LOS ANGELES — Kevin Love was still relatively new to the Cleveland Cavaliers in February 2015, and still struggling to find his niche within the team’s offense, when LeBron James, his most high-profile teammate, logged on to Twitter to deliver a message.
“Stop trying to find a way to FIT-OUT,” James wrote, “and just FIT-IN.”
At the time, James told reporters that he was not directing the message toward anyone in particular. But he seemed to be targeting Love, who had expressed frustration with his limited role after spending several seasons as the unquestioned alpha with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Cavaliers, of course, eventually got their act together and won their first N.B.A. championship in 2016. By then, Love had grown accustomed to operating in James’s mammoth shadow.
Now in his sixth season with the Cavaliers, Love is again struggling with fit — but for different reasons. As a 31-year-old veteran on a LeBron-free team brimming with youth, he knows that his presence does not make much sense. He wants to win, but the Cavaliers are embarking on a long-term rebuild.
Whether the team can find a new employer for Love is one of the more intriguing questions ahead of the league’s Feb. 6 trade deadline. Complicating matters: He is in the first year of a four-year, $120 million contract extension that he signed before the start of last season, back when it seemed more plausible that the Cavaliers could build around him.
Those days, though, are long gone. Love missed most of last season with injuries, and the Cavaliers are 12-29 after losing back-to-back games against the Lakers and the Clippers this week. Cleveland’s future is tied to the development of first- and second-year players like Darius Garland and Collin Sexton. As it should be.
“I don’t know what the next few weeks are going to hold,” Love told reporters earlier this month, referring to the trade deadline, “and this has been a frustrating situation, and I know that this is a team that’s rebuilding and wants to go young. I’ve accepted that.”
The problem is that Love’s contract will be difficult, if not impossible, for the Cavaliers to move. It is guaranteed through the 2022-23 season, when he is due to earn $29 million at age 34. Few teams have the financial flexibility to absorb that type of contract in the first place, and in addition they would need to be a willing to commit to an aging player with an injury history. No one can blame Love for taking the Cavaliers’ millions when they offered him the extension, but now they are stuck with each other — for now, if not forever.
“Over all, he’s been tremendous,” said John Beilein, the Cavaliers’ first-year coach. “Obviously, there’s been some times when he’s had a tough day or two.”
Love’s frustration has occasionally surfaced in the public eye. There was his blowup on the bench during a loss to the Toronto Raptors on Dec. 31. (He hit a folding chair.) And there was his blowup on the court during a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Jan. 4. (At one point, he fired a pass at a teammate.)
A few days later, Love expressed remorse to reporters in Cleveland, saying he had behaved like a “13-year-old.” Love, who has become an advocate for mental health after revealing his struggles with anxiety, pledged to be a better leader and to try to keep his emotions in check.
“I don’t care if I’m here for five more months or five more weeks,” Love said, “I’m going to try to do my best by these guys and by the coaching staff.”
At the same time, the Cavaliers have shown signs of improvement, however incremental. They beat the Pistons and the Nuggets on the road last week. On Monday, they led the Lakers by as many as 14 points before succumbing to James’s usual brilliance in a 128-99 loss.
Love, whose relationship with James has evolved and matured over the years, went so far as to describe him as his “brother for life.” Love also said there were moments during Monday’s game when he could hear James calling out the Cavaliers’ offensive sets.
“Just a cerebral guy,” Love said. “I think that allows him to grow every single year, even if he’s a quarter-step slower or whatever you want to say. He just keeps getting better.”
As for his own situation, Love said he was encouraged by his team’s recent play. Their next game is on Friday in Memphis against the 19-22 Grizzlies.
“I feel pretty good with where we’re at,” he said. “Sometimes it just takes guys being out there, getting healthy, playing together and know what we want from everybody — having defined roles and building from there.”