Top 50 NBA Players: #41 Mike Conley

Mike Conley
Resume: 14.6 points (career best), 2.8 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 2.2 steals (3rd in league, career best), 34.5 minutes, 44% FG, 36% 3PT, and 83% FT… Team record in games played: 54-26 (2-0 without)… Playoffs: 17.0 points (career best), 4.7 rebounds (career best), 7.1 assists (career best), 1.7 steals (career best), 38.3 minutes, 38% FG, 28% 3PT, 76% FT, 8-7 record… 2nd Team All-Defense

The Memphis Grizzlies point guard vaults into the Top 50 after doing what very few good-but-not-great players are usually capable of doing; he took on a bigger role in the middle of the season and thrived, taking his team further than they ever had gotten before, and hopefully picked up a few well-deserved supporters throughout the process.

The Grizzlies shocked the basketball world in the 2011 Playoffs without their “star” player Rudy Gay in action. What followed was a barrage of “Would Memphis be better off without Rudy Gay?” banter. Even though conventional wisdom would say that when a team’s “star player” is subtracted from the equation a step backward would be the result, conventional wisdom was also shouting that Memphis would indeed better off without Gay and his steady flow of clanked foot-on-the-line two pointers. In a small sample size Memphis overachieved without Gay in the lineup in 2011 (7-6 in the postseason), and underachieved with Gay in the lineup in 2012 (3-4 in the postseason). Let’s just say that I was sitting pretty comfortably on the Rudy Gay is a perfect candidate for the Ewing Theory bandwagon. I believed in Rudy Gay’s Ewing Theory potential just as much as I currently believe How I Met Your Mother will be just as, if not more revered as Friends is by season nine’s end (This is a can of worms that is only opened when I feel like engaging in playful, yet somewhat heated discussion with my girlfriend).

On January 30th Memphis pulled the trigger on a Rudy Gay trade, received less than Gay’s value back, and subsequently made a run to the Western Conference Finals. It could’ve been a coincidence, maybe the work of the Ewing Theory, or perhaps a third option. On the last day of January the keys to the theoretical Grizzlies car were taken from Rudy Gay and handed to Mike Conley, who stuck said key into the ignition and navigated the Grizzlies to a place they hadn’t been in their franchise’s young history. If Memphis didn’t trade Rudy Gay because they knew about his vision problems and wanted to laugh at the Toronto Raptors when the media found out about it, it was because they had complete trust that Conley could handle a bigger burden. They weren’t wrong.

May 13, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) guard Mike Conley (11) and forward Zach Randolph (50) in game four of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Memphis defeated Oklahoma 103-97 in overtime and lead the series 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Statistically, the Grizzlies didn’t make a tremendous jump after Gay was shipped to Canada, but it was noticeable:

44 games pre-Gay trade: 29-15 record, 93.4 points per game, 89.4 points allowed per game, 43.5% FG
38 games post-Gay trade: 27-11 record, 93.4 points per game, 89.0 points allowed per game, 45.5% FG

Conley’s statistical improvement was more apparent:

42 games pre-Gay trade: 13.0 points, 2.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.3 steals, 43% FG, 37% 3PT, 3.0 FTA, 83% FT

38 games post-Gay trade: 16.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 2.1 steals, 45% FG, 35% 3PT, 4.1 FTA, 83% FT

The trade made sense for the Grizzlies from a philosophical point of view. Rudy Gay is a scorer who needs sixteen shots to get to his 17 points per game. He wasn’t a particularly threating three-point weapon—in part because he took so many with a foot on the line— so the benefit of having a smart point guard and two post scoring threats along with Gay (and a whole bunch of other perimeter players who couldn’t make a jump shot) was non-existent. With the ball now in Conley’s hands more often, the Grizzlies found an increased emphasis on pounding the ball down low with their one-two punch of Gasol and Randolph, as well as giving Conley more freedom to get into the paint and score himself, which he is particularly adept at doing with either hand.

After the Grizzlies postseason run concluded, it seemed as if Conley was one of many young point guards primed to make some sort of a leap. But the question needs to be asked; how big of a leap can Conley make in such a plodding offense? He’s already one of the better defenders at his position, and it seems far-fetched that he could make a significant statistical jump for a team that plays a slow-down, pound it in the paint, run time off the shot clock offensive style that the Grizzlies do. Possibly one of the fastest and quickest players in the league, Conley rarely gets to show this off except for in pick and roll scenarios in which he thrives. Would he be more highly regarded if he were playing for a team like Denver where he wouldn’t be restricted in a deliberately hesitant offense? Yeah, maybe he would. But that is what makes Conley unique. It’s hard to imagine another point guard holding that position down as well as Conley does for the Grizzlies. He’s become a one-man litmus test for his team; they go as he goes. Perhaps there is room for improvement, only it won’t be so obvious in the box score. As always, stats don’t show the whole story. Conley may never be a huge scorer or crack the top ten in assists, but he works hard, plays good defense and is completely fearless on the basketball court.