The secret is out. Mike Conley is one of the top players in the National Basketball Association.
Of course this isn’t that much of a surprise to Memphis Grizzlies fans, those who have seen the growth in Conley ever since he was drafted by the Grizzlies ten years ago. As he enters his eleventh season with the only organization he has known as a professional, he faces a larger role than he has ever known. From potential bust to solid starter to top player to “the guy”, it’s been an epic climb for the man Grizzlies fans affectionately call “Captain Clutch”.
But after possibly the best year of his life, after becoming a dad, and pulling the massive contract followed by a career-best performance on the floor, what’s next for Mike?
2016-2017 Season in Review
The 5-year, $153 million contract that Conley signed in the summer of 2016 opened a lot of eyes, and had a lot of folks questioning what Mike had done to earn such a payday. Conley, being the player that he is, went out and showed just who the Grizzlies had invested in. While he continued to not get the recognition that comes with an All-Star or All-NBA selection, he simply played the best basketball of his career.
20.5 points per game. Almost 41% shooting from beyond the arc. 46% overall shooting from the field. Career highs in points scored, and three pointers made, and offensive efficiency, and net rating, and PER and win shares per 48 minutes and usage...
From basic to advanced and everything in between, the numbers back up the eye test - Conley really did not have a weakness last season. He took the keys of David Fizdale’s scheme on offense and ran it like a finely tuned machine built with Memphis muscle. Mike showed his worth and somehow even improved upon his regular season performance in an impressive series against the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs. He raised his game when the Grizzlies needed him most and at times was the best player on the floor, even when his teammate Marc Gasol and Spurs machine/stud Kawhi Leonard were out there as well.
Conley had a remarkable 2016-2017 campaign. That cannot be understated.
From an afterthought to the centerpiece. How fitting it is for Mike Conley to be in the middle of the “Big Three” of the Memphis Grizzlies, in between Marc Gasol and Chandler Parsons - the two other players who the organization is depending on for their success. Conley has taken the reigns and embraced who he is in David Fizdale’s Memphis with these new-look Grizzlies. He no longer defers to veterans like Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. He is now that veteran that young players look to. He is now the role model, the standard bearer.
He is the bar that every one else is trying to rise to.
With that comes a responsibility to take ownership, and Conley’s ability as a leader with this group of players will be the largest change for him this season. He has been one of the Grizzlies’ top two players for at least the past two seasons. But now all eyes are on him, even more than Marc Gasol, to set the tone and pace for this roster. With all the changes that have occurred, the talk of “Grit and Grind” still being around is all well and good, but also a bit far-fetched. Two of the pillars of that era are gone. It is time for Mike to take hold of this team and make it his own, to use what he learned from TA and Z-Bo and mold it into his own image.
The identity that takes shape, and the culture that fills the void left by the departing Memphis legends, will be directly connected to Conley. That may take some getting used to.
2017-2018 Best Case Scenario
I undersold Conley last year, projecting him to score only 18.5 points per game. This season, I won’t make the same mistake. With the departure of Randolph and Vince Carter especially, there are points to be had. While Chandler Parsons (hopefully) will eat up a majority of that production, there is room for Mike’s numbers to grow even more. A comparable shooting year (41% three-point shooting especially) with more attempts would mean a 21 or even 22 point per game average.
While that still likely would not net Mike an All-Star selection in the loaded Western Conference, that would still be remarkable production for Conley...and doesn’t seem like much of a stretch after last season.
2017-2018 Worst Case Scenario
This has entirely to do with health. Mike is probably still a year or two away from noticeable drop-offs to his athleticism (“losing a step”) and his game becoming more perimeter-based will only help him create more space to work with in the pick and roll and dribble penetration, meaning he’ll take less contact at and around the rim. But Conley has played less than 70 regular season games each of the last two seasons, with a broken back and ankle/foot issues limiting just how much impact he could truly have if he could somehow play 75-77 games in those seasons.
Something more serious, meaning more time missed than just 12-14 games, would spell disaster for a Grizzlies team that will need every Conley floater and hesitation move they can get.
The expectations for Mike are directly connected to just what his teammates can do for him, and what he can do for his teammates. If players like Tyreke Evans and Chandler Parsons can stay healthy and facilitate offense for Conley so he can play off the ball more, we could potentially see even more prolific offensive production than we did last year. On the other hand, if these scorers, plus Ben McLemore once he gets healthy, can convert open shots and layups and three-point jumpers at higher clips than the players Memphis lost, Conley could see his assist numbers jump.
Captain Clutch has shown us what he can do with players with limited offensive skill sets around him. He has demonstrated an ability to slow down or accelerate the game and when needed, both in pace and in the pick and roll. Now that the roster has turned and the team is younger and more athletic, Conley’s ceiling just went up even higher. The potential is there; it will come down to execution and belief. And that will start with the culture and identity of this group, which in turn will start with Conley himself.
In that way, the Grizzlies are in good hands. Memphis may be the NBA’s best kept secret if things break the way that they hope.
Thankfully, Mike Conley knows all about that.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com.