In 2008, the first time I heard the name “Kevin Love” was on the eve of the Final Four. I remember watching a public interest story on Love and being mesmerized as he sunk full court shot after shot while being interviewed. The next day, I remember cheering for Love and his Bruins to take down Derrick Rose and the Memphis Tigers. I remember wanting to see Tyler Hansbrough and Kevin Love fight it out in the low post on the biggest stage in college hoops. To my dismay, Kansas stomped all over North Carolina on their march to the championship, and Memphis, who later had their wins vacated on account of recruiting violations beat Love and his Bruins en route to a second place tournament finish. I never got to see the Love vs. Hansbrough title bout, but what I did see in that tournament was the emergence of a star.
The next I heard of Kevin Love was in the early years of his stint with the Timberwolves. ESPN was once again profiling him, but this time it was about staying in shape, his personal chef who makes him protein rich and healthy meals, and his relentless work ethic. Today, the name Kevin Love is everywhere you look, and if you live in Cleveland right now, you Love Love. You love his work ethic, you love his ability to stretch the floor, you love that he’s good for a double-double every time he steps on the floor, but most of all, you love that the wounds of LeBron’s initial departure have been stitched up by the superior big three: the one currently in Cleveland. Although LeBron, Wade, and Bosh, had an incredible run together, the true colors of all three players bled through. Those true colors may have resulted in four trips to the finals, but out of those four trips, they only left victorious twice. In Miami, Bosh was forced to play out of position, and his numbers in Toronto proved inflated by showing how underwhelming he can be when he’s not the only star. Wade was limited by injuries and age. Finally, as in Cleveland, LeBron had to shoulder the load. In Cleveland, LeBron will finally have an all-star point guard by his side in Kyrie Irving, and a true stretch four in Love as opposed to a forced stretch in Bosh. With this trade having gone through, I believe that Cleveland today has not only broken into being one of the top five “big-three’s,” but ranks amongst the top three. This alignment of star power has the potential to be spoken of in the same air as the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman and Kareem-Magic-Worthy trifectas.
This move clearly has cataclysmic implications for other teams in the east, but it also adds narrative in two ways. First, the Cavs sent a handful of potential over to the west coast, and put themselves, and another small market team, the Timberwolves, on the path to success. But they didn’t just propel themselves to greatness. The second and biggest implication of this move is that small market teams will now be taken seriously as suitors for superstars.
For so long, the narrative went that the only way to win was to play in a big market. This is no longer true. As seen before Indiana crashed and burned last season, before Lance Stephenson left, and before Paul George broke is leg, teams can thrive in a small market. The Minnesota Timberwolves were not a project Kevin Love could complete by himself, but with a new young core of Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, (who can still develop) Ricky Rubio, and a future additional first round pick, the Timberwolves could be this year’s sleeper team in the west. Getting rid of Love also frees cap space, which puts the Timberwolves in a better situation for surrounding Wiggins with talent. Another small market team on the rise resides in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Hornets, who rarely have been able to make successful off-season signings in the past signed Lance Stephenson, one of the shiniest prizes of free agency this summer. Why you may ask would a player with a ceiling as high as Lance pick Charlotte over a big market? Because Charlotte, led by Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson, finally showed what they were capable of. Like the Hornets were this offseason, The Timberwolves are one flash of potential away from signing a big free agent with their additional cap space and further stomping on the old order of big market teams being untouchable at the top.
This season, the teams in the west ranked sixth through ninth were separated by ten games. The ninth team was the Minnesota Timberwolves. Once again, The Mavericks, Suns, Grizzlies, and Timberwolves could all be jockeying for the bottom two seeds in the west. Next year though, it won’t be a hypothetical, they will all be fighting for those two spots. Losing a star player is never easy, especially for a small market team, but the long-term investment on Minnesota’s short-term loss looks sure to pay off in the future and shake up the west.
The East this offseason has been shook to its core with free agent moves, strong draft picks, and injuries. Some of these changes include Paul Peirce heading to Washington, Paul George breaking his leg, Lance Stephenson coming to Charlotte, Pau Gasol signing with the Bulls, Derrick Rose showing signs of life, LeBron jumping ship and heading back to Cleveland, and most recently, Kevin Love signing with the Cavs.
Before the Love signing, Chicago was predicted to reclaim their perch atop the East even though Cleveland acquired the best active basketball player: LeBron James. The signing of Kevin Love though, has most people flipping Cleveland to the top, and handing the silver to the Bulls. As a small market fan and advocate, LeBron James signing with Cleveland was exciting but predictable. A second star, Kevin Love, signing with the same small market team truly puts a smile on my face. Love could’ve gone to Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and truly anywhere else he was interested. Love solidified Cleveland as powerhouse team in the east, but in conjunction with LeBron, Love set a precedent for future free agents. Love and LeBron showed that it’s okay to play in a smaller market. Love and Lebron set a precedent that will have a greater impact on the future of the league by picking a small market, than the history of their win-loss totals will.
Kevin Durant, who has played his entire career thus far in small markets, will become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2016. I hope that when Durant is faced with his decision, he doesn’t just pick a team because of it’s flashy home or extravagant promises as LeBron did when picking Miami. I hope that Durant follows the precedent of fellow superstars that have departed their homes this offseason and stays in a small market.
Kevin Love and LeBron James will both leave legacies when they someday walk off the court for the last time. But Love signing with the Cavs with the long-term endorsement from LeBron James leaves a legacy and impact that will be felt until the end of time.
Written by Jacob Levinson, George Washington University