Mike Conley had quite the summer. Becoming a father and signing the largest deal in NBA history are pretty major life events, and he did these things all while trying to recover from various ailments physically, especially his injured Achilles tendon that eventually ended his 2015-2016 season. Conley was the best available point guard on the market, and while there was some concern with the max contract in Memphis, the Grizzlies had to pay him, or risk losing him.
That would have been a disaster.
But now that Conley is in the fold and he is a clear piece of the Grizzlies future alongside Chandler Parsons and Marc Gasol, he must step up and rise above previous expectations. In order to do that, he’ll have to shake things up a bit.
2015-2016 Season Overview
Conley averaged only 15.3 points per game, his lowest output since the 2012-2013 season. He also posted surprisingly low numbers in minutes per game (31.4, his lowest since 2008-2009), shooting percentage (42.2%, a career low), and games played (56, lowest since his rookie season in 2007-2008).
Conley’s advanced numbers were not much better. His win shares per 48 minutes according to basketball-reference.com was .144, his worst since 2011-2012. It was also his lowest usage rate since the 11-12 season. He was not as active in the offense as a scorer and his overall performance struggled because of it.
He was, however, quite good at protecting the basketball. Mike’s turnover percentage was a career low (a good thing) 9.5%, and his assist percentage a career high 32.7% according to basketball-reference.com. He created for his teammates at a great rate, and he did so without costing the offensively-challenged Grizzlies too many possessions.
An overall down season for Mike, but there were silver linings in the dark cloud.
Conley obviously is the starter heading into the season. However, a repeat performance of his shooting from last season would be a disaster. The investment the Grizzlies have made in Mike, plus the arrival of David Fizdale as head coach, almost surely mean that Conley will have a larger role in the offense as a scorer. Chandler Parsons will be depended upon for scoring punch, but after Parsons it will be up to Conley and Marc Gasol to provide points off of various pick and roll sets.
Conley’s best points per game season was 2013-2014, where he scored 17.2. A repeat of this should be a minimum expectation - he posted a career-best 113 offensive rating that season, and if he can get back to his career averages and increase his usage, he should be able to approach that 17.2 number.
2016-2017 Best Case Scenario
Mike Conley’s very first All-Star season is driven by a 18.5 points per game on 44% shooting and a career-best 39.5% three-point shooting performance. He is able to stay healthy, playing 75 games and averaging 32 minutes per game.
2016-2017 Worst Case Scenario
Conley’s health issues only get worse. His Achilles heel is literally and figuratively his body, as he misses 32 games for a variety of problems, especially a sore recurring Achilles issue. Because he is never able to stay on the court consistently, he cannot get into a rhythm as a defender or scorer and only puts up 14 points per game, his lowest since 2011-2012. The $153 million man makes Memphis worry a good bit.
The Memphis Grizzlies were put in a tough situation when it came to offering the 5-year, $153 million contract that kept “Captain Clutch” in Beale Street Blue for the next half-decade. If they had come in with a much lower offer, they risked losing their “conductor” to a rival in the Dallas Mavericks without a good plan B option. Now that he is signed, much of their future rests on the shoulders, legs, and overall health of a player heading towards his 29th birthday having suffered through a variety of injuries the past few seasons.
There is some good news for Conley and his team, though. The arrival of Chandler Parsons can, and should, help Conley tremendously. The Conley/Parsons pick and roll brings about a world of possibilities, and the fact that Parsons himself can create off the dribble will allow for Mike to play off the ball more. This should help him score in new ways in David Fizdale’s offense. Conley will also have Marc Gasol (hopefully) alongside him for much of the season, and their chemistry offensively has developed into a true weapon over the years.
Mike must raise his level of production for this season to be considered a success for him. As long as he and his teammates can stay healthy, this can be done. But as Grizzlies fans learned last season, health cannot be assumed and all it takes is one bad step or freak elbow to the eye for Memphis’ “well-built house of cards,” as Zach Lowe put it, to fall apart.
Mike Conley is one card that cannot fall if Memphis hopes to make noise in the Western Conference this season.