Michael Alex Conley Junior is a man who has accumulated a bevy of nicknames in his nine-year NBA career. There’s the self-promoted “MAC-11” (his initials and his jersey number; also a type of automatic pistol), the franchise-generated “Conductor,” the nationally stale “most underrated player,” and the Tony Allen-produced “Masked Assassin.”
But one that has evaded everyday usage by Grizzlies’ fans themselves is “Captain Clutch.” I only ever see this nickname on the Twitters when he produces heroics late in a game, but otherwise, no one seems to refer to Conley in this manner.
So I got to wondering if Conley truly deserves the “Captain Clutch” nickname, even in very specific, time-sensitive usage. I’ve seen him make shots in the clutch, don’t get me wrong. Who could forget his three against the Thunder sending Game 4 of the 2011 playoffs to overtime in their epic three overtime melee? Or how about when he beat the Spurs with about a second to go with a righty layup at the Forum in 2013? Search “Mike Conley buzzer beater” and you’ll find a whole page of separate game-tying and game-clinching moments to fill your spare time.
But just because he has a few highlights doesn’t necessarily correlate to consistent crunch time success.
To check Conley’s clutch gene, I surveyed NBA.com’s clutch stats as well as NBA Miner’s clutch time stats from the last three seasons. At first, it looks like “Captain Clutch” may have been a misplaced moniker.
Last season, per NBA Miner, Conley shot 26.8 percent in the clutch, defined by NBA Miner as “during the 4th quarter or overtime, with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points.” That field goal percentage was a full 15.5 percentage points worse than his non-clutch time shooting. He shot only 28.6 percent from three - 7.7 percent worse than his average - and shot 29.4 percent in the final minute of games.
And per NBA.com, Mike was the third best Grizzly in crunch time. Both Tony Allen and Marc Gasol bested Conley in Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating, and therefore also Net Rating. Conley’s Net Rating was 12.5.
In fact, Conley has been third on the team in clutch time Net Rating the past three seasons. In 2014/15 he finished behind Allen and Zach Randolph with an 18.3 Net Rating and in 2013/14 he finished behind Tayshaun Prince and Gasol with a Net Rating of 28.2.
From that data a thesis could be generated that Conley’s clutch gene might have been over-emphasized, while Gasol’s might have been underrated.
Howeeeeeeevvver, that’s not the whole story. Last season Conley was objectively bad in the clutch - there’s no two ways about it. But he had already earned the nickname before last season.
In 2013/14 Conley shot 50.8 percent from the field in the final five minutes of games and overtime. Only he and Chris Bosh were among the top twenty crunch time point scorers to have shot 50 percent or better. He was eighteenth overall in points scored with a round 100.
Conley made nine three’s for a flush 40.9 percent shooting from distance. And the Ohio State product shot 41.2 percent in the final minute - only three other players shot 40 percent or better in that period (James Harden, John Wall, and Al Jefferson).
And if you thought that was good, his numbers from the next season are even more impressive! In 2014/15 Conley shot a bit worse from the field at 46.3 percent, but he shot 46.2 percent from three and 52.2 percent in the final minute. His final minute field goal percentage was fourth amongst the top twenty highest scoring players in clutch time. He trailed only Markieff Morris (how this happened, I cannot explain), Dirk Nowitzki (who shot 60 percent!!), and Anthony Davis (who shot 68.8 PERCENT!!!!).
Conley also scored the seventh most clutch time points with 117 points, including 12 three pointers. He was tied for second in clutch time triples behind only Harden and tied with Eric Gordon and C.J. Miles.
So here’s where we’re at: Conley was dominant in the clutch two and three seasons ago, rightfully earning the “Captain Clutch” nickname. But he was bad last year during crunch time, which could arguably strip him of the title. Are two great seasons enough for a player to be known as clutch? Personally, I don’t think so.
But there is the chance that last year was an anomaly and he plays like a star in the clutch once again this year. It appears we’ll have to wait and see about the veracity of Conley’s “Captain Clutch” nickname, but as long as he reverts back to his 2014/15 form, he’s earned the name.