Author’s note: This article was written before the Nov. 4th win versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.
An unfortunate update was released this past week. Mike Conley will be out another two to three weeks while nursing an Achilles injury. This is bad news, but how bad?
The Memphis Grizzlies just ended an 11-game losing streak, but frankly, it still does not look in the near future. (MEM @ NYK could be our temporary antidote, Kristaps Porzingis could be out.)
Life as a Grizzly fan has gotten publicly dark in recent weeks. David Fizdale is gone, J.B. Bickerstaff is in, and Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace is aiming to save the season.
Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff is now tasked to salvage an already-lost season with the current roster. In a perfect world, that means the roster would be healthy and ready to play. But remember, this is Memphis we are talking about, there will always be injuries. (Why is no questioning the job of the team trainers and/or doctors?)
The number one injury that is leaving a gaping hole in the roster is the Achilles of Mike Conley. Fortunately, the injury is labeled as “soreness” and not any significant damage. Also, keep in mind that the season looks awful so far. Why bring back Conley too early and risk a more significant injury in potentially meaningless games?
But, are we sure the return of Mike Conley will be the answer that GM Chris Wallace is hoping for to save the season? I think not.
Conley, a staple in Memphis, was not playing well before he was sidelined, and the Grizzlies’ problems can’t be solved by one fringe all-star player anyway. Mike is tallying his career-worst field goal percentage, his worst three-point percentage, fouling his most since the 2012-13 season, and logging his fewest minutes since his sophomore NBA season. Not good.
Let’s say hypothetically, Conley comes back healthy, strong, and on an all-star type level. Does this equate to Memphis wins? To answer this question, you have to diagnose what the real issues are this season.
Scoring has always and will always be an issue for Memphis. In the 12 games Conley has played, Memphis is averaging 101 points per game. In the nine games since his soreness, the team is averaging 94 points a game. Seven points is not that significant of a difference, at least not the difference in a top NBA point guard, especially when your defense is struggling...
Defensively, it’s the same story. In games Conley has played, Memphis allows 99.8 PPG. In the nine that he has been out for soreness, Memphis allows 103.7 PPG. Again, not a significant disparity. As a point of note, Mike Conley is only contributing 0.3 defensive win shares so far this season, good for 9th on the team. In comparison, the abysmal Mario Chalmers is contributing 2nd most defensive win shares at 0.6.
The one statistic that any fan can point to in Mike’s absence is that the team is 7-5 when he plays and 0-10 without him. But, let’s take a look at when the Grizzlies’ problems actually started.
Though it is debatable where to pinpoint the demise of this season, a good game to start with is the home loss to the Orlando Magic on November 1st. This loss was the second of a back-to-back homestand (the previous game was a loss to Charlotte). Also, it started the awful month of November that we have all suffered through.
Through October (5-2 record), Conley shot 37%, just 26% from three and averaged 17.3 points per game. In November (2-3 with Conley, 2-11 overall), Mike improved. He raised both shooting percentages and contributed more on defense, 40% shooting, 39% from three, and 1.2 steals a game. Of 13 games, Conley only played five.
So, let me put this in context. Mike Conley played poorly through October, however, the Grizzlies as a team still played well and won games. In November, Conley improved and then didn’t play. Memphis totally tanks. Case in point: in my opinion, Mike Conley is not the X-factor on this team. That’s not to say that he isn’t an important feature of the faceless Grizzlies, but the problems are above Conley.
For one, the usage rates of the Grizzlies are just wrong. For example, of the top six players in usage rate for Memphis, only one shoots above 43%, Tyreke Evans at 48.5%. The four players that log 14+ minutes and shoot 50%+ have an average usage percentage of 15.5. On the contrary, the players with the top four usage percentages are shooting just under 41%. Part of this has to do with the Conley issue, of course, but that large of a disparity is still an issue.
Another problem is that this team has lost all sense of identity. Sure, the Grizzlies are still number six in opponent points per game, but that’s partly because of their slow pace. Fizdale was heralded as the guy that would bring the Memphis offense to life. This season, Memphis ranks 28th in points per game and 21st in team shooting percentage (45%).
The Grizzlies just aren’t doing anything well. Both ends of the floor are rocky: the coaching situation doesn’t help, ownership could be experiencing an overhaul, and our general manager seems unfortunately optimistic. Mike Conley’s absence has been noticed, as well as other injuries to Brandan Wright and Wayne Selden Jr. But this teams’ problems cannot and will not be solved by Conley’s return.
I am looking forward to his return as much as any other fan. Perhaps the offense will become a little more watchable, but my expectations are also realistic towards the direction of this season, with or without Conley.
Let’s worry about the plethora of more important team issues to solve before we ask Conley to be our saving grace.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com