Kevin Love ready to be more than just a third wheel

Kevin Love is looking to play a bigger role for the Cavaliers this season. Jason Miller/Getty Images

Practice was over and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers had long since cleared the court when Kevin Love emerged from the weight room. He had a date with a 20-pound medicine ball.

Time and time again, the 6-foot-10 Love crouched down to pick up the medicine ball, lift it with both arms over his head and then extend upward, tossing a sphere that weighs as much as a car tire against the wall in front of him with the ease of setting a volleyball.

For a guy whose last public appearance on a basketball court involved his left shoulder being pulled out of the socket, rendering his arm to flop around like a pool noodle, it was a sight to see.

Over and over again, Love threw the ball against the wall, higher and higher each time. Ten feet. Twelve feet. Fourteen feet. Several members of the Cavs training staff gathered around as Love, machine-like, kept throwing the weighted ball closer and closer toward the ceiling at Cleveland Clinic Courts. They wanted to see just how high he could go.

About 16 feet up the wall, there was a ledge. Love powered up and sailed the medicine ball there, leaving it resting on the ledge like a book on a shelf.

"They bet me I couldn't do it," Love said afterward, dripping with sweat. "That was dumb I guess."

At times last season, Love's first in Cleveland, that weighted ball was more metaphorical. The three-time All-Star was in a Sisyphean situation, trying to fight for his individual shine while simultaneously becoming a part of the bigger picture of the team.

His stats took a major hit as he settled into third banana status behind LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Making matters worse, Love was in a contract year. After establishing himself as a top-10-level talent in the league while in Minnesota, some questioned whether he was still worth a max-level contract come summer. Even his coach, David Blatt, called Love "not a max player yet" (though Blatt later tried to clarify his statement).

After speaking out about his diminishing role in the offense on several occasions, James called out Love on social media for trying to "fit out" instead of "fitting in" with the Cavs. Love later said he would vote for former UCLA teammate Russell Westbrook for MVP, which many viewed as a snub toward James.

Still, the Cavs were winning games at a rapid pace, going 32-7 during one stretch from mid-January to early April. Love might not have been putting up the numbers he did with the Timberwolves, but he was winning more than he ever had before. In six of his seven seasons with the Wolves, Love's team failed to win more than 32 games. With the Cavs, they were reaching that total in half a season.

After Love got hurt in the first round of the playoffs, it made his Cavs future even murkier. Was the way Tristan Thompson stepped up in his absence proof that he wasn't vital to the success of the team? Would he want to sign a full max extension with a team that didn't seem to know how to use him? Wouldn't it make more sense to sign a one-year deal, give Cleveland another chance, and then re-up again in the summer of 2016 if things went well, cashing in on the new television money that would be exploding the salary cap?

Love, staying true to his repeated public statements that he intended to stay in Cleveland for the long term, reached an agreement on a five-year, $113 million extension with the Cavs on the very first day of free agency.

Behind it wasn't just the security of a guaranteed deal or the feeling of unfinished business from seeing the Cavs fall just short in the Finals without him, but a couple of key conversations with both James and Blatt to convince him staying in Cleveland was overwhelmingly the correct choice for him.

"It was something that had been addressed not only by the team or by LeBron, but by the coaching staff as well," Love told ESPN.com in a sit-down interview during the Cavs' first week of training camp. "And it was part of contract talks that heading forward with this team, we wanted to play a certain way."

Before James and Blatt set the tone for the 2015-16 season by vowing to feature Love more prominently this year, they privately assured the 27-year-old forward the same this summer.

"I expect, at least from a comfort level, things to be different this year. On and off the court, everybody has been making a big effort to make this thing start off really great." Kevin Love

"I expect, at least from a comfort level, things to be different this year," Love said. "On and off the court, everybody has been making a big effort to make this thing start off really great."

Part of that effort is refusing to dwell on the past. When asked if he had to address being benched in the fourth quarter four times last season by Blatt before agreeing to re-sign, Love replied, "Yeah, it's just tough to say anything."

Rather than focus on those frustrating moments, Love owned up to his responsibility in contributing to them.

"Naturally there were times last year where I didn't feel as if I was always in the right spot or I was second-guessing myself where I should be out there on the floor," Love continued. "So, I think as far as a comfort standpoint, I feel a lot better on how things stand as far as where to be in the offense and playing off of these guys."

