He’s always been a tough son of a gun, that Mike Conley.
Broken faces and backs, banged up ankles and feet; all this and then some have afflicted Mike at some stage of his nine-year career as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies. The latest cut above the eye doesn’t come as much of a surprise, but the rest of this year does. As an undersized point guard who several fans wanted shipped out of Memphis just seven or eight years ago, the fact that the events of this season have unfolded in this way for Conley surely comes as a shock to some.
Durability was a concern, to me and to others. Whether or not he was outside of his prime already was a thought of some as he inked his massive five-year extension to stay in Memphis last summer. “Who the hell is Mike Conley?”, many exclaimed after he signed on the dotted line. “What has he done to earn that money?” Mike heard the doubts and just promised to keep working and keep getting better.
And damned if he didn’t do it.
Mike Conley somehow has found a way to, as the highest paid player in the NBA, once again be underrated.
And in the process, it has come to be that the Memphis Grizzlies are now his team to lead.
No disrespect to Zach Randolph or Tony Allen, who started this most successful era in Memphis Grizzlies history. But most fans have come to grips with the fact that the “Grit and Grind” era is ending (if it hasn’t already finished), and the team just hasn’t moved on yet. It also isn’t meant as a shot at Marc Gasol, who is having quite the season himself while also coming off of an injury. He’s making history as a big who can shoot the three, create for others, and defend the rim-
But Marc, despite head coach David Fizdale’s best efforts, does not embrace being a leader the way Fizdale would likely like him to.
That’s the bad news. The good news is he’s got his kind of leader already.
He’s got a guy who is outperforming the three-time All-Star Gasol in multiple statistical categories.
Gasol vs. Conley
|2016/2017 Season||Mike Conley||Marc Gasol|
|2016/2017 Season||Mike Conley||Marc Gasol|
|Points Per 36 Minutes||22.2||20.6|
|Win Shares Per 48 Minutes||0.207||0.147|
He’s a guy who has a higher offensive rating than James Harden (118) or Russell Westbrook (112). He’s a guy who has a higher win shares per 48 minutes than Damian Lillard (.175) and John Wall (.154). Yet he remains a guy who many would rank behind those listed here not just in place, but perhaps in overall tier.
That’s not to say that Conley is better than, say, two MVP candidates in Harden and Westbrook. It does say, however, that “is Mike Conley a top-10 point guard” and “should Mike Conley be an All-Star?” are no longer fun debates. You know what are fun debates?
“Is Mike Conley a top-5 point guard?”
“Is Mike Conley an All-NBA point guard?”
“Is Mike Conley the best player on the Memphis Grizzlies now?”
His role as a leader on the roster was never questioned. But with Gasol’s max contract almost two summers ago now and his spot as the cornerstone of scheme firmly (supposedly) cemented, it seemed that this was Marc’s team to guide. To an extent it still is - make no mistake, Marc remains the best player in Memphis Grizzlies history, and the Grizzlies are a two-man crew when it comes to postseason hopes and #believememphis miracle dreams.
But where Marc calls out players indirectly who aren’t playing up to a standard publicly, Mike continues to focus on what he can control. When Marc seemingly shuts down on the floor with poor body language and deflecting responsibility, Conley continues to grind and show grit in the face of adversity. Mike leads by example, whereas Marc leads by looking beyond himself trying to find the issues afflicting the team.
It's not always Marc’s fault, but a leader should always point the finger of blame at themselves first. Leadership starts with service to those you lead. Mike Conley gets that.
It’s Conley who attempts 4.3 shots per 4th quarter, tied for the team lead in the final frame, while Marc only takes 3.2. It is “Captain Clutch” who shoots 41.2% from beyond the arc in the final frame of games, while “Big Spain” shoots 28.8%. It’s Mike who scores 6.3 points per game in the last stanza of the contest, while Gasol only puts up 4.2 per game in roughly the same amount of time (8.4 4th quarter minutes per game for Marc, 8.2 for Mike).
It is Marc who Mike looks to to take the shot or to make the pass- to make the right decision. That takes a level of trust that Marc does not give out lightly. Their relationship allows for that, though - they’ve come of age together as basketball players, and it’s Conley’s time to make the choice. It’s a decision that Conley takes and runs with. There was a time where the “right” basketball play should be made by Marc Gasol.
I can't believe how clutch Mike Conley is... dagger 3 and then an incredible 15-foot floater with his off-hand. pic.twitter.com/VZ7JBmz9gp— Dave Noriega (@davenoriega) January 29, 2017
More often than not, Mike Conley makes the call in those key moments. And, for this season at least, he has risen to the challenge when called upon. He had a monster month of March and has been one of the top scorers not just on the Grizzlies, but in the NBA since the All-Star break. The team’s record has not been the best, but neither has its overall health. And where would they be without Mike Conley stepping up to help Memphis stay above the eight seed fray?
Possibly on the outside looking in. A place where no one wants to be, considering the stakes with the end of the “core four” looming closer than ever before.
Entering the NBA Playoffs, the Grizzlies will once again be the underdogs. They again take on the San Antonio Spurs, at worst the third best team in the NBA. But this time it feels different, people say - the Spurs don’t feel invincible. A major part of that has to do with the man at the point guard position for the Memphis Grizzlies. Because for the first time, a matchup with Kawhi Leonard, while still daunting, does not feel like the “checkmate” it once was. For the first time, Tony Parker is undoubtedly the lesser of the two starting point guards on the floor.
This time, the Grizzlies will hopefully have two All-Star/All-NBA caliber players on the floor, voters, coaches, and media selections aside - not just the one at center, but the one at the point. This time, Memphis will rally behind a player who has been entrusted with being more than just a “game manager” by his head coach. He is counted on to score. To create for himself and others. To be the energy and the momentum for his teammates, to be “the man” when the game is at its crescendo and all the noise and chaos surround him.
When Memphis takes the court in San Antonio to take on the Spurs next weekend in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, they will be led by Mike Conley. A different Mike Conley than the Spurs have ever seen. And it will be that Mike Conley that will either lead the Grizzlies into the next round of another improbable playoff run, a fitting likely end of an era, or into the future of the franchise in Memphis.
Earlier this season, I proclaimed that I was with Mike. That remains true today, but over the course of the season it didn’t become about awards and accolades. It grew to something much more profound.
The Memphis Grizzlies are his team now. And they’re in tough, good hands.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com and media.nba.com/stats