Mike Conley has established himself as one of the top 10 point guards in the league over the last few seasons. Now, he's one injury-free season away from a massive max contract — something that wasn't seen as possible when he signed the contract that is ending after this season.
In the early stages of the Grizzlies' 2010-2011 season (three games in), the front office signed Conley to a 5-year $45 million extension. There were varying opinions on the deal, but mostly confusion. It looked like the Grizzlies were betting on Conley's development, but based off of what? A few regular season games where he impressed and Lionel Hollins' confidence? That's not enough. If the deal didn't work out, the Grizzlies were going to be in a heap of trouble. CBSSports writer/ Mike Conley expert Matt Moore broke it down the best in his piece "Grizzlies commit franchise suicide, extend Conley".
Mike Conley is the worst starting point guard in the NBA," Moore wrote at the time of the extension. "That's including Derek Fisher, who is at this point both a defensive signpost and a superior point guard. People often wonder why it is I consider this to be so. The reasons are numerous. It's not that Mike Conley is not a good basketball player. He is. He's a career 44% shooter, and 38% from the arc, which isn't bad at all. As a spot-up back-up combo guard, he wouldn't be bad at all. Mike Conley is not a bad NBA player. But there are three things this contract supposes that he is not. He is not a starting caliber point guard. He is not worth $45 million dollars over 5 years. And he is not worth the longterm damage this contract does to the Memphis Grizzlies franchise.
He wasn't wrong. Before the 2010-2011 season, Conley had been a pet project that the Grizzlies management and Hollins were too afraid to admit they were wrong about. This extension (and the Rudy Gay contract) could have made keeping Gasol much more difficult. Gasol had finally shown signs of becoming the player he is today. There were so many future implications of this chance the Grizzlies took.
Then, when Conley started turning everything around, not so coincidentally the Grizzlies did too.
The rise of the Grizzlies is said to coincide with the arrival of Zach Randolph or Tony Allen, development of Marc Gasol, and the rise of "Grit and Grind", but Conley's development into a quality point guard is usually overlooked. He went from a scrawny guard who struggled in pick and rolls, finishing around the rim, and dribbling to a good NBA point guard with all of these skills.
One of the biggest keys to Conley's development is his ambidextrousness. The ability to not only use, but effectively produce with both hands is not a skill many NBA players possess. Conley went from playing with his right hand taped behind his back to being able to seamlessly make plays with both hands.
Conley can now get into the teeth of the defense and make a play (something Moore mentions in his above piece). This was something he struggled with early in his career due to his lack of strength and dribbling ability. He couldn't get into the lane without losing the ball, so he would have to turn his back to his defender instead of sizing them up. This would lead to turnovers or busted possessions too often.
Here Conley splits two defenders (something he has struggled with in the past) and quickly gets to the middle of the floor so he can make a play. He goes up for his patented right handed floater, but realizes Gasol is open and rolling to the rim. Conley throws the alley and Gasol finishes the much more efficient shot.
What Conley is not commended for as much as he should be is how he well he operates in the pick and roll in a spaceless offense. At most, Conley has one and a half three point shooters on the floor at a time. Yet, he is still able to put up .89 points per possession in the P&R. Instead of relying on the roller to create space for him, Conley has an array of moves to get points out of the pick and roll.
The ability to hit jump shots immediately after a screen. It's something that you'll see Chris Paul, Steph Curry, and Tony Parker (I've seen him kill the Grizzlies with this so many times) have and repeatedly deploy. If a point guard can't shoot coming off a screen, defenders will go under screens and pack the paint. Both make the pick and roll infinitely more guardable.
This is a perfect example of Conley's shooting off the pick and roll. Gasol sets a perfect screen that slows Curry down enough for Conley to get open. It leaves the slower Andrew Bogut on Conley. The bigger center has to decide whether to dig down to contest a drive, or to contest the shot. Conley is too quick for him and drains an open jumper.
Grizzly Bear Blues friendperson/excellent writer/basketball savant Andrew Ford examined Conley's right handed floater back in January. Read that. The floater is an easy way to get shots over bigger defenders while staying away from the paint. It's something all smaller point guards should have in their arsenal. Before he developed this, Conley would go into the lane and get his shot blocked way too easily.
Here Conley leaves no separation going around a Randolph screen. This leaves Darren Collison behind the screen and DeMarcus Cousins in front of him. Cousins takes a swipe at the ball while he's backing up. Instead of driving into the bigger Cousins, Conley sets his feet and launches his floater. Conley doesn't just use his floater coming off of screens. It's a tool he deploys when he can quickly get to the middle of the defense and get an easy shot.
