Ok, how about we forget last night’s depressing loss to the Lakers and focus on something positive: Mike Conley has scored 20 points in three straight games. His game-winning exploits against San Antonio on Monday was the apex of something we’ve been seeing for some time now: Mike Conley taking on a far more active role in the Grizzlies offense, to the point that he’s become something of a “go-to” guy.
In a piece for Slam Magazine last summer, Conley mentioned that he could average more points per game that he had been, but that doing would be detrimental to the overall functions of the team. The Grizzlies needed him to be a facilitator; to get the ball to Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol. He could hit shots from time to time, but it wasn’t he was there for.
Of course, something pretty big has changed since; Rudy Gay left the team. The team still has two main stars in Marc and Z-Bo, but they both do the majority of their work in the post (although they are capable of hitting mid-range shots), which meant the team needed another jump shooter in their starting lineup. Conley has entered the fray, and is putting up some of the best numbers of his career.
In the past, one of Conley’s few problems was that he occasionally could be a bit too tentative. A memorable instance of this came in Game 3 of the Grizzlies-Clippers series last year. With the Grizzlies down 87-86, he passed up a wide-open three, choosing to dish it to Rudy instead. Rudy missed, and the Grizzlies lost. This wasn’t an especially horrible decision; Gay just hit two threes, which was the only reason the grizzlies had a shot in the first place, and at that point, the idea was pretty firm that he was “the guy.” Still, the shot belonged to Conley and he let it go. You get the sense the new, more aggressive Conley would’ve taken the shot, and he probably would’ve made it, too.
Conley’s transformation didn’t immediately take place once Rudy was out the door; in February, he averaged 14,0 points per game, which is pretty much consistent with his average. In March, however, he broke out, averaging 17.6 points and 7.2 assists per game. You get the feeling that Conley was a bit hesitant to embrace his role as a primary part of the offense, but once the team discovered it’s post-Rudy identity, it started to fit him more and more. The drastic change in Conley’s game might be best expressed by looking at his splits from before and after the all-star game.
He’s scoring 3.9 more points per game since the all-star break. Things have changed a lot since that Slam article ran in August. Even if Rudy Gay has his flaws, he is a capable scorer, and the Grizzlies needed someone to make up the difference between Rudy’s scoring numbers and Tayshaun Prince’s. Conley has done that job extremely well. They are now a better team when Conley takes a more shots, and he recognizes that.
Since casual NBA fans tend to be drawn in by traditional stats like points and assists per game, it’s quite possible that Conley will get more respect and recognition from fans now that he’s taken on this role. He’s always been one of the better point guards in the game, but his muted stats meant that most people didn’t realize that. Now, Conley has modified his game significantly. He’s become a key scorer for the grizzlies, while retaining his status as an excellent distributor. Also, he’s second in the league in steals. Is there anything this guy can’t do?