Almost from the moment last month when LeBron James said in a Sports Illustrated essay that he was returning to Cleveland, the sports books in Las Vegas made the Cavaliers the favorites to win the 2015 NBA title.
With a roster then full of young, unproven talent in a city that took pride in being wanted again, that was largely about pure emotion.
Now it’s about (Kevin) Love.
With the official completion of the long-awaited deal that sent a package including No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins to the Timberwolves, the Cavaliers have vaulted to the top of the Eastern Conference, if not the entire league.
Oh, there will be plenty to be heard from out of Chicago, where former MVP Derrick Rose tries yet another comeback as he joins up with a formidable group of Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic.
But the simple truth is that arrival of Love to Cleveland gives the Cavs with James and Kyrie Irving the best young All-Star threesome in the NBA.
James himself had cautioned everyone not rush to judgment and expect too much too soon. He said it would be a long road for the Cavaliers to reach a champion’s level and that was speaking from the experience in Miami.
That was also speaking from as the lone playoff-tested veteran on a team where the rookie Wiggins would have had to learn about the league and about himself. But all of a sudden, James and the Cavs have a shortcut.
Love, 26 in a couple of weeks, is a completely different animal, a top 10 level talent, who can produce double-doubles every night and has 3-point shooting range. Love is someone who changed his body and has changed his game to become one of the most consistent number producers in the league, the kind of front-line anchor right now that the Cavs could only have hoped they’d get from last year’s No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett, who was included in the deal with Minnesota.
The critics will say that Love never got the Timberwolves to the playoffs in six seasons, point to a sometimes detached attitude and something less than a whole-hearted enthusiastic commitment to that franchise.
Yet the perpetual state of turmoil that has been a trademark of the Timberwolves certainly is responsible for much of that. He missed 64 games in the 2012-13 season due to a broken bone in his hand, but otherwise has been the guy who scored the ball and attacked the backboards equally with as much hunger as anyone in years. Love is the only player in the past 30 seasons to have a 30-point, 30-rebound game.
Maybe Love wasn’t a lead horse who could pull the weight of the entire wagon. Not everyone is. Now he doesn’t have to be.
There are sharp edges that will have to be honed in the playoffs, just as there are with the gifted and not-always-clued-in Irving. But those are edges for James to sharpen as he returns to his old neighborhood as the wise head who has been to the mountaintop and held the Larry O’Brien Trophy (twice).
Love had reached a crossroad in his career where he was simply going to pile up mountains of stats or make the transformation to being part of a contender’s foundation. It is no coincidence that in the weeks since the trade was agreed upon and had to wait for a 30-day embargo, the Cavs reeled in James Jones and Mike Miller from Miami, Shawn Marion from Dallas and could still add Ray Allen, if he chooses to play again next season. The role-playing veterans recognize the potency of the juiced up lineup and the immediate potential. With LeBron and his kiddie corps, the Cavs were still facing a long, hard slog to be able to truly compete with the Bulls in the East, not to mention the crop of contenders — Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies — in the A-list Western Conference.
The next task for Cleveland is to get Love to sign a contract extension that keeps him around past the end of the upcoming season. That shouldn’t be difficult. This is the situation he’s been searching for, the kind he’s needed, a place to learn and grow and win all at the same time.
When the oddsmakers tabbed the Cavs as the team to beat in the aftermath of James’ homecoming, that was as much about hope as anything. Now it’s about Love and reality.