The pick and roll isn't the only place where Conley thrives. He has developed the ability to drive to the basket and finish with both hands. He has been good off the ball since he came into the league. Being a good spot up shooter is important for the Grizzlies offense and he's only gotten better as time has gone on.
When Conley came into the league from Ohio State he was scrawny. His lack of strength made it easier for bigger point guards to take advantage of him on both sides of the floor. On offense he could be influenced in any direction and couldn't finish through contact. On defense he couldn't man up or fight through screens.
Conley can now finish through contact with the best of them, and his strength and ability to finish with either hand make him a constant threat around the rim. However, he still doesn't get the respect from referees that other point guards get. Nobody takes more contact under the rim with no calls than Mike Conley.
(Gif made from here)
Here is one of Conley's many game-winners. Danny Green is a strong defender so Conley could have given up the ball or run a different play. Nobody would have blinked. Instead Conley puts him on skates and takes him to the rim. He gets Green off balance (he recovers because he's so damn good) then goes into his body. Green backs up and tries to swat at the ball, but he's overwhelmed. Conley finishes with his left hand over the bigger defender and the Grizzlies win the game.
Conley's defense took a step back at times last season, but he has had several seasons of being one of the best defensive point guards in the NBA. He can body up to bigger defenders, get steals with his quick hands, and can force people into help with the best of them. Early in his career he relied on his ability to get into passing lanes too much. He was like a pylon that would fall over if the wind blew just right. Marc Gasol and Tony Allen get a ton of deserved credit for how good the Grizzlies defense has been, but Conley's improvements have helped propel them to new heights.
Here Conley bodies up the most physical point guard in the league in Russell Westbrook. Westbrook does what he's supposed to do by backing the smaller Conley down into the lane to shoot over him. Conley is able to get the charge because he stays with Westbrook with his feet planted all the way from the three-point line.
As a scorer and defender, Conley has come a long way. The strides he has made as a game manager and passer are equally as impressive. The way he runs the Grizzlies' space challenged offense is incredible. Not many point guards could keep Randolph and Gasol happy the way he has. He's found the perfect balance between passing and shooting while still reserving the right to take over a game at any moment.
The Grizzlies offense is slow and every possession counts, so throwing the ball away isn't ideal. Conley averaged 6 assists with an assist to turnover ratio of 2.4. The Grizzlies rarely turn the ball over in clutch situations because Conley is control of it (if he isn't, all bets are off). In 78 playoff minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers, Conley only had four turnovers. In 161 minutes playoff minutes against the Golden State Warriors, Conley had 29 assists, nine turnovers, and a broken face.
Conley has most likely finished developing his game. There's not much more for him to do as a 27 year old, but he seems to like surprises.
Moore wrote "The Mike Conley apology post" not even a month after Conley's initial extension. It's a great read even five years later. He breaks down why he was wrong about Conley, and some of the improvements Conley had made in his game that season.
"Mike Conley is not an elite point guard, but he's also not paid like one," Moore wrote. "But for a player who was decimated by fans and media, and most especially by me, after his extension, he's made good on it. He's become a starting-caliber point guard, and has been a huge part of why the Grizzlies find themselves... well, 8-10. The bench is still terrible. But point guard is no longer a position of need, at least right now, for the Memphis Grizzlies."
Now it's time for Conley to get paid like the elite point guard he is. Whether it's from the Grizzlies or some other team, he deserves it. He's going to be chased. The Dallas Mavericks (in their perpetual pursuit of a serviceable point guard), New York Knicks (in their pursuit of talent not named Carmelo Anthony), and the Utah Jazz (the longest shot of all of these) will all most likely be going after Mike Conley. Much like Marc Gasol, I cannot imagine him leaving Memphis, but if he wants to explore his options he won't be disappointed in what's out there.
It's not a certainty that Conley will be back. The Grizzlies are going to have to pony up the cash (all signs are pointing to this happening). If they do, it could be time to start building around a team with Conley at the forefront. Instead of taking an identity or Zach Randolph into account, it may be time to build around the skills Conley and Gasol have. It could be time to these two players forge a new identity for the Grizzlies.
Considering the injuries he's sustained (ankles, shoulder, wrist, and face) and the playing span of other small point guards who rely on their speed, it will most likely be his first and last big contract.
Hopefully it's with the Memphis Grizzlies.