ESPN is in the midst of its annual series known as NBA Rank, which predicts the top players for each upcoming season. For the Grizzlies, both Marc Gasol and Mike Conley have been mainstays on the list for the past several years. In fact, they been ranked among the NBA’s elite. Gasol has been ranked 10th, 14th, 10th, 35th, and 29th over the past five years. Conley has been ranked 27th, 31st, 20th, 27th, and 23rd. Long considered one of the NBA’s most underrated duos, this list proves Gasol and Conley have long been held in high regard by some of the most respected NBA media minds.
For the 2018-2019 season, Gasol and Conley come in at 51 and 44, respectively. Obviously, this is a significant drop-off from previous years. From one perspective, this may seem a bit extreme for players ranked in the top 30 just a year ago. Furthermore, both Conley and Gasol are just a year removed from the best offensive season in their careers in 2016-2017. Talent does not just disappear overnight, and both players are expected to be healthy for this season.
On the surface, the rankings could be disappointing to many. However, there are some factors that make them quite reasonable. It all begins with simple reality. Mike Conley will be 31 in a month, while Gasol will turn 34 in January. The aging curve of the Lebrons and Dirks of the world are quite rare. As a result, while no one expects either to fall off a cliff, signs of decline are likely to occur.
The first significant factor to consider is the style of play. JB Bickerstaff and David Fizdale are two different coaches. Fizdale’s style was fast paced and focused on offense. Gasol and Conley had career seasons offensively as a result, but the team defense declined. Bickerstaff wants to return to a slower style of play focused on elite team defense. Both styles proved successful for Gasol and Conley. The franchise wants to return to the playing style that brought so much team success in the first half of this decade.
A return to that style of play means the opportunities to make an impact are spread out among several players instead of just one or two. This will likely result in each player’s individual impact and statistics declining. However, this approach has proven successful for the Grizzlies in the past against more individually talented teams. It also is sensible for a young team with a lot of new players. While it may not help them on lists like this, its a style that has been very successful for Gasol and Conley’s careers.
Another significant factor is health. Last year, Mike Conley only played 12 games due to a heel/foot injury. He also has dealt with an Achilles issue for each of the past two seasons. In the previous four seasons before last year, Conley missed an average of 15 games per season. While he has remained effective, and even elite, it is not unfair to label Conley as somewhat injury prone.
Marc Gasol has experienced good health over the past two seasons, playing in 74 and 73 games, respectively. However, since breaking his foot in 2016, special focus has been implemented to ensure it remains healthy. There also have been a few instances where it seemed Gasol may have re-aggravated the injury. It definitely is a positive development that both players are going into the season healthy. However, there is a higher expectation now than in the past that one or both players could miss time this season.
Beyond health and playing style, the third significant factor is playing time. Or, that is, limiting it. Quite simply, Marc and Mike are at the stage in their careers where less likely means more. The additions of players such as Kyle Anderson and Jaren Jackson Jr. adds young, significant talent to the mix. The return to health of JaMychal Green, Wayne Selden Jr., and (hopefully) Chandler Parsons positively impacts the entire roster. It adds quality depth to a bench that has long been a weakness for the Grizzlies. It also offers more lineup versatility than Memphis has had in awhile.
The results from this approach benefits the whole team. Gasol and Conley have a better chance to stay highly effective the whole season. Younger players get the chance to develop and get better. The roster has the chance to become more versatile. The chance of injury decreases, and the veterans stay fresh longer into the season. Overall, the team has a much better chance to overachieve and surprise many.
In a nutshell, these rankings simply show further proof that reality is setting in for the Grizzlies in regards to their cornerstones. Gasol and Conley, in terms of individual production, likely have their best days behind them. For the franchise, the recognition of that is what made this off-season a success. They need to play less often, and they should not be relied on as much as they were in the past.
These ratings should not be viewed as disrespectful. They should be viewed as logical. In the past, Grizzlies fans took pride in the success the team had despite the players being underrated. In the present, Grizzlies fans should take pride in the franchise making the needed moves to give Gasol and Conley the best chance to again be successful.