Kevin Love: The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Chemist

He’s more than just LeBron’s deputy.

Just 16 games into the Cavaliers season and the NBA universe had damn near combusted over the disappointing 9-7 start by LeBron James and Co. The accumulation of James, point guard Kyrie Irving and newly-acquired power forward Kevin Love by Cleveland’s formerly erstwhile management triggered offseason speculation that “The Mistake on the Lake” would be flawless on offense. The discussion has change: Analysts have begun to wonder aloud whether the trio has the chemistry and defensive ability to even make things interesting in the Eastern Conference.

“Right now it’s a small sample size,” Kevin Love says. “So we’re going to continue to learn how to play together, and learn to play the right way to where we can all be most effective to help this team win.”

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Playing second fiddle for the first time in his career, Love is learning on the job as much as any player on the Cavs. But perhaps we should have more faith in him. He’s engaged with the team and – only months after relocating from Minnesota – with the community as well. Fresh off launching DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation #HolidayHoops campaign, during which the company will donate 100 baskets, at Scranton Elementary School in Cleveland, Love talked to Maxim about the major theme of his seven years in the league: change. After spending college becoming a West Coast institution, he’s made a career trying to revitalize flagging franchises in the Midwest. It’s probably not what he expected (he’s the nephew of a damn Beach Boy, but he’s adjusted, transforming himself from a husky recruit to a lean NBA forward.

Now all he has to do is figure out LeBron’s passes, decipher Kyrie’s shooting needs, and manage Dion Waiters’, well, everything. Sounds easy enough.

Was there an adjustment going from being a West Coast guy to playing for Midwest NBA teams?

I don’t think there was any way you could prepare or get adjusted to the cold weather climate that was Minneapolis, Minnesota. I mean, even when I moved here to Cleveland, it’s still hard to adjust to the cold. You know, I’d probably say that was the biggest thing. For me – living in the off-season in Los Angeles, but still going back to the cold every new season that comes around – I guess kind of a cornball thing that people say is that there’s two seasons out there: there’s winter and there’s construction. There’s not all four seasons out there. 

Is it possible that your cold because there’s less of you? You’ve gone through a tremendous physical transformation. How did you lose so much mass? Was it all diet?

I just don’t think I was mindful of my eating, you know? In high school, you have mom’s cooking, which is very good for the soul, very good for the heart, but not necessarily great for the body. So then I went into college, and we had our training table at UCLA, where it’s kind of a la carte. You could put as much food as you wanted onto the plate, portion sizes and whatnot. And then as I got into the NBA, I was already a little bit doughy, and, you know, weighed probably about 15 to 20 pounds more than I wanted to.

The greatest thing about basketball is that you can always get better. And that’s not always going out there and shooting a basketball; it’s you working on different parts of your game. For me, I do yoga to kind of a left-field approach, something that can give me a little bit of an edge. And then, on top of that, you know, your diet is a huge part of that. And I’ve had to figure that out over my first, you know, six seasons, this being my seventh. So I think it’s just figuring out what to eat and what works for my body throughout an 82-game season.

Has it affected your love life in any way? 

[Laughs] Definitely not negatively. I think it’s all helped in a very positive way. I look back, you know, six, seven years ago, and think, “Okay, that wasn’t really me.” I feel like this is more me, now. So I think it’s just affected me in a very positive way – and, plus, it’s probably given me longevity in my sport and in my life overall. So I feel like it’s helped in a lot of ways. 

You’re a guy that sweats a lot.

Yes – that’s not a positive for my love life. 

Well, it means you’re working your ass off. 

Nice segue there, yeah. [Laughs] 

One of the thing that sets you apart is your ability to make extraordinarily long, extraordinarily accurate outlet passes. How did you develop that ability or did you just always have it? 

I always wanted to play football, first and foremost, and wanted to play a quarterback. But my dad would kind of take me into the painted area out there on the floor and say, “Okay, this is going to be a football.” I was named after Wes Unseld, and my dad used to show me videos of him and also tell stories of playing on the Baltimore Bullets with him, and how he’d throw these overhead and chest passes all the way the length of the floor to lead their teammates.

He really focused on hand strength and wrist strength and arm strength, and since then I’ve always been able to make the pass. I don’t know if it was something that was in my blood. It’s something that just kind of came natural to me, always, being able to hit a guy on the dime. And, you know, for a streaking layup or whether it’s a three-on-two, two-on-one situation, it just kind of always happened for me, always worked. 

You’re the number-two guy for the first time in your career. How have you had to adjust your game so far to fit with the Cavaliers roster? 

Between LeBron, Kyrie and myself, I haven’t had to – besides shots – sacrifice all too much. Those guys obviously dominate the ball because of their positions, but at the same time, what I’m getting at is they play different positions. So, for me, I just have to continue to be myself and find different spots on the floor where I can be effective.

We’re going to continue to learn how to play together, and learn to play the right way to where we can all be most effective to help this team win. So, for me, I think it’s picking spots, breaking down film, running the floor, trying to get easy buckets and easy opportunities to get myself going and get to the free throw line. It’s a whole slew of things that I can do in order to be better. 

Before playing with Lebron, maybe you only knew his game at a distance. And now you’ve gotten to see him every day and work with him. Is there an example of a way he has unexpectedly changed the way you play?

He’s doing so many things out there on the floor that sometimes you’ve gotta just shake your head. Naturally, playing with him is better than playing against arguably the best player in the world. So I think, you know, whether it’s being in the pick-and-roll or being in a pick-and-pop situation, spreading the floor, he’s a distributor by nature, and he’s the guy that’s going to find you, that you always have to be ready for that pass coming.

So I mentioned picking my spots out there on the floor: He’s so good at finding you, whether he’s looking at you or not. He knows where everybody is out there on the floor. He knows each and every team’s play, even before it’s happening. He’s a very intuitive and cerebral human being by nature and that translates onto the floor in a very big way. I think that’s what stuck out to me, and separates Lebron from some of the best. 

Do you have an example of him being a step ahead? A play you can recall? 

There’s a lot of times, I mean, throughout the game…. He just has that innate ability to see things before the happen, you know? And from a passing perspective, on the offensive end, it just seems like he has eyes in the back of his head. He’s able to find so many people and create so much attention on himself that he’s able to find different players out there and distribute to the group for a 15-footer and take it out to a long-range three. 

A lot of people ask about LeBron and Kyrie. Not enough people know what a character Dion Waiters is. He can be challenging to play with. What has it been like playing with Dion Waiters

Dion, he’s extremely talented on the offensive end. I think, like everybody on the team, we have to sacrifice for the good of the team. I know that I’ve had to do it. I know that Kyrie has had to do it, and a lot of different players throughout the team.

So, you know, we’re trying to get a lot of offensive firepower in this second unit, so in order to have that, we need Dion in the second unit. So it’s definitely swallowing a little bit of pride, but nothing he can’t handle. It’s just going to be a part of growing into that role, and hopefully he’ll be able to help us. 

Sounds like you like the guy.

I mean, I sit next to him on the plane …. Dion, he’d surprise you.

Photos by David Liam Kyle / Getty Images