Site Manager’s Note: This post has been updated to reflect the Utah Jazz trade for Mike Conley.
Life is made up of meetings and partings...that is the way of it. - Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit in A Muppet’s Christmas Carol
In the spring of Mike Conley’s career with the Memphis Grizzlies, there was plenty of rain.
The 4th overall pick of the Grizzlies in the 2007 NBA Draft was not universally beloved from the beginning of his Memphis run. In fact, in some of the darkest corners of the internet and elsewhere, there was outright disgust and disdain for what Conley was at the start of his career. He was not the player he was hoped to be - he wasn’t enough of a scorer, or a creator for others, and while he was not abysmal all three of his first seasons (especially his second campaign, from 2008-2009), he was not producing to the level of what a 4th overall pick and former McDonald’s All-American should produce.
Point guards often take time to go through their own personal process of metamorphosis, with production from the likes of Trae Young being the exception and not the rule more often than not. Conley was one of these late bloomers, a player whose eventual impact on the franchise was at best a wishful prediction this time a decade ago, and at worst cause for absolute destruction in message boards across the web. But as head coach Lionel Hollins and the Grizzlies front office made the decision to invest in Mike Conley, and not Kyle Lowry, as the future in Memphis at the point guard position post Pau Gasol, the time came for the young guard to sink or swim.
Right or wrong, the Grizzlies were going all in with Mike. And as Kyle parted, Memphis continued to meet different...and better...versions of Conley.
Moving on is a simple thing, what it leaves behind is hard. - Dave Mustaine
The summer of Memphis Grizzly Mike Conley was indeed a hot run of success, both for himself and for his team. The first playoff win, the first series win, the run to the Western Conference Finals in 2012-2013...it all happened through a season in Conley’s career where he came in to his own as a player. There were veterans on the roster that could take the leadership reins - players like Shane Battier, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen helped set the tone for the franchise’s identity. Mike just had to live up to those “Grit and Grind” expectations, and he did and then some.
He was named 2nd Team All-Defense in 2012-2013, grabbing 174 steals (first in the entire NBA) and helping pace a unit that led to arguably the most successful season in franchise history. He managed the Grizzlies quite well, considering all of the combustible elements around him - the intensity of Allen, the “I’ll beat your ass” vibes of Zach Randolph, the development of his best friend on the team Marc Gasol that coincided with his own and the rise of the franchise itself...it all had to be quite difficult to manage, both for coaches like Lionel Hollins and players in positions of organizational importance like Mike.
But he handled it all with class...and gave fans signs of things to come.
It was also during this time that Mike further rooted himself within the Memphis community. His work with local charities, the developments of his own personal relationships as he went from Conley the player to Conley the husband to Conley the (eventual) father. He was becoming all of these things over this time and beyond, furthering a bond that is both unique to Memphis and common across the medium of sport. Life connects, and the game itself aids in that common thread linking people and moments in time together.
Like a perfect summer’s night, Mike Conley’s rise to prominence with the Grizzlies felt as if it would never end. It filled you with greater joy knowing what he had been through, and that faith rewarded through potential realized feels like the warmth of the June sun on your skin, or the flooding of your senses that happens sitting on a beach listening to ocean waves, smelling the sweet sea air.
I have learned along my journey that letting go doesn’t mean loving less. -Alex Elle
In the fall of Conley’s Grizzlies career, Mike went from a good player to a great player...and from a Memphis sports hero to a Grizzlies legend.
A broken face, suffered against the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2015 NBA Playoffs, derailed what most certainly felt like a season of fate for the Memphis Grizzlies. For you see, the “Grit and Grind” era, while still achieving success despite the inability of the organization to add one final wing to the “Core Four”, was not as dependent on Zach and Tony as it once was. While the mentality and tone were still very TA and Z-Bo dependent, the play on the floor was dictated by Conley and Gasol...and without a healthy Mike, the team was almost surely lost.
From Ramon Sessions trade bait to team MVP...quite the meteoric rise.
Legends aren’t born from the laps of luxury. They are forged in the fires of adversity, when someone does something truly uncommon in a sometimes dreary and all too common world. There, on the home floor of the Portland Trail Blazers, as Mike looked down at his own blood forming a puddle in the hard wood, Conley began his march toward Memphis immortality.
There was no reason for Conley to rush back from such an injury...beyond a greater sense of meaning and responsibility for his own actions and his role beside his teammates. There was no good reason at all for him to perform at the level that he did in that first game back, where he outperformed the great Stephen Curry and helped put the fear of God in the mighty Golden State Warriors when they went down 2-1 to Memphis in that second round series.
The Grizzlies eventually succumbed to the greatness of that Warriors squad, and with hindsight the was the last best shot of the Core Four at a championship. Walk in to any Memphis establishment where the Grizzlies are discussed, or log in to any blog or message board, or jump in on any Twitter thread, and bring up that moment in Portland...and the return of Mike at Golden State...and you will almost certainly hear the following -
“We would have beaten the Warriors if Mike was healthy”
“Conley was a warrior during that run...”
