The Comeback: Patience, hard work returned Kevin Love to top NBA form
Kevin Love saw Jonas Valanciunas out of the corner of his eye and braced for the impact. It was Oct. 18, six months after Love had undergone surgery to repair a dislocated left shoulder, and now Valanciunas, Toronto’s hulking, 7-foot, 255-pound center, was bearing down on him in pursuit of a rebound. Love extended his forearm, driving it into Valanciunas’s chest. Love’s shoulder muscles tensed. And then ... no pain. After the next whistle Love caught the eye of Alex Moore, Cleveland’s high-performance director.
“Feels fine,” Love said.
“O.K.,” Moore replied. “Then let’s go.”
It was a simple play, but so was the one that had resulted in the injury: Against Boston in Game 4 of the Cavs’ first-round playoff series last April, Love, chasing down a loose ball, became entangled with Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk. With Love holding inside position, Olynyk yanked Love’s left arm. His shoulder popped out, sending him racing back to the locker room in agony. The training staff attempted to push the shoulder back into the joint, but the first attempt failed. The second one too. Each try came with excruciating pain. The third one worked, the pain subsided, and Love immediately wondered, Is my season over? He texted his agent: Is there anything we can do? “You see guys in the playoffs playing with one arm or one hand or with a rolled ankle,” says Love. “I needed to know if there was anything that would get me back.”
There wasn’t. An MRI revealed a torn labrum, and Love underwent surgery a few days later. Cleveland would be without its starting power forward, and Love, in the first postseason of his career, watched the Cavs make it all the way to Game 6 of the Finals from the sideline. “It was hard, man,” says Love, “to see your team battling like they were and not be able to get out there. It’s not something I ever want to feel again.”
Park City, Utah, is 7,000 feet above sea level, an ideal altitude for athletes seeking an edge. It’s the home base of the U.S. ski team, Moore’s employer before he joined the Cavs in 2013. Love had taken a liking to Park City in recent years, spending birthdays and off-season weekends in the picturesque village. When Moore and Love talked about where to rehab in the off-season, Park City emerged as a natural choice. “It’s a ski town,” says Moore. “Nobody really knows or cares who he is.”
Keeping Love patient during rehab proved to be the biggest challenge. “It’s pretty tedious training,” says Moore. “Setting mini goals helped.”
When the two convened in July, Love was ready to get to work. Moore set mini goals. He divided Love’s rehab into two-week stretches and constructed a program aimed at building strength and power with exercises such as dumbbell floor presses. At first it was 20 reps of 20 pounds. Then 35 pounds. Eventually, Love got to 80. “We didn’t progress until we hit certain parameters,” says Moore. Sleep was closely tracked: Nine hours at night with a 90-minute nap during the day, measured by sleep monitors. Keeping Love patient proved to be the biggest challenge. “It’s pretty tedious training,” says Moore. “The roadblocks you hit are, This is boring; I want to do more. Setting those mini goals and being able to see the progression helped.”
The thin air offered an opportunity to improve Love’s conditioning. Hiking, bike rides and long walks on a treadmill were incorporated into his workouts. The result: Love dropped 15 pounds from where he was at the end of last season.
Shooting was the next hurdle. In August, Love flew to California, where he reunited with renowned trainer Rob McClanaghan. They started slowly, with form shooting. Then righthanded hook shots. “It took a while to feel like that glitch wasn’t there in my left arm,” says Love.
Every summer Love tries to add a new layer to his game. One year it was the three-point shot. Then low-post moves. During the summer of 2014, Love and McClanaghan zeroed in on Love’s midrange game, with an emphasis on the high post and step-back jumpers. “He was really locked in this summer,” says McClanaghan. “I was shocked at how in shape he was. I didn’t know what effect the rehab was going to have. But he showed up and it was the same old Kevin.”
When training camp opened, Love was ready. But the Cavs were cautious, limiting Love to individual drills and three-on-three situations early, sitting him out for the first five preseason games and playing him just 35 minutes split between the next two. With Moore, Love has maintained a disciplined “prehabilitation” schedule: two 40-minute upper-body workout sessions a week; 20 minutes of stability work four to five times per week. “He’s probably doing 400% more work on his upper body than he did before all this,” says Moore. “Whenever you have had an injury, there is a greater chance you can reinjure. We’re very cognizant of that.”
Mentally, Love is in a better place too. Last season was draining. After being the focal point of the offense in his last four years with the Timberwolves, he struggled to adapt to a reduced role in his first year with Cleveland, and he resisted being pigeonholed as a three-point shooter. He was called out on social media by LeBron James, criticized by his coach, David Blatt, for inconsistent play and was asked regularly about his pending free agency. “All of us, Kevin included, went through not an easy year last year, in terms of the adjustment, in terms of the attention, in terms of the tremendous expectations people have for the team and the challenge we have to meet those expectations,” says Blatt. “We all came back this year a lot more comfortable with our situation and in our own skin.”
This year the distractions have dissipated. Last summer Love signed a five-year, $113 million contract to return to the Cavs, ending speculation about his future. At week’s end he was averaging 17.3 points and 10.5 rebounds while playing nearly identical minutes (32.8) as last season. James has declared Love to be the “main focus” of the offense, while Blatt has experimented with small lineups that feature Love at center.
After scoring 18 points in a win over Portland last week, Love dressed quietly in front of his locker. He answered a handful of questions from reporters before breezing out the door. Kevin Love, lightning rod, is gone. Kevin Love, All-Star forward, appears to be back.