the East still ran through Cleveland.” Sorry Tristan, that’s a failed test. The team finished an abysmal 19-63 with the lone bright spot probably being Collin Sexton, who joined Stephen Curry and Larry Bird as the only rookies in NBA history to average 16.7 points on 40% shooting from three and 83% from the free throw line.

The roster rightly moved into full-fledged rebuild mode halfway through last season with multiple veterans, such as Korver and Hill, being traded. In the most recent draft, the Cavaliers used the 5th pick in the draft to select guard Darius Garland out of Vanderbilt University. When picking a player that high in the lottery teams traditionally select the best player available, but Garland is projecting as a player who has a very similar game to Sexton.

As soon as the selection was made analysts observed the similarities and began suggesting that Cleveland may need to choose between the two. Neither of the two players are elite playmakers; both need the ball in their hands to be successful and both will struggle defending an opposing teams’ larger guards or wings. 

So why has there been so many negative headlines coming out of Cleveland in the past two months? It all started on a December 8th game between the Cavaliers and 76ers. With 2:11 left in the second quarter, Kevin Love entered the key and raised his hand for the ball. At the 2:05 mark, the referee called a three second violation on Love after he had been in the key for a full six seconds. He instantly raised his hand to acknowledge that what he had done was intentional. Body language can often be difficult to read but let me try my best: “I’m the best player on this team pass me the f****** ball.”

Then on a January 4th game against the Thunder, Love made another on court demonstration of his frustration. As the first half was winding down, coach Beilein called a play, and Love threw his hands up in the air and trudged up to get the ball from Sexton. He then threw an absolute bullet pass to Cedi Osman. I’ll translate this one as well: “what the f*** are we doing here?” After the game, it came to light that Love had delivered team General Manager Koby Altman an expletive laden tirade essentially questioning the direction of the team and telling Altman to trade him. This one I probably don’t need to translate.

Personally, much of the time I side with management over players when situations like this arise. Players are being paid millions of dollars to perform a job on the court, and too many players throw their toys out of the cot when things don’t go their way. Look at the Andre Iguodala situation in Memphis. He was being paid $17 million by Memphis and never suited up once because he didn’t find the situation amenable.

In my opinion, Memphis should have been able to sue Iguodala or at least not have to pay a man that simply chooses not to work. What would happen if I worked at McDonalds and chose not to show up to work because it wasn’t the best situation for me? Not only would I not get paid, I would be fired; it’s as simple as that. Iguodala’s behavior was just reinforced as acceptable because he got the trade he desired to a contender and signed a two-year extension worth a reported $30 million. What an absurd world we live in at times.

This is not to say that I am against this era of player empowerment. The “more than an athlete” sentiment that runs through the NBA is fantastic. I love that this ideological shift in player mindset has led to countless community projects that better local communities and social groups. Also, Players deserve to maximize their income by leveraging their name recognition as basketball players. I am just not a fan of whining, bitching, and pouting at the first sign of things not going their way. There is a reason that we try and stamp out that behaviour from infants  as soon as possible.

Personally, I am a huge fan of Kevin Love. Not just as a basketball player, but also what he has done off the court in expressing his challenges with mental health. This likely resonated  more with me because challenges like those Love has faced have been relevant to my life as well. It pains me to a certain degree to be so critical of a player I admire in so many regards.

In fairness to Love, there are reasons for him to be frustrated. He spent the first six seasons of his career toiling away in Minnesota where he put up fantastic numbers but didn’t play a second of postseason basketball. After four highly successful years in Cleveland partnering with LeBron James, reverting back to playing for a team out of the postseason picture by November would undoubtedly be frustrating. 

As outlined earlier, Sexton and Garland are two players that don’t project as elite playmakers. Supporting that notion, in mid-December Garland was leading the team in assists per game at 2.8. Undoubtedly this was a low number, but to put in perspective how low it was , I had to scour the the depths of NBA history. In December, Garland had the lowest assist per game average for a team leader in the shot clock era. He has since upped his average to 3.8 assists per game, but this still ranks near the bottom on the all-time list.

Seemingly, Love has also been frustrated with first year head coach John Beilein as well. Before the season, Beilein discussed on Adrian Wojnarowksi’s podcast that he was working with players on footwork and pivoting correctly. Beilein was a fantastic and highly decorated collegiate coach, most notably at Michigan, but the NBA is a completely different beast. Twelve-year veterans like Kevin Love who have multiple all-star appearances, an NBA championship, and an Olympic gold medal don’t want a coach ranting at them about fundamental footwork.

There was also an episode where Beilein called his players “thugs,” per Adrian Wojnarowski. Obviously not the ideal choice of words to use in a predominantly African-American league. Beilein has since apologized for his choice of words, claiming he meant to say “slugs,” but as many of us would be able to attest words said in the heat of the moment can have far reaching consequences.

Where to from here for Kevin Love and the Cavaliers? The February 6th tradeline has now come and gone and Love remains a member of the team. Koby Altman and the front office made inquiries around the trade deadline about Love’s value and were reportedly willing to part ways with the disgruntled power forward for some combination of young players, 1st round draft picks and/or salary cap relief. Reports suggest that the conversations with opposition teams were short, as they were demanding that the Cavaliers attach pick(s) to Love due to his gargantuan contract; he is still owed more than $90 million over the next three years. 

The organization made somewhat of a splash at the deadline, adding two-time all-star Andre Drummond in a somewhat peculiar move. Considering the Cavaliers already have the incumbent Tristan Thompson occupying most of the minutes (and a hefty percentage of the team’s salary) at center, it raised eyebrows around the league. The Drummond move is unlikely to incentivize Love to re-engage with the team, as he doesn’t figure to move the needle very much in terms of the team’s upside. Because of the combined size of both Drummond and Thompson’s salary and their established careers in the league, they figure to log nearly all the minutes at the center position. This most likely means Love will be used even more on the perimeter rather than on the low block, due to the lack of perimeter game that those two possess.

One of Love’s great attributes is his ability to shoot the ball from the outside (career .371% from three) but he has always griped about playing on the perimeter rather than inside. The Drummond move figures to aggravate Love more than appease him in this regard. Kevin Love at times challenged his role during the Cavaliers contending years so it seems like it will be a difficult sell to convince him to sacrifice on behalf of Andre Drummond.

It seems that a split between the two parties is just a matter of time. How long before that split occurs is anyone’s guess; things in this league change as frequently as they do rapidly. Hopefully when the split occurs those in The Land remember the great times with Kevin Love more than the tumultuous final months/years. One thing is for certain though, the vultures will be circling. 

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