Prior to the start of the NBA season and throughout its first two weeks, LeBron James has repeatedly used the phrase “focal point” to describe his hopes for Kevin Love’s role in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ offence.
“We’ll use Kevin however he wants to be used,” James told Cleveland.com after the Cavs’ first win of the year. “I told you Kevin is going to be our main focus. He’s going to have a hell of a season. He’s going to get back to that All-Star status. He’s the focal point of us offensively.”
A lot has been made of James’ curious phrase. For one thing, it’s quite unlike the 4-time MVP to publicly acknowledge another teammate, and not himself, as the focus of an offence. He didn’t once do this in Miami, and while James is undeniably entering a different phase of his career, his words are still surprising. If he were planning to sit out for stretches of the regular season in order to rest for the playoffs, the comments might make a little more sense, but James has also said he’s planning to play 82 games.
So why the comments?
The prevailing interpretation of James’ calculated phrasing is that it points to an improved relationship between James and Love. Last season, their first together in Cleveland, rumours swirled that the pair didn’t get along, and many wondered if Love would sign elsewhere in the off-season.
Throughout the season, James would often post photos of himself with teammates to Instagram — pictures in which Love was never present. Head coach David Blatt would frequently shoot down any suggestion of a fraught partnership, and he appeared annoyed by any suggestion otherwise.
One year later, more confirmation of James and Love’s testy relationship is starting to come to the surface. On Friday, Akron Beacon Journal sportswriter Jason Lloyd reports that James was instantly frustrated by Love because Love showed up to Cleveland out of shape.
Yet from almost the moment Love arrived, the relationship seemed to sour. James went to great lengths to get him here, and now team officials concede James didn’t treat him very well once he arrived.
In truth, James was frustrated in part because Love showed up out of shape. He didn’t work out much at all the summer he was traded here and he wasn’t the player James was expecting. His legs bothered him all season. His back was hurting. All of the parts were connected and none of them were firing properly.
Lloyd writes that their relationship never fully healed until after Love decided to stay in Cleveland. But before he did this, he visited James in Los Angeles in what’s become an iconic poolside photograph:
Love explained to Lloyd that when he and James met, he told James outright that he wanted to be more involved in the offence.
“More than anything I just wanted to see what he thought about where the team was going and what we wanted to accomplish,” Love said. “It was always ‘we’ or ‘us.’ It was never like, ‘You need to tell me this.’ Never.”
James agreed. Love spent the off-season in the high altitude of Park City, Utah, rehabbing his shoulder that was dislocated during the first round of the playoffs, and has looked sharper and more involved already this season than he did last year.
But this brings us back to James’ comments about Love as the focal point.
When asked why he’s continued to return to this phrase, James said simply, “I’m just smart.”
Cryptic as ever, James doesn’t leave much room for interpretation. But perhaps what we can take from all of this is that James has positioned himself well, regardless of whether Love shines or not. If James is true to his word and Love thrives, everyone benefits: James looks as though he’s taken the high road, patched up his relationship with Love while helping him get more involved, all while resting his legs and preparing for the playoffs.
This is the best case scenario, but the worst — which would feature Love struggling as the main focus — would still leave James looking validated. In this case, James would have tried to give Love what he wanted, but it didn’t work out well for the team, which is why he, King James, must remain the main focus of the team.
Of course, we’re still in the infant stages of the NBA season and we won’t know for certain what to make of the Cavs’ offence until Kyrie Irving returns from injury. But already Love and James are just as under the microscope as ever: on Wednesday during a game against the Knicks, Love took a hard fall and James almost literally stepped right over him without helping him up.
And despite James’ insistence that Love is the focal point, stats show that James is still the alpha dog. James boasts a 31.9 usage rate (a measure of how involved a player is in the offence), compared to Love’s 24.2 (though as Lloyd notes, Love’s rate is up from 21.6 last season).
Right now the Cavs are 4-1. Regardless of where they finish at the end of the regular season, or which player is the team’s offensive focal point, James and the Cavs are yet again the favourites to win the East.
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