Then there was that infamous poolside meeting with James in Los Angeles that Love gets a kick out of because he had a much more meaningful meeting with James that preceded it, one that wasn't captured by an amateur paparazzo and spread around the web.

"First of all, it's L.A. Those kind of things happen in the world we live in," Love said. "I wasn't surprised because that kind of thing tends to follow -- I mean it follows us -- but it follows him as well. What was funny was initially we had met prior to that for a long period of time, and then we went and hung out with (James' trainer) Mike Mancias and Maverick (Carter) and those type of guys and somebody had happened to snap a photo."

The Cavs have purposefully managed Love's participation in training camp, not trying to put too much on his plate too fast because they know they'll need him more than ever when the regular season tips off and they'll be without Iman Shumpert (right wrist) and likely without Irving (left knee) to start.

Love has already been ruled out of the Cavs' first two preseason games this week against Atlanta and Philadelphia and he has yet to go through live contact in a full-court, 5-on-5 setting. But when Love was on his own time this summer, he pushed his limits. He spent nearly a month in the thin air of Park City, Utah, along with Cavs strength and conditioning coach Alex Moore, on an aggressive rehab excursion.

"It was all broken down to a science," Love said. "[My shoulder] wasn't quite where I wanted it to be and I wanted to get ahead of the game so I just put muscle on, really worked on my flexibility, range of motion and I came back from there and I really felt great about where I was and that has carried over.

"What do they say? Train high, live low. And I was training high and living high for three-plus weeks and your hemoglobin mass goes through the roof. Your red blood cell count [increases]. And going up there, it's like putting a hand or a pillow over your face and trying to breathe. So when I came back down to sea level, it was a big increase and I felt really great."

When Love showed up to camp, not only was he about 15 pounds lighter than he was at the start of last season, but several team officials noted how much stronger his legs appeared. In taking care of his shoulder, he seemed to have transformed his whole body.

Now that it's in the past, Love can admit just how trying last season was for him at times.

"I didn't feel 100 percent comfortable. I was second-guessing, 'Oh, should I be here? Should I shoot this shot?' instead of just going out there and playing basketball." Kevin Love

"Not only when you're affected from a physical and also in some ways a mental [capacity]," Love said. "Because there's some things you can just brush to the side and say, 'You know, I'm good. I'm good.' It's just the law of attraction, keeping it in a positive state of mind. But then I kept being asked about my contract and it didn't matter what I said. Things were going to get taken left or right or that sort of thing as people have seen a million times in professional sports. That also weighed on me."

Love said his ill-timed injury in the playoffs left him "very upset" and "down" and pretty helpless as he was reduced to a spectator of his own team.

"What was the hardest part was obviously having to sit there and watch," Love said. "Be in a suit and be in a sling and knowing that I could be out on the floor helping or doing different things and be at a way higher capacity than cheering helping the team. So, it was that ... I really started to feel comfortable in what we were doing and then I hurt my shoulder. So, it was tough. Even if Kyrie had been healthy, who knows? But if I would have been healthy, who knows? It becomes a lot of what ifs."

He is trying not to second-guess too much these days, including what specific parts of the floor he'll get the ball in the Cavs' offense this season.

"I don't know yet," Love said. "As far as, like I mentioned, from a comfort standpoint, I'm trying to put myself into a mentality that no matter where I am I can be effective. As to where last year, like I said, it was some things where I don't know if I didn't quite fit right or it was places where I didn't feel 100 percent comfortable. I was second-guessing, 'Oh, should I be here? Should I shoot this shot?' instead of just going out there and playing basketball. So, I keep saying, just from a comfort standpoint, I just feel better."

All of the hand-wringing, the doubt, the passive-aggressive demands that plagued Love's first season with the Cavs are nothing but distant memories. It's like the weight of a dozen 20-pound medicine balls have been lifted off Love's shoulders.

"It's just, I think, face everything head-on," Love said when asked about his outlook for this season. "Relationships with all the guys out there on the court, facing adversity with these guys, or staying on a high with these guys, no matter where the season takes you, it's just I think facing it head-on and trying to be in a collision course for great things. I think if we all put our heads together, we all continue to work and get healthy, I know I sound like a broken record, but I think we can do something special."