Mike Conley: The $153 Million Gamble That Failed

There’s a French proverb that says gambling is the son of avarice and the father of despair. Meaning that gamblers are either greedy or crying. The Memphis Grizzlies are less the former and more the latter. They signed Mike Conley to what was at the time the richest deal in NBA history, $153 million. In two seasons, he has played 81 games. The return on the Conley investment is looking pretty slim.

When Conley first inked his payday everyone who operates on logic had a reaction of Mike Conley, really? But there was a method to the Grizzlies madness Yes, he’s never been an All-Star, he’s never cracked the top 3 point guard club of Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook.  But Memphis is a small market. They are shut out of the big free agent prizes so they have to develop the talent they draft and then they have to overpay them to keep them.

Eventually, you have to face the music and that is what the Grizzlies have to swallow as they hope 2018-19 isn’t a Mike Conley repeat.

With Conley, it is always something.  Achilles, heel, vertebrae. He has had bad injury luck but he’s still cashing checks which affects the Grizzlies flexibility. Giving Conley the largest contract [at the time] made sense to keep their best player in town. But now, after two seasons, it was a gamble that failed.

In a twisted, perverted way, Conley playing 12 games in the 2017-18 season because of surgery did them a favor. They Grizz need some A-list talent. They have a bunch of nice players that couldn’t crack the bench on some playoff contenders teams. They aren’t the type of impact players you need absent a star.  The Grizzlies need explosiveness, shotmaking skill and a back up point guard because Conley just can’t stay healthy and he will be 31 years old in 30 days.  His NBA life is speeding down the hill and the Grizz need to catch it before he crashes.

When David Fizdale, the rookie NBA coach who used to be in charge of Mike Conley’s immediate career, defended Conley to the media after a playoff game in San Antonio and said Conley had 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.  In a life isn’t fair way, Conley has always been an outsider.

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 were in the playoffs  in 2016-17 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.

Without him, the Grizz tread water some days, drown the rest of the time. They compete the best way they can compete with who they have but they just don’t offer much. No elite point guard. No elite shooting guard. No elite small forward. No elite power forward. Just Marc Gasol who had his hand in getting a coach fired. Gasol, who is 33 years old, has his best days behind him.

The Grizzlies are in a jam.  They are paying Conley $30 million this year and $32 million in 2019-20 before he has an Early Termination. They are paying Marc Gasol $24 million and $25 million the next two years. What return are they going to get on that investment? Conley will be 33 years old and Gasol will be 35 years old by the time their contracts are up for renewal. Even snagging Jaren Jackson Jr.  in the lottery is going to take three years of development. By then, Conley and Gasol may be in the rearview mirror.  At the end of the day, what did those bloated salaries accomplish?

As for Conley’s career, numbers will not define him.  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. But you know the clapback. Yeah but he never performed up to the contract. The body let him down.

As Conley prepares for a resurrection, nostalgia requires we point out he struggled in the 12 games he played in 2017-18 and you can credit it to his foot, his 38% shooting and 31% from three. He only dished out 4 dimes which was a shout out to his rookie season but then again, there isn’t much talent on the Grizz. He wasn’t playing much defense either. His last game of last season was against Milwaukee and it wasn’t memorable. Missing ten out of 12 shots. 33 minutes but 2 assists.  7 points. He was a fragment of who he used to be.

For Mike Conley, 2016-17 was so special. In hindsight, was it special because it was never going to happen again or was it special because it was the new Mike Conley?

20.5 points, a career high. 46% and 40% from three, career highs. 121 offensive rating, a career high. All that luxury. But the memory fades each and every month as Conley’s body has the last word.

Despite his injury evidence, there is no reason to write the Mike Conley epilogue.  Yet, Mike Conley  is not Chris Paul, Steph Curry or Russell Westbrook, and he will never be, as far as his NBA game goes.  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.

The fragile landscape of NBA careers has ensared Mike Conley, flinging him once again into a makeover. Will he be the same at the age of 31? Or, is the 2016-17 Mike Conley a fading memory, never to be repeated?