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Mike Conley the Creator

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Sure, Mike Conley has had some issues this season. But in one particular area, he has had a career year and has confirmed his worth.

Conley the Creator continues to grow even in Memphis' worst times.
Conley the Creator continues to grow even in Memphis' worst times.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The cream always rises to the top.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Without pressure, there can be no diamonds.

(Insert your favorite cliché' here)

These are trying times for the Memphis Grizzlies and their fans. The team has undergone a drastic facelift the past few weeks. Injuries have depleted an already flawed roster, trades with an eye to the future have limited the ceiling of a team whose ceiling was already slowly coming back down to Earth.

It is times like these that test the mettle of a person. What their response is to adversity, who they are when everything around them is figuratively burning to the ground...that is when true character is exposed. When their worth is shown for all to see.

This should all be especially relevant to Mike Conley. The one true Memphis Grizzlies' home-grown star who was drafted by and developed with the team, Mike is approaching a well-documented crossroads in his career. His contract status has been discussed at length here and elsewhere, and that worth mentioned above is in question. Is Conley truly a max-contract player? Will he get that kind of money elsewhere, forcing the Grizzlies' hand so they do not lose him? Could Mike see the team as fading into irrelevance and perhaps opt to take his talents elsewhere?

For Conley himself, it's been a rough year at times. But he has been terrific creating opportunities for others.

All valid questions, with answers that will come with time. But it has been a down year for Mike as a player, as he has had issues defending consistently and scoring the ball efficiently. He hasn't looked the part of the max player consistently so far, but the opportunity to show that capacity will be there as the season ends for Memphis these next few months.

While he hasn't been at his best on his own throughout the season, he has been a major contributor in a unique way, for him at least- the assist. He has never been known as a passing savant, but he has been much better in this area this season and it has led to increased offensive production for everyone.

His overall individual numbers, as provided by basketball-reference.com, confirm what our eyes tell us- it hasn't been the best season for Mike personally.

Statistical Category Stat Worst Since
Shooting % 42.2 Career Low
Defensive Rating 108 2009-2010
Usage Rate 22.8 2012-2013
Points Per Game 15.2 2012-2013
Effective Field Goal % 47.8 2011-2012
True Shooting % 53.8 2011-2012
Value Over Replacement Player 1.8 2009-2010

He is struggling scoring the basketball overall this season in particular, and that value over replacement player stat being so low is particularly alarming. He has improved in those areas since Marc Gasol was lost for the season with his foot injury, especially shooting (49.5% from the field, 41.9% from three, 18 points per game over eight games, best on the team) and that is a very good sign. Memphis will need him to maintain that production.

Making chances, for others, however? Conley has had a career year all through the 2015-2016 campaign.

Statistical Category Stat Best Since
Offensive Rating 114 Career Best
Assist % 33.5 Career Best
Turnover % 9.7 Career Best
Assists Per 100 Possessions 10.1 Career Best

Mike may not be making the most of his own shots night in and night out. He is, however, having his best season making more shots for others. Here is an example from one of Mike's best games of the season, his most recent one against the Sacramento Kings.

Conley Assist 1

Mike has several options here. He can likely take the big who is defending him on the switch off the dribble. He also can swing the ball back through Zach Randolph to an open shooter on the perimeter, or throw a skip pass to get there faster. But Mike catches Boogie's glare and knows there may be an easier choice.

Conley Assist 2

Conley is playing with supreme confidence. Making this pass is a great example of that- he has faith in not just himself to make the tough pass over and through the larger defender, he also trusts that his teammate will catch and finish at the rim.

Conley Assist 3

JaMychal Green has played very good basketball as of late. Mike Conley is a major reason for it.

That is a huge measuring stick as to whether or not someone is a "max player." Are you capable of making those around you better? Mike may never be a Kyrie Irving type of player who can score at will, or a Russell Westbrook whose athleticism is beautifully violent and dominant. He doesn't have to be though; if he can stay on the court, efficiently score the ball from range and at the rim, and make opportunities with his eyes and understanding of scheme for others, his worth will be even more evident than it already is.

Mike Conley may be under-appreciated elsewhere. His ability to do this and more is not under-appreciated in Memphis.

It isn't just creating other opportunities for his teammates, either. He is preventing opponents from getting easy chances to score the basketball. Mike Conley's assist to turnover ratio is at a very healthy 4.07, meaning Mike has four assists for every one turnover. There may be other players who have higher assist percentages, but their assist to turnover numbers aren't as impressive as Conley's.

Mike Conley 4.07
Chris Paul 3.66
Rajon Rondo 3.17
Russell Westbrook 2.47
John Wall 2.45
James Harden 1.54

All the players below Mike in the chart above are former or current All-Stars. All of the players below Mike have higher assist percentages, meaning they assist teammates' shots more than Conley. But outside of Paul, arguably the best Point Guard of this generation, none of these ball dominant players are close to protecting the basketball while making shots for teammates at the rate that Mike Conley is. Considering the injury situation of these Memphis Grizzlies, this is vitally important.

There is no room on this team for wasted possessions or lost opportunities offensively, and a possession saved is another possible bucket earned. Couple together these extra shots at the rim with Mike's increased timing and vision passing the ball, add in some more transition possessions now that Memphis has gone small more consistently and has gotten out to run more, and you get a career high offensive rating.

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When your shot isn't falling, it is imperative to be able to get your teammates chances to get in to a rhythm. Whether it is off of a screen, in the pick and pop or pick and roll, on a slash to the rim, Conley has excelled at helping those around him get going on offense. This in turn makes life easier for Mike- with defenses having to respect more options, or focusing too much on Conley himself, the man known as "Captain Clutch" is able to make smart decisions to get the ball in the hands of the best offensive option.

Even in the midst of a struggle of a season shooting so far, Conley has shown the capacity for growth, posting career best numbers in three key passing categories. That development, the improvement at making of an entire roster and offense better through your play, makes Mike that much more dangerous as an offensive weapon. When his shot isn't falling, he can create for others while not creating mistakes for his opponents to thrive on and take advantage of.

The cloud of uncertainty will slowly lift over Mike's impending free agency and the questions that come with it over time. But Memphis and their Grizzlies already know Mike Conley's worth, and the improvement of Conley the creator is just another confirmation that Mike is one of the best point guards in the NBA.

Follow @sbngrizzlies

Check out previous Friday Three articles here.