In his opening press conference of the 2015-16 NBA season during Monday's Media Day session, LeBron James said that for the Cleveland Cavaliers this year, it all comes down to health. Just 24 hours later, the club was forced to deal with a significant challenge on that score:
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Cavaliers say guard Iman Shumpert recently suffered a ruptured Extensor Carpi Ulnaris sheath in his right wrist and is out 12-14 weeks.
— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) September 29, 2015
If, like me, you're not so up on your extensors, it looks like Iman Shumpert tore the covering of the tendon that runs from the forearm down the wrist to the fifth metacarpal, the bone connecting to your pinky finger. Cavaliers general manager David Griffin said Shumpert sustained the injury "on the rim during a workout last week," according to USA TODAY's Jeff Zillgitt. A magnetic resonance imaging exam taken after Shumpert reported the incident to the Cavs' medical staff upon reporting to training camp revealed the injury; he'll have surgery at Cleveland Clinic on Wednesday.
"In a situation like this, when the tendon's out of the sheath, it's not optional to just wait," Griffin told reporters at training camp Tuesday.
A three-month layoff would leave Shumpert on the shelf for about 25 games. That, obviously, is disappointing for the former New York Knicks first-round draft pick, who became a valuable contributor and postseason starter after being traded to Cleveland with J.R. Smith midway through last season.
"Tough day but I will be back better than ever," Shumpert wrote in the caption to an Instagram post Tuesday afternoon.
The 6-foot-5 Georgia Tech product showed flashes of being an explosive backcourt contributor and perimeter stopper in three-plus seasons in Manhattan, but who typically alternated stretches of strong play with periods of ineffectiveness born out of a struggle to finish around the basket, a flagging touch from long distance, wavering on-court confidence and myriad injuries. Knee ligament tears ended his rookie season and limited him to just 45 games as a sophomore; a dislocated left shoulder sidelined him out for 20 games last season, and cropped up again during the playoffs. (He also battled a groin strain in the postseason.)
After getting healthy in Ohio, Shumpert settled into a spot on the second unit, helping check opponents' top perimeter threats while chipping in 7.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.3 steals in 24.2 minutes per game in 38 appearances. He was forced into a larger role in the second round of the playoffs, when head coach David Blatt had to juggle his rotation to make up for losing starting power forward Kevin Love to a season-ending shoulder injury and starting off-guard Smith to a two-game suspension for cracking Boston Celtics wing Jae Crowder in the face.
Shumpert performed admirably against the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks in the Cavs' run to the Eastern Conference crown, averaging 11.4 points and 5.3 rebounds in 36.4 minutes per game. He shot 38.3 percent from 3-point land; more important, he helped make life difficult for the likes of Derrick Rose and Kyle Korver.
"Look at those All‑Defensive teams, and — obviously he has a small window with us — but he will be on the All‑Defensive team in this league very soon," James said of Shumpert after Cleveland's Game 2 win over Atlanta in the Eastern Conference finals.
Shumpert, like the rest of the non-LeBron Cavs, struggled mightily in shorthanded Cleveland's NBA Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors without stars Love and Kyrie Irving. But despite that rough dismount, Griffin and owner Dan Gilbert re-upped the 25-year-old wing on a four-year, $40 million contract in restricted free agency this summer, part of a cash-splashing display that keeps Cleveland in place as the team to beat in the East but will have major luxury-tax (and possibly roster-management) implications down the line.
All those expenses — max deals for LeBron and Love, new deals for J.R. and Matthew Dellavedova, agreements with veterans Mo Williams, Richard Jefferson and Russian center Sasha Kaun — have Cleveland well over the salary cap, and that's before you consider whatever deal the club might come to with lingering restricted free agent power forward Tristan Thompson. Trading away veterans Brendan Haywood and Mike Miller created a combined $13 million in trade exceptions they can use to absorb more salary in deals should the Cavs feel they need more help, but it sounds like Griffin's content to leave things alone for now and see what develops.
"I don't think, in the immediate future, it does [affect the roster]," Griffin said Tuesday. "We look at this as a very similar situation to what we went through in the playoffs last year. Next man up. We have a roster we feel is deep enough to withstand one injury like this, and so we're going to give people a chance to kind of absorb it from within. But obviously, we'll be paying a lot of attention to opportunities that we may be able to improve the group. We'll just play it by ear."
You can understand why Griffin doesn't necessarily feel compelled to start burning up the phone lines. While Shumpert's a better and more versatile defender than Smith, Dellavedova, Williams, Jefferson and second-year man Joe Harris, his minutes are not exactly irreplaceable. And though it's certainly not ideal to lose another member of the backcourt rotation while All-Star Irving's still working his way back from knee surgery, with no evident superpower competition looming in the conference, the Cavs seem like they can afford to scuffle a bit in the early going before turning it on and proving themselves the class of the conference ... just like last year.
Love, who's also coming back from surgery, figures to take on a larger role in the Cleveland attack to help make up for the backcourt injuries. Smith will likely return to his starting spot, with Williams and Dellavedova sharing duties and time at both backcourt spots; Harris, who saw a surprising amount of minutes early last season after the Cavs tabbed him in the second round of the 2014 draft before the trade for Smith and Shumpert send him to the end of the bench, could get a longer look. The Cavs will figure it out, as James said Tuesday, according to Tom Withers of The Associated Press:
"Obviously it's a big blow. Injuries will probably be the only thing than can stop us long-term," LeBron James said following the team's first training camp practice. "This is a short-term thing. He will be there when we most need him." [...]
"If there's one place we have depth it's at the guard spot," he said. "With this injury, our guys should be able to step in."
They probably will. This'll probably be fine. If Cleveland struggles early, though — without Irving's playmaking, without Shumpert's defense, with Love and Anderson Varejao knocking the rust off, etc. — you wonder if LeBron will wind up seeing a more significant season-opening workload than he, Blatt or Griffin would prefer, and whether some of these "no big deal" early nicks and bruises could wind up having a greater negative impact down the line, when Cleveland needs all their big guns as fresh as possible to reach the heights they were too banged up to achieve last postseason.
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