As little leaguers, Klay Thompson and Kevin Love were teammates; now, they duel as opponents who took different paths to Finals
POSTED: Jun 1, 2016 10:28 PM ET
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OAKLAND — One was the nephew of a Beach Boy, and the other was the son of a Laker, and they found themselves on a baseball field in suburban Portland a dozen years ago. This is the unlikely place where the seeds of the 2016 NBA Finals were spread.
What a weird, twisted journey this has taken. Kevin Love and Klay Thompson were almost traded for each other two summers ago, and starting Thursday they'll try to deny each other a championship, but back then they were Little League teammates. And for pre-teenagers, the stakes were steep.
A group of sports parents in Lake Oswego wanted to pool together the best players from in and around town and form an All-Star team with the goal of reaching the Little League World Series. The selection process centered on two families in particular. Love was husky for his age, a hard throwing righty with major league dreams. He was in. And the Thompson family offered Mychel and especially Trayce, both solid hitters. Their father, Mychal, fresh off a respectable NBA career that earned him a ring with the Lakers, also insisted they add Klay, who was very promising. Done.
"All three of those brothers were different in terms of their personalities," remembers Love. "Klay was always very soft spoken, very stoic. But he knew he belonged. He had a quiet confidence about him."
Klay was always very soft spoken, very stoic. But he knew he belonged. He had a quiet confidence about him.
– Kevin Love, remembering Little League days
Thompson took one look at Love and was instantly awed, not only by his size -- Love was already pushing six feet at the time -- but talent.
"Kevin was a better player than me, and maybe the best on the team," said Thompson, who then laughed and added: "But he was also older. So he had an edge."
The team came a few games shy of the promised land, and the fallout was drastic. Love tossed aside his cleats for Jordans. Same for Klay, leaving baseball to his brothers; Trayce is now with the Dodgers. And there is the very real chance that neither the Cavaliers or Warriors would stand a chance of winning this NBA title without them.
That was a factual observation a year ago when Love missed the Finals with a separated shoulder and, coupled with the kneecap injury suffered by Kyrie Irving, the Cavs came up two All-Stars and two games short against these same Warriors. It was a double-painful time for Love, then. He'd already endured a rocky first season in Cleveland, and just when it seemed to take a turn for the better, Love was caught on the wrong end of a Kelly Olynyk wrestling move against Boston in the first round.
"I couldn't even watch the playoffs from that point on," he said. "It was just very tough to deal with."
How do we measure Love's contributions and importance to the Cavs since then? Maybe the best way is by counting the number of cryptic tweets from LeBron, who took to social media to send subliminal messages a year ago to send wake-up calls to Love, but has dished mostly praise since.
He's playing the best basketball since he's been here, and that helps us as a team. Makes it easier and better for everyone.
– LeBron James, on Kevin Love
"He's playing the best basketball since he's been here, and that helps us as a team," LeBron said. "Makes it easier and better for everyone."
This season Love is happier, refreshed, refocused, a transformation that began not long after Tyronn Lue assumed the coaching position. He appears to be at peace, finally knowing the demands in Cleveland are different than in Minnesota, finally figuring how to "fit in," to paraphrase an old LeBron tweet. Love is picking his spots: When to shoot 3s, help on the glass and play off the skills of Irving and LeBron.
"There's a trust level," he said, "that has generated a lot of great moments for us."
It hasn't been completely free of potholes; Love often finds himself the odd man out if the matchups don't favor the Cavs. And you wonder if the Warriors and Draymond Green will exploit his flaws enough to send him to the bench, especially in the fourth quarter.
Here's Lue on that possibility: "I'm expecting Kevin to play well, like he's been doing all postseason. Draymond is a great defender. Kevin is one of the top 10 players in this league. He's scored on a lot of different people before. We want Kevin to be aggressive, looking to attack, looking to score. Our game plan doesn't change."
Initially, Cleveland was uncomfortable at times for Love. He appeared to be confused about his role and how to fit snug among LeBron and Irving. That was understandable for someone who was a singular star for six seasons in the basketball wasteland of Minnesota, where the Timberwolves never made the playoffs. With the Wolves, Love had the ball and the green light, freedoms that allowed him to stockpile points (both inside and from deep), rebounds and pity. He developed habits that were hard to shed.
His distaste for losing ran second to his distrust of Timberwolves management at the time, and a shaky relationship worsened when Love wasn't offered a max contract. It was a toxic mix all around. When it was apparent the relationship had to end for the better of everyone, the Wolves sent him to Cleveland for a package that included No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, which was done once LeBron signed and put Cleveland in win-now mode. But the Wolves' first call was placed to Golden State. Love wanted badly to return to the West Coast. The Warriors were receptive to a deal. Then they weren't.
Wolves GM Flip Saunders wanted Thompson, and why wouldn't he? Already, Thompson had emerged as one of the great young shooters in basketball. His form -- always on balance and squared toward the rim -- was pure and near perfection. His range was undeniable, and he could attack the rim, and he played very respectable defense. And so, the Little League teammates would be swapped, or so the Wolves hoped. Thompson and David Lee for Love, with the Wolves insisting the Warriors also take Kevin Martin, an aging shooter with a hazardous contract.
"There was never going to be a deal," said Warriors GM Bob Myers, "because we wouldn't trade Klay."
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No, they didn't. And it was undoubtedly the smartest non-move in recent NBA history. True, there's no telling how Love would've done in Golden State. But we have concrete evidence how the Warriors have done without him. Green, a rookie second rounder at the time, was elevated above Lee that season and his development into an All-Star has negated any need for what Love would've offered. And then there's the rise of Thompson, who not only has evolved as a star averaging 26 points on 45-percent from deep in the playoffs, but how his game and personality has proven to be the ideal complement to Curry. Their pairing is headed in a historic direction, "two of the greatest shooters ever" according to LeBron, both building a case for the Hall of Fame even before they've reached 30.
"We continue to grow every year," Thompson said. "I learn from him, he learns from me. We play to each other's strengths. He knows where I like the ball, when I'm coming off a screen, all the timing and everything. I think we still have room to grow, believe it or not."
The decision to keep Thompson instead of trading him to Minnesota was actually the second biggest moment of his career. The first happened because of a trade: Golden State swapping Monta Ellis in 2012 for Andrew Bogut. Dumping Ellis, a fan favorite in Oakland, wasn't popular at the time, but it gave Thompson, only a rookie then, room to grow and bond with Curry. The rest is history.
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Thompson's range and confidence and willingness to take big shots are nothing new, but all three placed him on another level when he dropped 41 points on the Thunder in that epic Game 6 of the West finals. And throughout the playoffs, Thompson has, at the very least, been on par with his two-time MVP-winning backcourt mate, especially when you factor his defense.
"He's a better player than he was last year," said Curry. "He's done this the entire season and throughout the playoffs up to this point. And he's going to get even better."
When Love was in a proposed swap for Thompson two summers ago, it came at a crossroads for both players. Love was already a star, but was in search of team. Thompson was part of a team yet not quite a star. And so, we have this, an NBA Finals that will bring ratings and moments and two players in particular who are seeing their values soar into June. It's fitting that these Little League teammates are now in position to win a championship for their respective teams, in their own way, against each other.
"I'd say that 'deal' worked out for everyone involved," said Myers.
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