Kevin Love emerges as Heat leader, backup center: ‘He’s the connector of all connectors’

Around the Miami Heat’s locker room, veteran Kevin Love has become known for his humor and lighthearted personality. Those traits paired with his on-court accomplishments quickly lifted him into a leadership role after joining the Heat midway through last season.

But there were no jokes or sarcastic answers from Love when asked this week about returning to Cleveland to face the Cavaliers for the first time since leaving the organization that he nearly spent a decade of his NBA career with.

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“I know I joke around about the media and stuff like that, but I don’t like to make it about myself,” Love said to the Miami Herald ahead of the Heat’s matchup against the Cavaliers on Wednesday night at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.

It turns out that Love is expected to miss Wednesday’s game in Cleveland because of personal reasons, news that surfaced Tuesday afternoon days after he discussed the possibility of playing against his former team.

“I think it will be emotional,” Love said before he was ruled out for Wednesday’s contest. “But I think you can feel there’s a really good energy here [with the Heat], and I feel at home within our group and with what we want to get accomplished. I think at first, it was a bumpy transition. I think it is with anybody trying to find their place in a new organization, especially after 8.5 years there. But I definitely feel like this has been a great landing spot for me.”

Love, 35, landed with the Heat in February as a free agent following a contract buyout with the Cavaliers. The five-time All-Star had fallen out of the rotation in the middle of his ninth season with the Cavaliers and wanted a fresh start that could give him a bigger on-court role at this late stage of his playing career.

Love found that with the Heat immediately, making 17 starts in the 21 games he appeared in with Miami last regular season. He also made 18 starts as center Bam Adebayo’s frontcourt partner during the Heat’s playoff run that ended in Game 5 of the NBA Finals last season.

Love then signed a two-year, $7.9 million contract, which includes a $4 million player option for next season, to return to the Heat in free agency.

Love’s second season with the Heat has already included two different roles, beginning the season as the Heat’s starting power forward before falling out of the rotation for a few games and re-emerging as the full-time backup center. Love has thrived off the bench while playing the minutes that Adebayo is not on the court, as the Heat has outscored opponents by 45 points with Love on the court in the non-Adebayo minutes since he became the backup center.

“I think that was something we had talked about because so many teams are playing four smalls across and one big,” Love said of why those minutes have been positive. “I think it gives us just a different look, some good spacing especially when Jimmy [Butler] is out there, as well.”

Love is only averaging 14.1 minutes per game since taking over as the Heat’s backup center because he’s essentially limited to playing the minutes that Adebayo is on the bench. That’s down from the 19.9 minutes per game that Love averaged last regular season after joining the Heat when he was used primarily as a starter.

But Love’s new role as a backup center is important, as the Heat continues to search for a way to survive the minutes that Adebayo isn’t on the court. The Heat was outscored by four points per 100 possessions in the non-Adebayo minutes last regular season.

“I think the transition that he’s made at this stage of his career, most former All-Stars can’t or aren’t willing to do it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Love’s move to backup center. “And he’s really a star in that kind of role. He’s really important for our group because he’s the connector of all connectors. He’s really like our emotional leader. Bam is like our heartbeat, but K-Love just connects everybody.

“He just wants to win at this stage of his career, he just wants to do whatever it takes, however he can help to get our team to win. And there’s a karma to that if you’re pure with your intentions. And even at this stage, it’s a sacrifice. But he’s willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team and it’s a great example for everybody else to try to do what we’re trying to do. I love the role that he’s carving out right now.”

Love, who is in his 16th NBA season, played a much bigger role during his Cavaliers tenure. He won one championship in 2016 and made consecutive All-Star Games in 2017 and 2018 during his time in Cleveland.

Those experiences helped to immediately give Love the credibility needed to become one of the Heat’s leaders. Adebayo has the title of team captain, but Love is one of the leading voices in the locker room.

“If you had a drink with me, you would understand,” Love said with a smile when asked how he instantly became the Heat player who Spoelstra calls “the connector of all connectors.”

“I just feel like every person here is my superior and that I can learn from them,” Love said. “I don’t keep it at just basketball. I like to really get to know my teammates, where they’re from and just be 100 percent unapologetically myself and authentic. I think people feel that. I’m very flawed both on and off the court. I think I own that, as well. So I think people tend to gravitate to maybe some vulnerabilities and some shortcomings more than they do huge successes.”

Love is the one who teammates turn to for advice, but he’s also the one to joke around loud enough in the locker room after a game that it’s heard during the broadcast of postgame interviews.

“I was just telling Caleb [Martin] that I really relate to the undrafted guys more than maybe the Bams and the Jimmys and the Tylers because so many people have focused on what I can’t do in my career rather than what I can do,” Love continued. “That’s why I have so much love for those guys and want those guys to have success.”

While the on-court role may not include as many minutes as it did when he was with the Cavaliers, Love’s off-court role is growing with the Heat and that’s important to him.

“I want to play as long as possible, and I mean play,” Love said. “But also, whether it’s year 18, 19, 20, whatever it may be, however long I decide to do it and that fire is still going, I would step into a leadership and mentor role as a player, for sure. I think that’s something I can definitely grow into. If that’s something that this team wants to do, I would happily and gladly do it. But I certainly want to play and impact on the floor as much as I can, as long as I can.”