The idea of Iman Shumpert has always been better than the reality of Iman Shumpert. What he’s supposed to be — and what he has been at times — is a good, versatile defender who can shoot and handle the ball a little. When the Cavs acquired him during the 2014-15 season — back when J.R. Smith was considered a tax — that was the player the Cavs hoped to get.
Shumpert has not been that player consistently. There are moments when he’s that, sure. But more often than not, his defense doesn’t hold up — he fails to contain who he’s supposed to on the ball and loses track of his man off it. On offense, he has a tendency to do too much and hijacks the offense. As a shooter, teams will ignore him and let him shoot or drive.
He did shoot a respective 36 percent from three last season on 3.4 attempts per game — his best mark since his second year in the league — but it wasn’t enough to keep him on the floor in the Finals. Ultimately, coach Tyronn Lue determined his defense wasn’t good enough to make up for his offensive shortcomings.
This year, Lue faces the same choice when it comes to Shumpert. At shooting guard, J.R. Smith will either start or be the first guard off the bench. Dwyane Wade will do the opposite of what Smith does. Kyle Korver, who was ahead of Shumpert in Lue’s rotation during the Finals, is a dead-eye shooter who, even at 36 year old, is also a dependable team defender. Shumpert, on paper, is likely the fourth guard on that list. And at point guard, where the team dabbled with Shumpert as a backup last season, Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas (upon his return) and even Wade will see time there. Unless he is bumped ahead of Korver and/or Wade plays a significant amount of point guard while Thomas is out, it’s hard to see there being minutes for Shumpert.
This begs the question: what role is there for Shumpert to play? The players ahead of him have niches they fill. Smith provides spacing and defense. Wade offers playmaking. Korver offer spacing. Shumpert kind of offers defense and ball handling? Is that enough to get him minutes on a crowded team? In all likelihood, Shumpert’s best hope is Jose Calderon getting cut, Wade functioning as a point guard and Lue turning to him to fill a gap in the rotation.
Last year, when Smith was out, Shumpert was useful to the Cavs and maybe had the best stretch of his Cavs career. He played within himself and didn’t force any attacks. His shot wasn’t any better, but it was fine. And, most importantly, on defense, he tried. For the year, most of his best lineups saw him paired with LeBron James — the one player who can push Shumpert into doing what he’s good at. That could work this year, too. The problem: the same logic applies to both Korver and Smith.
There’s not a guarantee that Shumpert will even be on the Cavs for the entire season. His $10 million salary (and player option for the 2018-19 season) is something the Cavs would like to make someone else's problem. But if they can’t, which seems likely due to limited cap space around the league, Shumpert’s season is predicated on him carving out a role for himself. For him to have success this season, he has to live up the idea of himself.