How this Memphis Grizzlies season has spiraled to this point has got to be hard on a lot of people. The fan base, of course, is struggling with the fact that the team is not as good as they have been in the past. The players are trudging up a never ending hill it would seem, finding distractions and disappointment at every turn as a 5-1 dream start has disintegrated into an 8-16 reality. The coaches are trying to find ways to “fix” something that may be irreparably broken, and the front office is staring at a lottery selection possibility after firing their head coach who had issues with his star player.
Oh, and ownership may be changing soon and it will likely play out very publicly, with players like former Grizzlies front office head Jason Levien potentially being involved.
So things are not well in Memphis. But one person who is surely taking the struggles of his team to heart, and who the tide of this season now turns to, is Mike Conley. Left out in the mess that was Fizdale vs. Gasol and the impending ownership drama is what is the real story line of the season, which is Conley’s early poor play and then eventual injury shutdown due to a sore Achilles tendon. Even before his removal from play, whether it was because of exhaustion from playing middle man between Gasol and Fizdale or the pain in his Achilles he couldn’t shake, he was not himself.
It was Mike Conley who after a career season last year was under-performing drastically to start this campaign, shooting 38% from the field and 31% from three.
It was Mike Conley who was posting a negative net rating (-4, 106 offensive rating, 110 defensive rating) for the first time since the 2009-2010 campaign.
It was Mike Conley who David Fizdale invested in. It was around Mike Conley that Coach Fizdale built his hopes of developing a “culture”. And it was Conley who, by all accounts, bought into Fizdale in a way Marc Gasol never did.
Even with the team winning 7 of the 12 games Mike played in this year, that was at times in spite of Conley, not because of him. 3-14 shooting against Golden State, 8 points total against Houston...while Mike had good performances as well, the lack of consistency was really clear in Captain Clutch’s game. Whatever the reason, he was not what Memphis needed him to be, which likely led to the decision to sit him and let him get right.
That was the right decision then, and remains the right decision now. But because of that, any decision regarding the direction of this team moving forward must await Conley’s return...if it comes. For if Mike (and there’s no reason to assume this is the case) cannot return this season, then the decision is made. Some form of “tanking” by the front office, whether it be small-scale (trading Tyreke Evans and James Ennis III, for example) or large-scale (Marc Gasol), must be on the table.
The same could have been said if Gasol’s injury scare from Wednesday’s game had been worse. Without Mike and/or Marc, this team has no chance at a playoff spot, so if Mike suffers a setback? It’s an easy call.
But the challenge comes in Conley’s return. As of this writing Memphis is only four games, and three losses, behind the current 8th seed Utah Jazz. With all the chaos and frustration, this could still perhaps turn around with a Conley return. Even though Mike struggled, the narrative should be that The Conductor stabilizes Memphis. It allows for players like Tyreke Evans, Dillon Brooks, and others to return to ideal roles. It should (again, in theory) mean a healthy Conley, not just physically but emotionally. No need to be a “mediator” between Fizdale and Gasol anymore, no need to over-compensate for an aching Achilles. A return, hopefully, to some normalcy for Mike could revitalize the Grizzlies.
That Mike Conley is a damn good basketball player. And he could, perhaps, save this season for Memphis. Even in a down year, the Grizzlies were better with Mike than without him. With Conley on the floor, Memphis had a +.3 net rating (103.3 offensive, 103 defensive) over 373 minutes. In 779 minutes without Mike? Memphis is a net -4.2 in rating (101.3 offensive, 105.5 defensive). Those rating/efficiency points add up over time, and with Mike on the floor there’s more opportunity for others, there is more attention paid to him than, say, Mario Chalmers, and the Grizzlies are just better.
That is a statistical argument for a weakened Mike Conley. Remember, the assumption is Mike returns healthy, sound in both body and mind. The difference between Mike being on and off the court last season was that much more drastic. Conley was a +3.1 with the Grizzlies when he was on the floor in 2,292 minutes last year (108.6 offensive, 105.5 defensive), and Memphis was a -3.9 (99.4 offensive, 103.3 defensive) with him off the floor. That is a 7 point difference, and while the rosters are pretty different the common denominator is this-
Mike Conley matters.
Now, will Mike make Memphis a title contender? Of course not. He may not even make them a playoff team, as Gary Parrish of CBS Sports and 92.9 FM ESPN Memphis said on GBBLive this week, Memphis must go 35-23 the rest of the way just to get to 43 wins. That feels impossible at this moment, and unlikely even with Conley back in the fold. But a competitive Grizzlies team perhaps could make that run, and get back much needed confidence. Time and again, we have seen this team rise and do the improbable, and damn near impossible.
It is unlikely...but it could happen.
That puts the Grizzlies in a precarious position, and even with a Conley return a decision must be made quickly. Within 10 games or so of Mike being back, General Manager Chris Wallace and his staff will have to decide whether or not this team is worth placing a bet that they will most likely lose on. The difference between the 5th overall and 12th overall pick in this draft is massive, as Parrish put it on GBBLive. To swing for the fences and strike out could put this organization’s rebuild behind another year or two.
But to actually achieve that improbable goal of the playoffs for the 8th season in a row? After all the drama of this season to this point? That would be an accomplishment, and it would be celebrated by many in Memphis. It most likely would not result in title, but it would mean a return to competitiveness and success that is OK for most in the fan base. Being good, being able to play with the best and have a chance to go on a run...that has been the goal for much of the past seven seasons.
Should that continue? A decision cannot be made on that until Mike Conley returns. Because he is that good. And that important. He means leadership, and offensive production, and a calming presence, and experience for a roster that needs more of all of the above. He lightens the load on Marc Gasol and it must be seen if this team, with a potentially healthy Conley, can truly save this season. If he cannot? Bring on the tank, however it appears.
But the Conductor of these Grizzlies has played with a broken face, and competed with Kawhi Leonard at the highest levels of the game. He has plenty of times on his greatest hits where the improbable is conquered.
Let’s see if he can do it again, one more time, before it is said for sure that the season is lost.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com and nba.com/stats