If you felt a big gust of wind coming from Memphis this past Monday, it was probably the massive sigh of relief that most folks let out after hearing good health news for a change at FedExForum during Media Day for the Memphis Grizzlies.
After a season of discontent, Mike Conley is back.
Not a moment too soon.
The Conductor returns to a team that is revamped and at a crossroads, walking the line between playoff contender and a long-term rebuild (and trying to kind of do both at the same time). Coming off of an injured heel that cost him a vast majority of his 2017-2018 season, Mike almost surely feels as if he has to make up for some lost time. After all, for someone with the leadership and character of Mike Conley it must have been quite difficult to watch the downward spiral that was last season’s team without being able to do anything about it.
Now? He can be a part of the solution, not a witness to the problem.
Mike Conley is entering his 12th NBA season and is very much on the wrong side of 30 when it comes to undersized NBA point guards. There’s plenty of reason to doubt what he can do for a Grizzlies team that will need him to be, well, everything for them. Yet the optimism of the preseason and the positive vibes of what a truly healthy Conley can do allow for us to dream of a place where Mike is his old self, the 2017 playoffs Mike Conley.
That guy can be what Memphis needs and more. But is he still around? The answer to that question will play a large part in just how successful the Grizzlies will be this season.
2017-2018 Season in Review
Not really much to be said here. Mike only played in 12 games, by far the fewest in his entire NBA career, and even in the games he took part in, he underachieved. 38.1% shooting from the field, 31.2% from beyond the arc, and a -6 net rating all add up to the worst season of his career in an episode of “small sample size theater”. Conley was clearly not himself and struggled from the beginning of the season. He lacked his usual quickness and aggression at the rim, and then as you probably know by now he sat out, never to return.
Mike Conley cannot just be a point guard for this team. Hell, he can’t just be their 1st or 2nd best player. He must be their leading scorer if they hope to be back in the postseason...and it can’t be particularly close. The good news for Memphis is that he can absolutely be that guy, considering the playmakers and facilitators that now surround him. Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple and Marc Gasol are just three probable big-time rotation players-to-starters that can initiate offense and allow for Mike to be off the ball more, looking for new ways to score off of screens and in offensive sets designed for him specifically.
Whether Temple or Dillon Brooks starts at the two, Conley will be depended upon to be the team’s leading offensive threat. He has the tools to be that guy when healthy - assuming he is, he will slide into that role nicely.
Best Case Scenario
Mike comes back and is as healthy as we all hoped he would be. Like David Fizdale before him, J.B. Bickerstaff prioritizes Conley as a scorer and offensive fire starter, and Captain Clutch averages a career-best 21.5 points per game on 45.5% overall shooting and 40.5% shooting from three point land. He makes those around him better in the process, leading to improved campaigns from the aforementioned perimeter players Anderson and Temple, as well as a better offensive season from his pick and roll partner Marc Gasol. Conley is on the short-list for All-Star snubs, which is impressive in the stacked Western Conference, and the Grizzlies are in the mix for the final playoff spot heading in to April.
Worst Case Scenario
Mike is not the same. He is a step slower, and looks as if he’s in pain whenever he moves. He is essentially Chandler Parsons - which would make him the second max contract to be eating away at the Grizzlies and their competitive window. Not only is he a shell of his former self, he is basically untradeable. Memphis is stuck, staring down the barrel of a long, painful rebuild.
It is realistic, if we take the Grizzlies at their word that Conley is healthy, to expect Mike to play at least 60 games this season. With Memphis’s depth at the point, he can be rested on back to backs and in tough stretches of a schedule without the Grizzlies missing too much of a beat, depending on the opponent. These breaks will mean getting the most out of Mike, and that would entail scoring the ball at a high clip while being a net neutral defender.
Given the structure of the roster around him, a season of scoring over 20 points per game feels like a fair expectation for a truly ready to play Mike Conley. Someone has to put the ball in the basket for this team, and Mike has the talents and experience to be that guy. If those 60 or so games can somehow become 70? Now Memphis has a shot to actually compete for a postseason appearance.
As has been the case for the Grizzlies the past few seasons, the greatest ability is availability. The more Mike Conley plays, the better Memphis will be. Sometimes it really is that simple...
But the road to get to this point was far from simple for Mike Conley. So congrats, Mike. Your team, and city, are happy to have their conductor back.