When the numbers of players like the Core Four eventually hang in the rafters of FedExFourm some day, there will surely be criticism from those outside of Memphis that simply do not understand what that run of Grizzlies basketball meant to the city. These series in particular - the Trail Blazers win with Mike watching from a suite above the floor, and then Conley’s return against the Warriors - would be forgotten in a market like Los Angeles and Boston, where success is measured by title runs and superstar acquisitions. Those things matter, and should be celebrated.
But in Memphis, when someone puts themselves on the line for you, you make sure you remember.
Conley’s literal fall, and eventual iconic rise, happened at the twilight of Grit and Grind. It was a passing of the torch, in some ways - Mike was never going to threaten violence to Blake Griffin, or kick Chris Paul in the face. But no one questioned his toughness...or his commitment to the Grizzlies.
That makes you forever a part of Memphis lore.
Remember me and smile, for it’s better to forget than to remember me and cry. - Dr. Seuss
The depths of winter in Memphis coincide with the chilling of the relationship of Mike with the Grizzlies. It began well enough - the last gasp of Grit and Grind, with Marc and Mike fully in control of whether or not the Grizzlies would again upset the San Antonio Spurs. Last time, behind Zach Randolph, Memphis was able to achieve that goal. This time, even with Mike Conley playing at the same level of the monstrous Kawhi Leonard, it was not enough. Memphis was again bested by San Antonio...and this led to the first goodbyes to Zach and Tony.
It was assumed that Marc and Mike, alongside a recovering Chandler Parsons and other key pieces, could keep the Grizzlies relevant in the playoffs.
That was wrong.
It was because of a variety of reasons. Conley suffered an injury to his heel/Achilles that cost him much of the 2017-2018 season. Chandler Parsons never regained the form that he was paid to have. The front office and coaching situation was sub-optimal, and Marc and Mike were not able to lead in the same way Zach and Tony were. They were asked to be something they weren’t, and combining that with all sorts of other issues made for that Spurs series being the last time Memphis has made the playoffs.
Then, with this past season and another collapse, the realization that it could not be salvaged was finally accepted. That’s not to say pursuing a Gasol and Conley core was wrong - most embraced the idea. It simply did not work out, and more and more fans understood that maybe Mike, but especially Marc, would need to leave Memphis to achieve their greater goal of winning a championship.
Dark times ensued. Rumors. Speculation. Feelings of betrayal and disappointment...and another goodbye.
All of a sudden, Mike was the last remaining soldier of the Core Four era. And again, there was no reason for Mike to thrive in what was clearly becoming a rebuilding situation.
Yet all Conley did was put together arguably his greatest stretch of offensive basketball in his entire career this past season, including a career high in points against the same Portland Trail Blazers that limited the ceiling of the Grit and Grind era years prior.
Even as he was frozen out of the future of the franchise he helped establish as relevant in the NBA landscape, he was competing and showing those that would be there to rebuild the Memphis Grizzlies what it means to be an example for those around you.
Amazing stuff from Mike Conley here on building around Jaren Jackson Jr.— Drew Hill (@DrewHill_DM) February 6, 2019
“You’re going to be here forever.” pic.twitter.com/SJmum12vfD
“You’re going to be here forever”.
In the bleakness of winter, a warm reminder from a Memphis sports immortal of why he will always be remembered...and why he will be so missed.
“Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.” J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan)
The question of Mike Conley is no longer will he be traded. He has been - to the Utah Jazz. It is finished. Conley, who sat on the sidelines and watched his Core Four brother Marc Gasol win a championship with the Toronto Raptors, will now get his chance to, like Marc, compete for a title away from his NBA home. Mike has money, and the “prestige” that comes with being considered one of the NBA’s most “underrated” players. But he does not have the accolades, or the rings, that all great players are judged by.
He wants those things. And Memphis wants spring to begin again. So while their paths, and histories, will always be intertwined, the time has come to part.
Ja Morant will have big shoes to fill (and hopefully will be given the patience Mike Conley once received by those in power)...but even beyond the game of basketball, he and Jaren Jackson Jr. have a legacy to live up to of living lives of purpose. Mike Conley’s greatest contribution to both Memphis and the Grizzlies is that both the city and the organization are better for him having been a part. He’s been a spring rose among thorns, a ray of summer sun light in the darkness, a crisp breath of fresh autumn air, and a joyous reason to celebrate cold Memphis winters for many years and the calendar has turned. As Conley’s career and life have progressed, so too has the place he has called home and those that had the privilege to watch him grow over the last twelve seasons.
A.A. Milne, through Winnie the Pooh, once wrote “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” In Memphis, we understand these words all too well.
The thing about seasons, they always come back around. Renewal is the way of life. So too it will be in Memphis with their Grizzlies.
But the memories of seasons of life that have passed, and the season of love that a city shared with one of its adopted sons, will stay with us lucky enough to experience it, forever.