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Cavs hoping Love can thrive as key cog in team's engine

Given the high mileage on LeBron James, Cleveland is finding ways to have Kevin Love shoulder more of the burden

POSTED: Oct 30, 2015 12:40 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


LeBron James expects Kevin Love to step to the forefront more on offense for the Cavs this season.

LeBron James is that sports luxury car deeper into its lease than you'd necessarily realize. Faster and more powerful than anything else on the road, 12 cylinders that clock 4.0 in the 0-to-60, it's been so much fun to drive that -- oops! -- the mileage has snuck up on the Cleveland Cavaliers.

They want to keep driving him, but the cost of mileage overcharges and unscheduled maintenance visits could crash the family budget. They already have one dynamite ride (Kyrie Irving) that might as well be an Italian make, for all the hours it spends in the shop.

So it's time as Cleveland opens its home schedule against James' former mates from Miami (7 p.m. ET, ESPN), to save the "exoticar" for those special spring getaways. The Cavaliers can haul out their SUV for the daily commute, aka Kevin Love.

At least that's how the Cavs hope to roll this season, if James' comments Wednesday night get enough traction in the film room and at practice.

After Cleveland's victory at Memphis, James talked up Love and the beefier usage he has in mind for the power forward, a topic he already had raised in training camp. "I told you Kevin is going to be our main focus," James said after Love's 17-point, 13-rebounds performance in blowing out the Grizzlies. "He's going to have a hell of a season. He's going to get back to that All-Star status."

Cavaliers vs. Grizzlies

Kevin Love scores 17 points with 13 rebounds and LeBron James adds 12 points with seven boards as Cleveland wins it 106-76.

James went so far as to call him "the focal point of us offensively," an honor/slash responsibility never before bestowed on one of James' teammates. It would have sounded silly at any previous point, compared to curious now, given James' prowess at all things basketball (including scoring) throughout his NBA career.

But nearly 1,100 regular-season and postseason games have taken a toll. The 43,497 minutes James has logged -- remember, his in-service date came way back on Oct. 29, 2003 at age 19 -- are more than Jerry West (42,892) played in his entire Hall of Fame career and he's creeping up on Charles Barkley (44,179). Already, the Cleveland star ranks seventh in all-time playoff minutes, his 7,561 surpassing Magic Johnson (7,538), Bill Russell (7,497) and Michael Jordan (7,474).

Those guys were done, while James still is stalking the Cavaliers' first championship.

No wonder he might be a little worn out or broken down (as evidenced by the anti-inflammatory injection he had Oct. 13 to ease his back), given the limited preseason game- and practice-schedule he played and the time he spent during Cleveland's first two games lying on the sideline, stretching that back. On top of all the pre- and post-game treatment and the body maintenance he endured almost from sunup to sundown in the playoffs.

On the one hand, no NBA player in history has had more advanced technology and know-how of physical and mental preparation and recovery available to him than James. On the other, none ever has labored through it quite like James, all to serve those 2 1/2 hours times 100 or so games.

As for Love, well, Chris Bosh never warned him about this.

Bosh, Miami's power forward, talked last season about Love's challenging third-wheel role in fitting his game around James and Irving. It's what Bosh had to do when he, James and Dwyane Wade came together in South Florida in 2010. Sure, Bosh kept making All-Star teams, but his status and early stats compiled in Toronto took hits.

Bosh's scoring and rebounding averages, even on a 36-minute basis, dropped during their four years together. His 23.3 PER in the five seasons prior to 2010-11 dipped to 19.4 as No. 3 of Miami's Big Three. The most noticeable gain in Bosh's game came from outside. He went from taking 2.4 percent of his shots from 3-point range in their first year together to 22.9 percent in their last.

Love might find himself headed in the other direction. Last season, 41.2 percent of his shots came from the arc as he got used largely as a stretch-4. Compare that to his first six seasons, all in Minnesota, when 23.6 percent of his field-goal attempts were 3-pointers.

James, Love and coach David Blatt all have talked about using Love in more versatile ways, notably getting him into the paint the way he played with the Timberwolves. His career free-throw rate of .457 and rebound percentage of 20.9 dropped last season to .337 and 16.6 percent. Then there was Love's absence from the All-Star Game, a distinction he had earned and enjoyed three times with the Wolves.

"Last year, I wanted to go out there and do what was asked of me," Love said in late September. " But so many people focused on my numbers because that's what it was in Minneapolis, being the No. 1 guy and the focal point. Having so many touches and everything running through me. Here, it starts with the big guy and trickles down. We all play off of him."

I think familiarity is going to play a big part in this for everybody. Look at Andy Varejao, he's played how many years with LeBron. LeBron could close his eyes and just throw the ball, and know where Andy is out there on the floor.

– Cavaliers forward Kevin Love

Now, however, they're all playing a little more to conserve James. As Love scrapes off the rust of his six-month recovery from shoulder surgery, he can put to use everything he's gained from being with the Cavs for the past 15 months.

"Some things are cumulative," Love said. "Even when you factor in Mo Williams and RJ [Richard Jefferson], who has how many years in the league and has played in so many different systems now, you can roll the ball out there and those guys will fit into any system.

"I think familiarity is going to play a big part in this for everybody. Look at Andy Varejao, he's played how many years with LeBron. LeBron could close his eyes and just throw the ball, and know where Andy is out there on the floor."

That's what Love hopes to establish, going from third wheel to daily drive for the Cavaliers.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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