He’s consistently named as one of the most underrated guards in the league, but our Mike Conley has quietly established himself as in that second or third tier of point guards in the NBA. Conley is hardly a decorated player, with his spot on the All-Defensive second team last season being his only NBA accolade to date.
While he may never be an All-Star, however, there is a lot to like about Conley. After the Rudy Gay trade, he emerged as a player the Grizzies could lean on (alongside Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph). His stats went up across the board, his scoring making leaps in both efficiency and volume while his assist/turnover ratio also saw a nice rise following Gay’s departure.
Conley has come a long way since the days of being a source of ridicule for the team after they signed him to a five-year, $40 million contract extension in 2010. In fact, that very contract is now an absolute bargain for the Mike Conley of 2013. He’s due just $8.6 million this season, while the Toronto Raptors are paying nearly a million bucks more to DeMar DeRozan.
A lot of things make Conley a “good” player in the NBA, but if he has one standout talent, it’s on defense. Like his partner in the backcourt in Tony Allen, Conley is one of the league’s very best defenders at the guard position. I mentioned Conley’s spot on the All-Defensive second team earlier, and Conley also created the third-most steals per game in the league last season with 2.2.
What makes Conley such a dangerous defender is his combination of speed, intelligence and activity. Few players are capable of getting past Conley from the perimeter because of his agility, and Conley is very active with his hands in disrupting opposing ball-handlers. He’s very crafty with creating steals, whether in the passing lanes or by directly reaching at a ball-handler. A specific talent of his is cramming a player from behind as a help defender, leaving him no time and little space to do anything before Conley takes the ball away.
Conley has another skill that even fewer people may notice. However, such basketball minds as Grantland.com’s Zach Lowe and Brett Koremenos have noted Conley’s ability to recover to his own man after coming over from the weak side as a help defender. Koremenos specifically said that nobody, short of an “engaged” LeBron James, is better at closing out on his man after helping over than Conley is.
To the tape? First, let’s see how Conley can come in from behind to create his steal. In this play, LaMarcus Aldridge is isolated in the short-corner with the ball. Conley is visibly inching towards him, and as Aldridge makes his move towards the rim, Conley swoops in on the ball and knocks it loose from Aldridge’s hands.
What if Aldridge had seen Conley coming and passed it to Lillard instead? That’s where Conley’s ability to recover comes in handy, as he has the foot-speed and the presence of mind to return to his own check before they can take advantage of the brief window of being left open.
In this next play, the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry makes an early pass then runs to the far corner. Conley hangs closer to the middle of the floor so as to be able to help out against any dribble penetration (which he does often), but as the pass goes to Lowry in the far corner, Conley is able to get back in time and take away the open shot opportunity. Lowry gets a contested fadeaway three.
As the starting point guard, Conley doesn’t wow with his assist numbers (6.1 assists per game last season). Seventeen starting point guards (and one LeBron James) averaged more assists than Conley, putting him slightly below league average among starting point guards. Part of the reason for this is that much of the Grizzlies’ offense is facilitated through Marc Gasol and secondary pick-and-rolls, but Conley isn’t exactly Chris Paul any way you cut it.
What Conley does very well is work the pick-and-roll–he’s quietly one of the league’s best pick-and-roll point guards. He’s extremely quick with the ball and capable of going either towards or away from the screen. Then, we can talk about his hesitation/in-and-out crossover and his ability to change speeds. Needless to say, defenders have a very difficult time keeping a body on Conley in the pick-and-roll, and that often allows Conley a free lane to the rim or a pass to a player left open by Conley’s dribble penetration.
Playing alongside Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol make Conley even more dangerous driving off of the pick-and-roll. Both are very good shooters from midrange, and capable of making the extra pass against a rotating defense. The options there are numerous. For example, when you work Conley’s pick-and-roll ability into the Randolph and Gasol high-low, great things happen. The defense has to account for the rolling player coming into the paint, the possibility of a second pick from the “high” big, or a simple pass to the “high” big to initiate the standard high-low.
One area that the Grizzlies might like to see development from Conley is three-point shooting. Conley is already a capable three-point shooter, and he upped his production from that area nicely when Rudy Gay left. For the season, he averaged a career high 1.3 triples per game on 36.2% shooting, solid numbers overall. Most of his threes came in catch-and-shoot situations, with 80.2% of his makes assisted.
However, the Grizzlies have a distinct need for three-point shooting, as I pointed out in my Tony Allen preview. If the intent is to start Tayshaun Prince at small forward (as the early indications are), then Conley is the only reliable three-point shooter in the starting lineup. With so much of the offense facilitated through the two big men, it’s relatively important that Conley can turn himself into a very good three-point threat so that the defense can’t just collapse in on those bigs.
Even then, the opposing defense is capable of sending Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince’s defenders into the paint to bother Gasol and Randolph. However, the Grizzlies will take whatever three-point shooting they can get, and Conley bringing back an improved three-point jumper for next season would be huge. With two dedicated three-point specialists in Mike Miller and Quincy Pondexter available on the bench, Conley doesn’t need to suddenly turn into Stephen Curry. Being just a little better, however, could mean significant relief in sets where he’s the only or one of two reliable three-point shooters on the floor for the Grizzles.
Conley is locked in as one of the Grizzlies’ true stars going forward. It’s interesting to see if he continues to improve from here (he’ll be just 26 when the season starts), and if he takes another step forward after this offseason as he did after the Rudy Gay trade. As is, he’s a big part of the Grizzlies’ elite defense and already taking on a greater bulk of the scoring/playmaking than he was responsible for this time last year.
Underrated or not, Conley is a player that leaves his mark on anything the Grizzlies do while he’s on the court. His value to them is immense, and we can throw out the accolades when trying to consider just what he means to the Grizzlies. Whether he’s a top-5, top-10 or top-15 point guard in the NBA, he’s a building block and a franchise face for us.