When Mike Conley and the Grizzlies agreed upon his five-year, $45 million extension back in November the outrage amongst Grizzlie fans and NBA pundits was overwhelming. The deal certainly had its flaws and there were many reasons to believe that such a large contract for an unproven point guard was a mistake but the optimists (if there were any, it sure seemed like everybody was against the deal) saw a young player that had enormous potential and was just starting to merge with his team. Conley was just 23-years old when he signed the extension, he was growing with a young Grizzlies core and he had been showing gradual, though not tremendous, improvements over the first three years of his pro career.
Conley followed up that extension by delivering his finest full season in the NBA. Conley averaged a career high in minutes, shot attempts, assists, rebounds and points during the regular season and the Grizzlies won 48 games, their highest win total since Conley was drafted back in 2007. From an advanced metrics perspective, Conley posted a career high in PER, assist rate and usage rate. Essentially, Conley continued to show improvement, he was given a bigger responsibility in within the offense and he contributed at his most efficient level yet both by scoring the ball and by distributing it to Memphis' big men.
Conley's regular season performance went under the radar in many respects. Not a lot of people have mentioned the fact that Conley showed some great signs during the regular season and I can't blame them - Grizzlies' fans probably didn't even notice Conley's jump forward this year because of the show that Zach Randolph was putting on on a gamely basis. But now that the post-season season has arrived and the Grizzlies have started to make a whole bunch of national noise, Conley figures to get a little bit more attention.
Though the pub that Conley is getting won't match the buzz around Zach Randolph as his play has garnered some talk about him being the best power forward in the NBA, folks should start to recognize Conley as a steady point guard in the NBA rather than constantly berating him for the large contract he signed earlier this season.Conley's per game numbers for Memphis' eight post-season games don't exactly stick out off the statsheets but his level of play goes far beyond the numbers he has put up. That being said Conley has raised his per game numbers from the regular season in his eight playoff games - he's averaged 15.6 points, 6.5 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game in the playoffs. Aside from Conley raising his level of play one big reason for the increase in his per game numbers is an increase in minutes. Conley went from playing 35.5 minutes per game in the regular season to 38.8 minutes per game in the post-season.
Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins has completely entrusted Conley with the keys to the offense this post-season and he's been running it beautifully. Conley may not be shooting the best percentage from the field (43% from the floor, 26% from three) but what's made Conley's performance in the playoffs so good is that he's stuck to Memphis' gameplan no matter what. Whether it's a simple entry pass, a sideline pick and roll designed to swing the ball into the paint from the high post or a drive into the paint in order to get the help defense off his big men, Conley has made it his top priority to get the ball into the post on every possession.
What Conley's been doing may seem pretty simple but the truth is Conley is playing the role of "point guard" better than anyone else in the playoffs. I'm not saying he's better than Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook, but when you watch those other two guys play it's pretty easy to notice that they do a lot of freelancing and tend to break away from the offense multiple times throughout the game. Conley, on the other hand, has rarely deviated from Memphis' outside-in gameplan and he's orchestrated the Grizzlies' attack perfectly.
If a team like the Lakers were as insistent as Conley is at getting the ball inside, they'd be nearly unbeatable but instead they run an offense that tends to breakdown into perimeter jumpshots far too often. Without a point guard that can run things for the majority of the game, the Lakers often ignore their big men when they are in prime position to score. What makes the Grizzlies such a unique team and what has made them successful so far this post-season is that Conley has never stooped going into the post. Even if Memphis isn't able to get a good post-up on their first attempt, when the bigs kick the ball back out to Conley instead of forcing a shot or swinging the ball around to the other side, Conley is patient and waits for his big men to re-establish position before getting them the ball back on the block where they are most effective.
Conley has also been a bit more aggressive this post-season when teams decide to go underneath on Memphis' many screen and rolls. It may be the best option strategically to take away post-ups or mid-range jumpers for Marc Gasol but Conley has proven he's not afraid to take the 18-foot jumpshots. In eight post-season games Conley has attempted 39 jumpshots from 16-23 feet. He's made 17 of those shots, giving him a 44% success rate on mid-range jumpers, which is 4% above the league average on shots from that distance.
Defensively Conley has had some trouble against the likes of Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook but nowadays there are few point guards in the NBA that can actually defend each other. Despite being a secondary offensive option against both of these players, Conley hasn't backed down from a challenge yet. Aside from game two against the Spurs, Conley has taken it right to both Parker and Westbrook. Game two against the Thunder last night was probably Conley's best offensive performance of the post-season. Even if it came in a loss, Conley's 24 points (10-of-15 shooting, five-of-five from 16-23 feet, three-of-five from three), eight assist and two rebound performance against the Thunder was still pretty impressive and it was nice to see Conley get on a roll with his jumpshot.
Though it's unfair to say that Conley has justified his large contract extension with his play this post-season, I do think it's about time to realize that Conley is a good point guard. He may never be great or make an all-star team, but he's a great fit for this Grizzlies team and his emphasis on getting the ball inside is a big reason Memphis has made it this far into the post-season. At this point it'd just be best to stop judging Conley by his contract and start looking at his production on the court. And thus far into the playoffs, Conley has been excellent.