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Gasol and Conley: A Grizzlies Conversation Part 2

In Part 2 of their three part series, Andrew Ford and Matt Hrdlicka talk about soon-to-be free agent guard Mike Conley, and what the next 5 years might look like.

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(If you missed the Gasol portion of this conversation in Part 1, you can find it here)

MATT: Let's move on to Conley. Before the season, I wrote about the history of small speedy point guards as they move past thirty. The norm is they start to regress around the age Conley is now, and the further past thirty, the dicier it becomes. In short, the only small guys who are as good post-thirty as they were at 28 are in the Hall of Fame.

Even though I warned that Conley was nearing the end of his prime, I didn't expect... this. Conley is attempting the fewest shots at the rim of his career, and finishing the worst percentage of them since his 2nd year in the league. His three point shooting is below 36% for the first time since his rookie year (though that could be variance).

That doesn't even touch what I suspect is your biggest worry about Conley. Namely, his defense. Do you think this year is a bit of an aberration, or part of a larger downward trend?

ANDREW: Conley is better than the level he is currently playing at when fully healthy. But with each passing year, it becomes harder for Conley to keep his diminutive body healthy while getting banged around for 82+ games. He hasn't been fully healthy for as long as I can remember, but that hasn't caused a notable dip in production until this season.

Some of his offensive drop-off can probably be attributed to those around him not playing at an elite level with great regularity. Zach Randolph doesn't demand the same amount of defensive attention he did a couple seasons ago, and Gasol's fitness has forced him to coast too much. Couple the up-and-down performances of the bigs with long-standing, super mediocre offensive output from the wing positions, and suddenly Conley's not running an offense that poses much of a threat to opponents.

As you alluded to, what's most concerning to me about Conley is his defense. He's not fighting over ball screens like he once was, and he's not as good at stopping penetration one-on-one. Perhaps Conley is not playing as well defensively because of a slew of injuries or because he's trying to conserve more energy since he is now counted on to do more on offense. Regardless of the reason, Conley is much less valuable when he's not defending at a high level, and that's a problem when the Grizzlies are looking at potentially handing him a max contract this upcoming offseason.

What do you think the Grizzlies can reasonably expect from Conley throughout the course of his next contract assuming the Grizzlies re-sign him to a long term deal this offseason?

MATT: Warning: enormous caveat to what I am about to say: Conley is still worth a max contract. He is worth a max contract because you are worth what someone will pay you.

He is worth a max contract to the Grizzlies because there is no Plan B if Conley leaves. There is no breaking the glass. The Grizzlies will be a bad team if Conley leaves. You pay whatever price to prevent that from happening

Warning: Second enormous caveat: Conley has no incentive to leave. Memphis is the only team that can offer him a 5th year, and if Conley signs elsewhere he will never recoup the $20mm+ 5th year that he leaves on the table. Conley and the Grizzlies are a match made in heaven. There are no problems here.

Except there kind of are.

I think it is very possible that this season is somewhat of a Conley aberration. I mentioned a bit of negative variance (specifically in 3 pt shooting), you mentioned a subpar supporting cast, and then we both mentioned injuries.

It is also possible that this is the beginning of the end for Conley.

I think the first scenario is more likely, and that Conley bounces back next year, but after that history tells us to expect small guards to begin declining. Like Gasol, Conley has skill to fall back on, and he has proven to be able to fill in gaps in his game. Conley doesn't "rely" on his speed to be effective, like John Wall or Russell Westbrook do. He couples his speed and quickness with his mind and skill, and I actually think he will be more pro-active than Gasol in recognizing holes in his game, and papering over them with changes or additions.

I think we both recognize that who surrounds Conley is more important now than it was even last year. It's not just the minutes with Conley and Gasol. It's the workload. They've done all the hard stuff - handling the ball, defending, creating for others, taking contact in the paint - for yearsssssss. He and Gasol need a third offensive hub to help take the playmaking off of them. ZBo can get buckets against the right matchups, but that's not even what we need anymore.

We don't just need buckets, we need another guy that can get the ball to the guys that get buckets. Memphis needs ball movement and passing and an injection of basketball intelligence to help ease the back-ends of Gasol and Conley's next few years.

Am I crazy to think Conley might be a touch more pro-active in transitioning into his post-thirty years than Gasol?

ANDREW: Assuming Conley will swallow his pride and transition into his post-thirty years better than Gasol feels like a safe bet to me. As a smaller guard, Conley has constantly been forced to dig deep into his tool kit throughout his career to find moves that will allow him to overcome a physical gap that doesn't favor him. When you're not a big guy in the NBA, it's absolutely necessary to swallow your pride and just settle on doing what works regardless of how that might look. So if Conley is relatively healthy going forward, then I think he can still be very useful as he adapts his game because this won't be the first time he's had to change things up.

Gasol on the other hand has added moves to his arsenal over the years, but his role in the offense and the way he plays the game hasn't changed in years. He's used to being a dominant force on the low block, and I think that will be tough for him to give up out of habit at the very least.

One thing you mentioned that I think would really help both Conley and Gasol ease into new roles is a better supporting cast. One really good two-way wing player would go a long way. I'm not sure how conceivable it is that the Grizzlies could acquire a guy like that as early as this upcoming offseason, but let's say they found a way to get it done. That player would take quite a bit off of Conley's and Gasol's shoulders on both ends.

Offensively, having a guy with the capacity to break down a defense off the dribble and serve as a creative catalyst would allow Conley and Gasol to settle into these new, projected roles we've talked about quicker. Conley could play off the ball and focus on knocking down catch-and-shoot jumpers, and Gasol could play away from the low block with more regularity.

Defensively, a good wing defender would allow the Grizzlies to dictate backcourt matchups more than they are able to currently. Also, another quality perimeter defender would make Gasol's job defending the interior as a lone wolf in modern four out-one in offensive lineups much less daunting.

This ends Part 2 of our three part conversation. Come back for Part 3 where we will tackle a fun (or depressing) hypothetical. Who would you rather have for the next four years than Conley and Gasol?