Kevin Love's season died as it lived: with a pained, awkward whimper. After tossing thunderbolts at the bearded forward for six months, God—or fate or whatever cosmic force sent Kevin Love to Cleveland—grew impatient and sent Kelly Olynyk's malignant clumsiness to finish the job. Just as the Cavaliers were putting the Celtics to bed, as Love was getting his playoff sea-legs under him, he felt his arm detach from his torso. A cluster of comic strip character rage squiggles and confusion marks danced above his head as he ran gingerly toward the locker room. He fielded post-game questions with his arm in a sling and vowed to return to the court before the postseason reached its conclusion. Two days later, doctors told him the odds on that happening were so long, they might as well be endless.
If Love's short tenure in Cleveland hasn't been exactly like watching someone nervously fishtail a skateboard down a weather-battered stretch of hilly road before unceremoniously plummeting down an uncovered manhole, it has at least been sort of like that. An out-of-nowhere shoulder injury at the hands of an otherwise well-mannered Canadian is a tonally acceptable coup de grâce in terms of its strange tragicness, though other fine options might have included a botched, coma-inducing LeBron James high-five; Love being struck by the team bus; or a Mothra-sized bird of prey carrying him off to its nest. A year from hell isn't fully that until it finishes unfairly, through no fault of its hapless protagonist. We have arrived at that point, now.
This faultlessness is the most striking aspect of Love's rapid transformation from virtuoso to minor punchline. He has done nothing wrong, really. He made a sound career choice in moving from the chronically mismanaged Timberwolves to a team with LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and a chance to win a title. He did his best to fit into an offense that didn't utilize the full extent of his talents. He might have groused privately about this, but to the press, he offered only anodyne quotes about sacrifice and teamwork. He endured public passive-aggression from LeBron that hints at a relationship anyone without an intensely outgoing personality might find exhausting. He has probably been playing with a nagging back injury the whole season. The lone unproductive thing he did was mention on a radio show that he thought his former UCLA teammate Russell Westbrook should win the MVP award, which is the sort of non-story media folks make a beach ball out of and slothishly bat around during NBA's March doldrums.
Besides all that, Love averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds per game. He spaced the floor. He moved the ball. He made at least a token effort not to defend like a sheet on a clothesline. He did well, considering all the newness and expectation he faced, and if he decides to stay in Cleveland, it's reasonable to assume he could build on this season and perform better next year. Whenever the Cavs get run from these playoffs, LeBron's going to say they need him back, and he's going to mean it.
But LeBron won't quite know what he's asking for. While he has come home and been afforded the latitude to play and teach and shadow general manage as he sees fit, Love has encountered an unfamiliar and altogether more cramped space than he anticipated. It's not about his numbers dipping or his having to forgo the odd solitary night to participate in some hokey fam-building activities LeBron borrowed from a Hova-approved leadership strategies book. Or it is not only about that. Love has spent a season trying to figure out how to be his own man in a place that doesn't belong to him, trying to fit in without losing his sense of self. LeBron said change yourself for me, and Love has done his damnedest.
To be trying your best to modify your game and personality to suit your esteemed teammate's vision and at the same time have everyone wondering what's wrong with you perhaps explains why Love has seemed so downtrodden since joining the Cavaliers. He's a misunderstood burden-bearer, meeting strange demands with all he's got and catching grief for it from within and without the locker room. It's enough to render anyone defensive and miserable, in a constant state of wondering the fuck did I do?
So, of course Kevin Love's postseason ended with him literally being pulled apart by a force beyond his control. The metaphor became explicit. The question, once he has healed, will be whether he thinks the strain will be as intense next year, and whether he can stand it.