Nearly a month removed from the trade deadline, the Memphis Grizzlies are starting to form an identity with their new roster. It is one that plays faster, is better offensively, and can be competitive. In an effort to convey our 2019 first rounder to Boston, the Grizzlies front office clearly had a goal in mind. Yet while the early returns might actually reveal a competent plan, the overall picture remains similar to the struggles over the past several months.
While the offense has certainly improved, injuries to Kyle Anderson and Jaren Jackson Jr. have removed two effective defensive cogs from the roster. Neither player has a time table for a return, and no real valid reason to rush their recovery. As a result, while the offense is better, the defense has a become a significant liability.
With this reality, Grizzlies fans find themselves enduring a second straight losing season. With an inevitable rebuild and more roster turnover likely over the summer, significantly more questions exist than answers. The fact that the Grizzlies don’t even want the lottery pick they are clearly earning may make some feel this season is more forgettable than last year.
So, if this season continues to only get worse, how should fans approach the home stretch of games? They should set aside their yearning to find a way to hit fast-forward. Instead they should hit pause, and shift their channel of focus from the team to the players. This season will likely soon become very memorable.
Unsurprisingly, the main reason is Mike Conley.
Statistics and storylines both support this mindset. Coming back at age 31 after playing only 13 games last year due to injury, Conley’s immediate return to a consistent high level of play is remarkable. He truly is a strong candidate for Comeback Player of the Year.
Furthermore, the franchise’s focus on the future and flirtation with moving Conley at the deadline creates a reality many are reluctant to realize. Trading Mike Conley likely makes more sense in the offseason than the season due to a bigger market for his services. This means a better return of future assets for Memphis. Therefore, if it almost likely the Grizzles will trade Conley in the summer, fans should certainly enjoy his performances in a Grizzlies uniform now.
Conley’s statistical production this season carries much significance in and of itself. This season, Conley is producing a 20.3 PER, and averaging 20.0 points, 6.3 assists, and 2.1 threes per game through 60 games played. Only Gary Payton and LeBron James have produced that statistical baseline at the age of 31 or older in a season with at least 60 games played in NBA history. For players 73 inches or shorter, only John Stockton, Allen Iverson, Chris Paul and Conley have produced a PER over 20 and an offensive rating of 113 or higher with at least 60 games played.
This season, only 4 players older than 31 have played more than 2,000 minutes. Conley’s PER and Win Shares are the second highest on the list, only trailing All-Star Larmarcus Aldridge. Regardless of age, Conley is one of only 12 players to have played 60 games and have a produced a 20.0 PER, 113 OFF RTG, and 6 or more win shares this season. If he can maintain that stat baseline, he will be the first Memphis Grizzlies player to ever produce at that level beyond the age of 30.
The numbers above prove how amazing Conley’s level of play has been this stage of his career. Individually, this season already is one of the best of his career. It is hard to argue against Conley’s 2016-2017 season being the best of his career from an efficiency and quality standpoint - Conley set several career highs while playing 69 games that season.
However, as mentioned above, Conley’s health is a contributing factor to how special this year is for him. If Conley remains healthy and continues his current level of play, he likely will set a new career high in points scored in a season. He also has a chance to set new career highs in field goals made, three pointers, and free throws. While his defense has logically declined as he has aged, Conley is just as reliable and productive offensively as ever.
While his 2018-2019 season itself carries historical significance, it is the milestones that Conley has already made and is about to reach that may make this season the most memorable of his career. Conley became the first player to make 1,000 threes in a Grizzlies uniform earlier this year. With Marc Gasol being traded at the deadline, Conley has also now played more games than any player in franchise history.
However, the greatest of accomplishments likely will come at the end of March. Conley needs just 207 points to surpass Marc Gasol as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Also, if Conley can get 57 more assists, he will become the 18th player, and one of only 6 active players, in NBA History to reach 11,500 points, 1000 three pointers, 4500 assists, and 1100 steals.
Without a doubt, this season has been full of disappointments. As the Grizzlies were atop the Western Conference back on November 21st, the #OneTimeforOneOne campaign was in full force to get Conley to his first All-Star game. Unfortunately, the campaign was not a success, but that is much more a byproduct of the Grizzlies’ play as a team than Conley’s performance himself.
Throughout his career, the quality of Conley’s play has always been overshadowed by the “Golden Age of Point Guards” across the NBA. This year, it seems to be hidden in the shade of sorrow that has been the Grizzlies’ play over the past three and a half months. This certainly should not be the case. For the man known as the Conductor, the symphony of success his play produces should be louder than ever, even among all the noise of negativity.
Mike Conley will firmly establish himself as one of the two or three greatest players in franchise history as this season concludes. He also will be cementing himself as one of the best guards of his generation. Whether it be the statistics or the storylines, the Conductor is also living up to his other nickname as Captain Clutch. No, he unfortunately is not doing it in terms of earning many last second wins. However, and maybe just as importantly, he is generating memories and happiness when the Grizzlies’ need it more than ever.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com