It must be hard being Mike Conley, the basketball player for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Yes, he is compensated very well for his efforts. Yes, he gets to play a child’s game for a king’s ransom, and nurses and other noble callings should get paid more. Still, from the biggest Grizzlies fan to a casual NBA follower, viewers probably come away from watching Memphis play basketball saying one specific thing...aside from “man, the Grizzlies play ugly basketball”.
Goodness, Mike Conley needs help.
It was assumed/known all along that Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff was building his offense around the exploits of Mike Conley as a scorer. The acquisition of numerous facilitators of offense off the ball was one major clue - Mike could come off screens and run sets away from the top of the key or without the ball in his hands more often thanks to Garrett Temple and Kyle Anderson coming to Memphis. So far so good, to an extent - Mike looks like he’s back to near his 2016-2017 levels of production, or at the very least the two seasons before then. Point being, he is worthy of the investment both the organization and coaching staff have made in him.
But is he capable of sustaining such a role, without any help beyond the “find the right play” style of Marc Gasol?
Conley has never been asked to do as much offensively as he is right now - going in to the Knicks game Sunday night his usage rate of 27.9% is currently 1.6% higher than that 2016-2017 campaign, his current career high. Considering Mike played 39 minutes and took 24 shots in that game, it’s unlikely that number is going to go down any time soon. Even more noticeable, however, is the fact that Conley had nowhere to go when a bucket was needed beyond Gasol. He often took less-than-optimal shots because he was the only threat to create for himself, and when he did dish out to open shooters they were incapable of converting.
The team was always going to go through Gasol and Conley. But beyond them, the pain of the Chandler Parsons swing and miss really shines through. Memphis is limited in terms of trade options, free agency appears to be where the Grizzlies will try to address their rebounding woes some with Joakim Noah’s reported impending arrival, and there are limited free agency moves to be made anyway.
What is Memphis to do?
Improve from within
What do J.B. Bickerstaff and Dave Joerger apparently have in common?
A lack of trust in rookies...sort of.
Where Dave Joerger didn’t play young players enough or at all, it seems Bickerstaff is worried about possible mistakes the best rookie in Memphis since O.J. Mayo may make in his time on the court, especially in the clutch. There’s no denying that Jaren Jackson Jr. has had issues with foul trouble - those concerns came with him from his days at Michigan State, and it’s not particularly surprising the jump from the Big Ten to the NBA hasn’t been clean in that regard.
What is surprising, however, is just how freaking good Jaren Jackson Jr. has been offensively at times at the ripe age of 19.
Jackson was particularly explosive against the Knicks. 16 points on six shots probably isn’t sustainable, and neither are the absurd seven blocks he racked up against New York. The raw ability that we knew he possessed coming in to the 2018 NBA Draft isn’t as raw as I, and others, thought it may be, though. The kid is damn near elite already defensively, and is certainly further along offensively than anticipated by most.
Yet when the team needs him most, JJJ isn’t depended on. He isn’t a focus in the fourth quarter offensively - Jaren attempts only 1.9 shots per 4th quarter he participates in according to NBA.com/stats. While he struggles more in the final frame shooting than in the previous three (43.8% is easily the lowest shooting percentage among the four quarters), he isn’t fed as often in these key moments...when he is able to see the floor.
There’s a logic to sitting him due to foul trouble, but Bickerstaff has to be honest with what he has on this roster. Those around Conley and Gasol, while carrying value, are not scorers. Kyle Anderson wasn’t brought in to be the third man. Jevon Carter, Yuta Watanabe, and Ivan Rabb aren’t saving you, and neither is a hopefully returning soon Dillon Brooks. Chandler Parsons is...well...not going to help either. Garrett Temple and Shelvin Mack are fine role players, but are starting to cool after hot starts and are regressing to their means.
The most obvious internal option is Jackson.
That isn’t to say he has to be featured that much more prominently - he is already 3rd on the team in usage rate, even ranking in front of Marc Gasol. What does need to be done, however, is allowing for him to be the focal point of sets when both Gasol and Conley are on the floor at key moments late in games. Sometimes it needs to be Jaren and Mike in the pick and roll, with Marc playing on the opposite elbow or above the break. Sometimes it needs to be a Jaren iso opposite of Gasol and Conley, with Conley having a screen set by Gasol to run off of with Gasol rolling to the basket and Conley running to curl off the screen to either get a pass from Jackson or have the defender collapse in help to give JJJ an open jumper.
And this needs to happen in the fourth quarter. With four minutes or less left.
Jaren has lived up to the hype and then some to this point. If you’re not going to make a major move to bring in help, then the biggest possibility for internal improvement is with the 19 year old unicorn.
An outside source of assistance?
I have written about this before, but there is a possibility that the expiring contracts of JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple carry more weight this trading season than normal because of the pretty special free agency class of 2019. The New York Knicks, who helped further expose the greatest weakness of these Grizzlies Sunday, figure to be players in that class and already have some money available to spend on the likes of a Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, or Kemba Walker.
Moving on from a player like Tim Hardaway Jr. would also make it more possible to add additional help...and with a little tweaking, perhaps a second max contract without crushing their cap.
Meanwhile, in Memphis, the Grizzlies will be cap strapped again next summer and if Marc Gasol were to opt out of his contract then the rebuild would almost surely be on anyway. Assuming Marc sticks around (as I do), the expiring contracts of Green and Temple, while helpful, would not make the Grizzlies able to offer substantial money to any free agent capable of changing the game for Memphis. Acquiring Hardaway Jr. would limit them further on the market, of course, but THJ can score (22.3 points per game so far this season on a career best roughly 37% from three according to basketball-reference.com), is only 26 years old, and is under contract for roughly the same length of the Conley-Gasol window.
What is the harm in kicking the tires on a Green/Temple/2nd round pick for Hardaway Jr. and filler type of deal? No long-term assets of significant consequence given up, and a probable starting lineup of Conley/Hardaway Jr./Kyle Anderson/Jaren Jackson Jr./Marc Gasol with Shelvin Mack/Dillon Brooks/Wayne Selden/Omri Casspi (or Chandler Parsons)/Joakim Noah (assuming he joins Memphis).
New York may well say no to this...but it’s more likely than not that they at least listen.
Temple has been a tremendous addition to Memphis both in terms of production and leadership. JaMychal made his name with the Grizzlies and proved to be a valuable NBA player. But opportunity cost is key - Memphis probably can’t improve much via free agency, so the trade market and the hope that a team in a big market wants to be a major factor in the 2019 class could play in to the hands of the Grizzlies.
Evan Fournier is the dream...and probably just that, a dream. Maybe you like Kent Bazemore more than Hardaway Jr. That is fine, and the argument is the same for Baze as it is for THJ - an upgrade at a key position, filling a drastic need for a scorer to take some stress off of Mike Conley.
Mike Conley probably wishes Bradley Beal could come to Memphis, but Bradley Beal for Chandler Parsons and Jaren Jackson Jr. isn’t happening, nor should it. Conley once upon a time played a role in landing a big free agent fish, but no big-time free agent is coming to Memphis this summer. Mike has few options for realistic improvements to his current situation...but the two that stand out could do the trick if executed properly.
Put Jaren in positions to be successful late in games and watch the young man thrive. Find a team with July 2019 aspirations and see how interested they are in the cap relief expiring contracts worth almost $16 million would bring. One, or the other, or a combination of both, would allow for Memphis to both build for the future and maximize a team that is better than just about everybody thought they would be.
Mike Conley is a major reason for this exciting realization. But the reality is that he cannot do it alone - and something has got to give, before the Conductor does.