After weeks of speculation and trade rumors, Thursday’s NBA trade deadline came and went. Marc Gasol was no longer a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, but Mike Conley remained as the last man standing from the Core Four. Although the publicity of a potential Mike Conley trade could have been handled much better, the Grizzlies front office made the right decision in keeping Mike Conley through the deadline.
I was a big fan of the rumored trade with the Utah Jazz that would have sent Mike to Utah in exchange for Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors’ non-guaranteed contract for next season and Utah’s 2019 first round pick. That is a solid return on a 31 year old point guard, who missed nearly the entirety of last year and has a long injury history. However, the deal apparently wasn’t up to the expectation the Grizzlies had set for a return on their point guard. I was fine with the Grizzlies trading Mike, especially if they got a good return, but ultimately keeping him at least until the summer was a wise decision by this front office and here’s why.
Mike the Mentor
Jaren Jackson Jr. has probably surpassed all expectations already for his rookie season. He’s a stud defensively and his offensive game is much better than anyone anticipated. There’s no question that Jaren is the future of the Memphis Grizzlies, especially after the Grizzlies shipped Gasol off to Toronto. As great as Jaren as been, the 19 year old isn’t ready to be the face of a franchise just yet. He has some maturing to do, both physically and mentally, before he can be “the guy” for a team. Simply, this team needs some sort of veteran presence to finish out the year if they want to convey their pick obligation to Boston, which is still the goal for this season. Joakim Noah and CJ Miles are the only players older than Mike on the team and neither has really been considered much of a “veteran presence” in their careers.
Ricky Rubio would’ve been a fine fill in for Conley to finish this season, but how motivated would Rubio be after being traded from a playoff team to Memphis where he would only be for a couple of months? Outside of Conley, the longest tenured Grizzly left on the roster would be Chandler Parsons. Conley will continue to be the leader in the Grizzlies locker room and can teach Jaren how to be “the guy” for the years ahead.
Keeping Conley through the trade deadline doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be the starting point guard come opening night of the 2019-2020 season. Mike had a lot of interest from teams around the league at the deadline and the interest should only grow going into the offseason as there is a multitude of teams with cap space looking to sign big name players. The 76ers, Nets, Mavericks, Lakers, Clippers, Knicks and many other teams figure to have plenty of cap space to make a run at players like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Klay Thompson. Odds are, at least one or multiple of those teams will strike out on their free agent targets and will be left scrambling on what to do.
My favorite, yet painful, hypothetical would be the Los Angeles Clippers signing Kawhi Leonard but fail to trade for Anthony Davis and are unable to get any other major free agent available on the market. Unless the Clippers think Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is capable of leading the team to playoff glory, they may be inclined to make a trade for Mike Conley to take advantage of every year on Kawhi’s contract. The Clippers have multiple first round picks in both the 2020 and 2021 draft to offer the Grizzlies for Mike. The same situation could happen with New York should they sign Kevin Durant but fail to trade for AD or sign Kyrie Irving or Kemba Walker.
Holding on to Conley until the 2019 free agency dust settles could cause a team to get desperate and meet Memphis’ asking price.
Mike is still good
Something lost in all the trade discussions around Mike is the fact that he still plays like an All-Star caliber player. Sure the $30 million plus owed to Mike in 2020 and 2021 is a lot to pay for an aging point guard, but who is Memphis going to use that money on that’s better than Conley? Keeping Conley, at minimum, through the end of his contract in 2021 allows Jaren more than just a couple of months of learning how to become the face of a franchise. With Gasol in Toronto, the Grizzlies offense will likely pick up the pace and get out in transition which will allow Mike to do even more damage. Mike has averaged 20 points and 6.4 assists so far this season while sharing the load with Marc and playing at a slow pace. There’s no reason to think those numbers can’t improve over the next couple of years.
Mike’s ability to play off the ball also allows for the Grizzlies to begin their search for the point guard of the future (hello, D’Angelo Russell or Malcolm Brogdon!). Mike won’t be around forever, and the Grizzlies should start preparing for life without him sooner rather than later, but Mike is good enough to keep around over the next few years as Jaren and Kyle continue to grow and develop.
The decision to keep Mike was a popular one by fans, due to their loyalty to Mike and what he means to them, this city and this franchise. From a basketball perspective, moving Mike makes more sense than keeping him. Mike is entering the twilight of his career, while the Grizzlies are heading towards an eventual rebuild. Personally, I think the Grizzlies need to take advantage of what happens in the aftermath of the 2019 free agency and get better value for Mike that wasn’t being offered last week. However, it is also possible the Grizzlies are able to retool instead of full on rebuild and having Mike around would keep the Grizzlies competitive. Regardless of what happens in the future, the Grizzlies were smart to hold onto Mike through last week’s deadline.