If you've been trying for years we already heard your song.
Death or glory becomes just another story.
I want everyone to know that I've never believed in Mike Conley. I've always thought of Mike Conley as, at best, a fine college basketball player.
He has a college body. His spry 185 pound frame just is not big enough to deal with the Baron Davis's (215 lbs.), Deron Williams's (210 lbs.), or even, gasp, the Chris Paul's (175 lbs. as of, like, 2004 and 25 lbs. of muscle ago. I would like to add Jameer Nelson into this category as well; he's listed at 190 but might be more ripped than Dwight Howard now.) of the NBA world.
He has college skills. Conley's handles are adequate, but he isn't capable of breaking down a defender to get his own shot or force the defense to shift. His first step is definitely quick, but so is Tyreke Evans's (no offense Hasheem) and he's 6' 6" tall -- point being every slasher in the NBA has a quick first step, and most have the body or creativity to finish or draw contact. While Mike's shot has definitely improved, his 43.5% from deep comes from mostly completely uncontested looks because the defense chooses to make him to beat them.
Most importantly Mike Conley still has a college mindset. His confidence issues whenever his starting position is legitimately contested are widely documented. He doesn't run a professional offense. Once the ball hits the deck, defenders know he plans to drive, and he very rarely uses the drive to create anything more than a turnover or low-percentage floater or finger-roll. When the Grizzlies do run plays, the ball moves through O.J. Mayo or Marc Gasol, which could work if Conley contributed in other ways.
Shooting, of course, is one of these other ways. As I noted above, Mike Conley is actually one of the sharpest shooters from three-point in the league. In fact he's shooting the best from deep of any point guard in the league (unless you count Daniel Gibson, who is more of a short a three-point specialist). That puts him ahead of more renowned shooters like Steve Nash, Stephen Curry, Mo Williams, and Chauncey Billups.
The problem is that Mike Conley's polished percentages are likely more of a function of his inability than his skill. As I noted before, Conley seems to rarely do more than probe the defense for a perfect driving lane for 7 seconds and then pass the ball off so O.J. or Marc can execute the play, or pass to Rudy or Zach to score in isolation. He then is typically an outlet option to shoot the three, which is rather different from a player like, say, Chauncey Billups.
While Mr. Big Shot is called Mr. Big Shot because he has the ability to create those shots, Mike Conley must rely on his teammates to draw his defender into a help situation or screen his defender so he can catch and shoot. So even though he shoots a higher percentage, he's actually much less helpful from behind the arc than many players who shoot a worse percentage. If that doesn't make sense, remember this key rule: higher usage usually equals lower efficiency. And Mike's usage is low for a point guard.
Defense would be the other way to help the team, and I don't think many Grizzlies fans need an in-depth discussion of Mike Conley's weakness on the other end of the floor. If you watch the Grizz, you know Conley cannot defend. But consider this one gem -- despite his primary backup being 31 year old, rusty, out-of-shape veteran Jamaal Tinsley, the Grizzlies actually defend almost 3 points per possession worse with starter Mike on the court.
That is tremendously bad. His defensive rating, or approximately how many points he allows per 100 possessions, is 112, tied for the the worst on the Grizzlies among players who earn regular minutes. If you're by far the worst and least used offensive starter on a team who is poor defensively, it would probably be prudent to not be the worst defender as well, no?
So the gut reaction is to assume that Mike Conley needs replaced, which is probably a fair assessment of the situation. The problem, of course, is that no replacement seems readily available. Let's look at a list of Memphis's options:
- Start Lester Hudson or Marcus Williams: This is borderline not even an option. In terms of his ability to run an offense, Lester Hudson is a combo guard at best, and is probably closer to a pure scoring guard. Marcus Williams has proven his effectiveness in some situations, but is, like Hudson, lacking sound basketball judgment. Both players want to shoot too often, and inefficiently, to enter this lineup.
- Platoon with Jamaal Tinsley: Jamaal Tinsley is not a starting option because, presumably, he is not in good enough shape. Marcus Williams starting over him when Conley is unavailable is proof. But he probably could play around 24 minutes a night, cutting Conley's time on the court. The problem, sadly, is that Conley plays even worse when his minutes are threatened.
- Trade for a starting point guard: If the trade includes Mike Conley, which I suppose it likely would, than this option would reinforce the starting lineup. Sadly it probably will fail to improve the bench, which is the more pressing concern. If the trade doesn't include Mike Conley, than he could be sent to the bench to fill a scoring role -- Jamaal Tinsley probably gets downgraded to benchwarmer.
In my opinion none of these options are really ideal, to be completely honest. There are players who I would prefer to Mike Conley because of their defensive aptitude, a player like Kirk Hinrich comes to mind, but the vast majority have huge contract obligations tied to them.
If the Grizzlies do something, however, with Mike Conley, it shouldn't be giving up on the kid. I know that I'm hard on Conley, but Memphis has invested too much time -- and too high of a pick -- to simply abandon him for an expiring veteran, which is probably Chris Wallace and Michael Heisley's ideal target.
Not to mention that Mike is relatively cheap, and is likely to remain cheap with his middling stats and defense, for a player has proven that they're capable of being the 5th best starter on a quality team. That, as teams with 5th men with bloated contracts like Dallas or Detroit can attest to, is a valuable commodity. Could he be the 5th best player on a championship team without a true superstar? No. Probably not. But he's decent enough for the Grizzlies for at least this year.
We -- as well as the coaching staff, the management, and most importantly Conley, himself -- need to avoid the potentially dangerous paradigm of seeing Conley as either a failure, death, or a success, glory, at this point in his career. While we've heard Mike Conley's song as a starter, he needs the opportunity to try to excel in a different role before the Grizzlies part with him.