When Mike Conley signed the richest deal in NBA history, $153 million, the first reaction was Mike Conley, really? He’s never been an All-Star. He’s never cracked the top 3 point guard club of Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook. He can’t carry a team on his own.The Grizzlies don’t win because of Mike Conley, they win with Mike Conley. He hardly seemed worth the money until you factor in only LeBron James is worth the money. Everyone else is taking advantage of the market.
When David Fitzdale, rookie NBA coach and in charge of Mike Conley’s immediate career, defended Conley to the media after Game 2 in San Antonio and said Conley has class and never gets calls, he was right. Conley is a quiet and underrated player charged with a herculean task: pull the Grizzlies into the second round. Beat the Spurs when the Spurs had a 10 game winning streak against the Grizzlies in the post-season. Beating the Spurs wasn’t as easy as it sounded. The Grizzlies hadn’t beaten the Spurs in the postseason in six years.
In a way, it seems unfair to dissect Conley’s game. In and of itself, it is not one that collectively changes the Grizzlies game plan ala a Chris Paul. But Conley is that necessary piece. The Grizz are in the playoffs because Conley is the point guard who does what needs to be done. No complaining. No diva act. No whining. He takes the team on his shoulders despite the deficits. In the regular season, the Grizzlies were 27th in fast break points, 29th in points scored, 30th in field goal percentage, 17th in 3-point percentage, 22nd in assists, 27th in defensive rebounding. That’s not on Conley. That’s the front office and player personnel moves.
Conley had some season when everyone was looking at him. You can’t hate.
14.6 shot attempts, a career high. 45.9% from three, a career high. Over six three point attempts per game, a career high. Five free throw attempts, a career high. 85.9% from the line, second highest in his career (2011-12). 3.5 rebounds, a career high. 20.5 points per game, a career high. 121 offensive rating, a career high. 23.2 PER, career high. 60.4% True Shooting Percentage, a career high. 34.5% Assist Percentage, a career high. 26.3% usage rate, a career high.
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In the playoffs, against the Spurs, numbers will not define Conley and no one really cares if he legitimizes his contract as a great player since he made history with all those zeroes. Great players lead their teams to conference finals. That is how Conley will be judged, on leadership principles and making his teammates rise to the occasion. But it is not why he is important.
Conley is important because he set the price for players of his ability. He is not a top-10 player. And yet his salary is transcendent. It has a similar effect of the Kobe Bryant aged star salary. It creates a precedent for the players that will follow him. Agents can now go into GM’s offices and use the Conley salary as a bargaining tool.
Against the Spurs, Conley has been…well Conley. Underrated. Underappreciated. Efficient.
44% field goals, a career high. 70% from three, a career high. 7.6 assists, a career high. 20.3 points, a career high. He struggled in San Antonio and then put on a show the first home game in Memphis, 24 points, 8 assists, not to mention providing tickets for 500 local kids. When the Grizzlies needed him to be the star in a must win game, there he was. And yet.
No one is kidding themselves here. Mike Conley is not Chris Paul, Steph Curry or Russell Westbrook. But he will forever be compared to them because of his paycheck. Regardless of what his bankers say, it is too simplistic to judge Conley because he has a fat contract when the other top tier point guards have elite stars around them, experienced coaching and high powered offenses. Conley has to deal with the Spurs. They don’t.
But in game 3, in pure Conley textbook fashion, he and the Grizz put the Spurs on notice that it isn’t going to be easy. The Spurs are going to have to bring it the two games they are in town. The heart of the team was on full display on Thursday and just in case you missed it, the heart of the Grizzlies is their beating heart. They are tough and they rose to the occasion after the disaster(s) in San Antonio.
The Mike Conley year had two shining moments. In July when he signed the contract and was forever known as the richest contract in NBA history. And then in the playoffs with Memphis staking a claim and showing their mettle and fight. Mike Conley doesn’t have to validate or prove or justify anything.
He just has to lead Memphis to greatness on the court.
photo via llananba