INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Back in 2016, about three months prior to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ improbable championship comeback, head coach Tyronn Lue challenged Kevin Love, telling the All-Star to be more aggressive and demand the ball from his teammates — specifically LeBron James.
Lue, as he’s been known to do, attached a few expletives to his message.
That’s one of Lue’s coaching strengths. He’s been around the game’s top minds, played alongside countless Hall-of-Famers and knows how to get through to players. The message — and word choice — varies based on the intended target. But it never comes from a disrespectful place.
Love, the third wheel at the time, needed that push. What followed was arguably his best stretch of hoops in Cleveland and something that has stuck with Love since.
“He’s like, ‘You always play better when you are an A-hole,'” Love told cleveland.com. “You know how he talks. He just said that and has a funny way of bringing people in and making them more comfortable.”
Love’s days of deferring to teammates are up. So, too, is allowing others to be the primary voices. Love’s responsibilities changed when James left for Los Angeles this summer and Love signed a massive contract extension keeping him in Cleveland for what he hopes is the bulk of his remaining career.
So as the Cavaliers head into the regular season opener, knowing they need that assertive version of Love to survive in the post-LeBron era, Lue has again unearthed that message.
“When he plays mad and plays like he’s the best player on the floor, sometimes you do have to piss him off a little bit to get under his skin,” Lue said. “Then he will do some great things, he will look at the bench and cuss you out and talk stuff back. That’s Kevin at his best. We will see if we can get that early this year.”
That’s not always easy for Love, who likes to have fun and joke around with teammates. It’s the same guy who laughed off constant criticism the last four years and formed a hilarious trio called “The Triangle” with Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson. Love is the guy who put on a hard hat and announced his new contract alongside construction workers. He’s the approachable guy off the floor that many gravitate to because of his laid-back, not-take-myself-too-seriously personality.
These are all the same reasons, beyond his obvious basketball talent, that the Cavaliers wanted to commit to him long term, making him the face of the new era.
Some have urged Love to go back to his Minnesota days when he averaged at least 20 points three times in a four-season stretch.
Only he doesn’t want to regress.
He’s 30 years old now. He’s at peace on and off the court. This is the first time since joining the Cavaliers that Love doesn’t have to field a plethora of questions about his role, future and fit. His summer contract extension has allowed the constant trade chatter to vanish. Well, at least until January when he can legally be dealt.
In his younger days, Love might not have been ready for this specific role — even if his game certainly was.
There’s more that comes with being a No. 1 option than just putting up gaudy stats. It’s about making teammates better, shouldering both the praise and the blame, setting the right example every day, being accountable, assuming an alpha role and contributing to winning basketball at a high level.
After championship wars and four years of hands-on training in how to deal with adversity, Love is better equipped than ever. He’s not only a better player, with a few more post moves and other tricks at each end that he’s acquired over the years, but he’s also a better version of himself.
“I had some bad habits coming from (Minnesota) only because we had such a revolving door, there wasn’t much continuity in what we were doing,” Love said. “Only the last year, year and a half we were really building something out. We were unlucky, had a few injuries, then I was traded here, where we were expected to win a championship every year.
“I had learned a lot from a number of guys on and off the floor. In my 11th year I feel like I’ve seen a lot, I’ve done a lot and I’ve been prepared for this moment. Hopefully I can step up in that role, not just on the floor, but off the floor being a leader.”
Forget Minnesota Kevin. Perhaps a slightly-adjusted version of Cleveland Kevin will suffice.
“It also relies on me taking my ego out of it and knowing that everybody wants to see the Minnesota Kevin Love,” he said. “But listen, I’m going to have to do really what’s best for the team. I mentioned having bad habits. Not in a lot of cases, but in some cases just looking back and admitting who I was and who I am now, just having some bad habits that were selfish.
“I had selfish tendencies, some were to help the team, some were to try to reach certain new heights that maybe didn’t help the team. In this year moving forward, I’m really looking to help other guys.”
For Love, that starts with demanding the ball and forcing defenses to double, creating better opportunities for his teammates. It means hunting great shots instead of settling for decent ones. It means playing through injury, even on nights he thinks it would be better to sit and watch. That’s why he worked so hard this summer and focused even more attention than usual on taking care of his body, using biomechanics and movement-based exercises to free up his hips and back to handle an increased role and new, fast-paced offense.
It means communicating on defense and giving the kind of effort — even if the results aren’t perfect — that teammates can emulate. It means not being afraid to challenge his teammates the way Lue has challenged him.
Most importantly, it means setting the standard for what it means to be a Cavalier.
“I’m excited to see how far that this team can go,” Love said. “I’ve been the number one guy previously for four-to-six years you could say, or in my time in Minnesota. I’ve been a guy that’s sacrificed a lot, learned a lot in every year, so I’m excited to put that all together.
“I’m looking forward to, even if it’s not on the floor too, as we talked about, putting my arm around the young guys, keeping that culture going with our entire team and organization and just try to keep building this team up.”
Apparently that means dropping the nice-guy approach and playing angry.