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Mike Conley is at a crossroads

Next season may very well define the final story of Mike Conley’s career.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Who exactly is Mike Conley?

For the Memphis Grizzlies, he has been the leader, the conductor, of the franchise’s greatest run of excellence. Although his closest competition might be Damon Stoudemire, he is still easily the best point guard in franchise history. His importance to what the Grizzlies have built was never more clear than it was this year, as the Grizzlies were 7-5 with him on the court and 15-55 when he wasn’t.

But that’s the easy stuff about him. For Mike Conley, it really is not a question of who he is—Memphis and the rest of the NBA already know. The real question is what he will be remembered as. Sure, he is known as an excellent player and a quality teammate. However, will there be more to him in the annals of NBA history once his career is over?

Throughout his time in the NBA, Mike Conley has experienced the entire range of public opinion. Many believed that he was a bust early in his career (go read Matt Moore’s legendary rant on that subject). With all the criticism he received early on, it would have been very easy for him to allow it to affect his game. Instead, he worked hard and gradually became one of the better point guards in the NBA. His journey from possible bust to game manager to beloved icon is remarkable to say the least.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

However, as Mike Conley became more and more beloved in the Memphis community over the years, the skepticism of his ability in the NBA only seemed to grow. Make no mistake, the doubts did not focus on whether he was good or not. Instead, it focused on just how good he actually was. Have you ever seen a player that is called underrated so much that it becomes a running joke? Mike Conley has always been underrated, but he has never been considered truly great in the same way that Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, or Russell Westbrook are.

That skepticism finally came to a head when Conley signed his five-year, $153 million extension in the summer of 2016. If critics are like moths, then Conley was the flame.

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In the following season, Conley finally silenced the skeptics who had always questioned how good he truly was. He averaged career highs across the board and finally established himself as an elite point guard in the NBA, if still a tier below the Westbrook/Curry/Paul grouping of top floor generals in the game. He was especially spectacular in the Grizzlies’ playoff series against the Spurs in which he averaged 24.7 points and memorably outdueled Kawhi Leonard.

That was supposed to be Conley’s “one shining moment.” Through all the doubt, through all the skepticism, he had finally established himself among the NBA’s elite. And he was ready to enjoy it. If you followed him on Instagram before the season began, you’d have regularly seen him putting #yearof11 on his posts. This past season was supposed to be the year where Conley led the Grizzlies to the their eighth straight playoff appearance, finally made his first All-Star team, and took another step closer to legendary status in Memphis...

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

As we all know, it didn’t go that way.

But people are prisoners of the moment, and those folks can only see what’s right in front of them. Since he missed most of the season, Mike Conley was not in front of them this year. As a result, he is once again forgotten, once again stricken with the label of underrated. It may not be fair to him, but that is the reality of his situation.

So again, I ask the question: Who exactly is Mike Conley? What will the Grizzlies get from him next season? Will they receive the same player that they had in the 2016-17 season, the same player who was one of the best point guards in the league? Or will they be getting a player who has permanently lost a step due to his numerous injuries?

Essentially, Mike Conley’s career and legacy are now at a crossroads. If he is not able to bounce back next season, he will start to fade into obscurity as quickly as he rose on the national scene, even though he will always be a Memphis basketball icon. However, if he does return to his level of play from last year and leads the Grizzlies back to the playoffs, he can reclaim his place among the NBA’s elite point guards.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The story of Mike Conley has been a heroic tale, a story of overcoming the odds and adversity at almost every turn. But the final chapter has not yet been written, and we still do not know how the story will end.

We live in a very “what have you done for me lately?” type of society. People do not care about what you have done in the past, but rather what you can do for them in the present. The distance between greatness and irrelevance in our world is very small, and Mike Conley is standing right in between them. Even though he has been excellent his entire career, his performance next season will likely decide which quality defines him for the rest of the career.

I wouldn’t bet against him.

Follow @sbngrizzlies