Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Damian Lillard, Deron Williams, Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo, John Wall, Kemba Walker.
A long list of good to great point guards. The NBA truly is in an era in which point guard play is at its peak. But what do all of these names have in common? In various lists on media outlets such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN, they all are rated in some way, shape or form in front of Mike Conley.
Mike, for some reason, continues to be overlooked; maybe it is because he does not have funny commercials on national rotation. Maybe it is because he does not shoot an obscene amount of shots, or because he is not in a massive media market like New York, Boston or Washington D.C. Even after taking on more responsibility post Rudy Gay and helping the Memphis Grizzlies make the Western Conference Finals, Mike Conley still does not get his due.
But this is a massive mistake. Conley, while not as flashy as Rose or Westbrook or as dominant at times as Parker or Paul, is just as important to the success of the Grizzlies as any other point guard. As discussed on the Gary Parrish show earlier this week, through the past few seasons he has added muscle mass, improved his outside shooting and ability to defend. His defense has improved to the point that he was named to the Second Team All-NBA Defensive Team, and his scoring efficiency numbers were at a career high last season. And with the departure of Rudy Gay, he took on a finisher role at times, as shown here in this game winner against the Spurs last season.
He has no doubt come a long way since his first season in the Bluff City. But there are certainly improvements that can still be made to his game. First, he has to improve his scoring off the dribble and his ability to finish at the rim. Here is Mike Conley's shot chart from last season.
The red in the paint means that Mike was below average shooting in the lane and the awesome video above was often the exception and not the rule. Compare this with the shot chart of one of the best finishers at the rim in the NBA, Tony Parker.
Almost a whole 10 percentage points better in the lane than Mike. Now there are a variety of reasons for this; for one, teams can collapse the lane on Mike Conley on the drive more because of the lack of perimeter shooting the Grizzlies have. Defenders can help off their man and congest driving lanes, forcing Conley to take contested shots more. The emphasis on post play with Marc and Zach can also create spacing issues in the paint. Here is a great example of this from the Western Conference Finals this past season against the Spurs.
Conley gets open after a great double screen set by Jerryd Bayless and Zach Randolph, then takes the ball off of a pick from Marc Gasol. Tiago Splitter is a good pick and roll defender, but Mike Conley is going to beat him to the basket. Manu Ginobili, who is defending Tayshaun Prince to the side of the drive, completely collapses on Conley, leaving Tay open with about 2.2 seconds left on the clock. That is plenty of time to get off a shot. Instead, Mike takes a toughly contested floater in front of Ginobili, Splitter and the shot blocking presence of Tim Duncan, who does a great job taking up space in the restricted area while being more concerned with boxing out offensive board monster Z-Bo. More minutes for guys like Quincy Pondexter and Mike Miller will force defenders to respect the outside shot, creating lanes for Mike to work with. And if they collapse like Ginobili did on that play, players like Miller will let it fly.
The offensive adjustments that will almost certainly come with the Dave Joerger regime will also help Conley grow in terms of role and efficiency. With the additions to the Grizzlies coaching staff, it is safe to say that the pick and roll and high-low post game will still be a staple of the offense. However, depending on lineups there will also be faster paced and more motion based offensive sets. Conley will thrive in these sets alongside multiple perimeter threats.
For example, a lineup of Conley/Bayless/Pondexter/Miller/Gasol would open up lanes for drives and allow for Mike to either play on the perimeter and let Bayless become the creator or drive himself and feed either Gasol in the high post or a shooter beyond the arc. With a big like Marc or Kosta Koufos on the floor to set screens and picks, the dribble drive and dish will be even more effective creating spacing in the paint and elsewhere. The motion offense is predicated on athletic wing players who can create for themselves and others. Conley should shine in such sets.
Despite various coaching changes and roster overhauls, Mike Conley has grown not only as a player but as a leader since his arrival in Memphis. Mike is now the longest-tenured Grizzly, and his presence on the court is steadying for this group of players. He is the consummate floor general, taking command of the offense and enabling his teammates to be in positions to be successful. The team has struggled mightily in the past with Conley off the floor, unable to get the ball up the court and into sets on offense while not being able to attack passing lanes as effectively on defense.
This is more of a compliment to Mike than an indictment of the point guards of the past; leadership is being able to rise in the moment, to understand those around you and how to make them better. As Mike has grown, so has the team's talent, depth and following. This is no accident; Mike Conley is an uncommon player who has fought to improve himself, to grow from a projected bust after just one season to the door of the upper echelon of NBA point guards. This did not happen overnight, it happened due to hard work and perseverance. Conley's career is the definition of grit and grind; molding your talents into the best version of yourself possible.
The list of players at the start of this article had one glaring omission. And that is OK, because Mike Conley's steady rise is still in progress. Through personnel tweaking, coaching adjustments and a strong desire to be better than ever before, Mike will continue to be exactly what the Grizzlies need him to be, not what others around the country may want for a player to be considered "elite." And that is what makes him so special; he flies under the radar, getting better along with his team, striving to achieve success unimaginable just years before. Mike Conley is already elite in Memphis, and Memphis shines through in Mike Conley. For Grizzlies fans, that is more than enough.
More from Grizzly Bear Blues:
- The Grizzly Bear Blues Transition Game
- Raising a Grindson: Jamaal Franklin, Present and Future with the Memphis Grizzlies
- A Crucial Season for Memphis Grizzlies PF Ed Davis
- Memphis Grizzlies Player Ratings: Go Home 2K, You're Drunk
- ESPN 2013 NBA Player Rankings #201-300: Quincy Pondexter and Mike Miller