Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Conley Contract

Posted By on Thu, Nov 4, 2010 at 1:07 PM

The Grizzlies threw the NBA world into a bit of a tizzy a couple of days ago with their somewhat surprising and apparently excessive 5 year, $40 million contract extension for point guard Mike Conley.

The instant reaction nationally ranged from apocalyptic outrage to the measured and mildly optimistic, but the default was about what we've come to expect: A questionable move greeted with a bit of critical over-reaction based on the shaky reputation of the franchise and its owner.

I've been provoked to something like outrage by moves this team has made before — such as drafting Hasheem Thabeet and signing Allen Iverson — but am much more conflicted about the Conley extension, which provokes a set of questions I'll try to work through here:

*What kind of expectations does this contract set for Conley?
*What are his chances of meeting those expectations?
*Was this is a wise — or even reasonable — move for the team?
*What are the long-term team-building ramifications.

Putting the Contract in Perspective:

The immediate anguish and torment inspired by the Conley contract has probably given some fans who don't follow the league closely the wrong impression. As reported by the Commercial Appeal's Ron Tillery, the year-by-year salary in Conley's extension, which kicks in during the 2011-2012 season, will break down like this:


This is not all-star money. This is not Chris Paul/Deron Williams money. Here are some other point guards in the same general contract range:

Mo Williams: 9.3/8.5/8.5
Kirk Hinrich: 9.0/8.0
Devin Harris: 8.9/9.3/8.5
Raymond Felton: 7.5/7.5
Jameer Nelson: 6.7/7.3/7.9
Beno Udrih: 6.7/7.2/7.8
Jose Calderon: 9.0/9.8/10.6

So this is Mo Williams/Jameer Nelson money. It's a salary commensurate with a quality starter at that position, not a top-tier star. And those are the expectations that should come with it.

Can He Earn It?

A lot of people look at Conley and seem to think it's preposterous that he could elevate himself into the middle range of NBA starting point guards, the range at which this contract extension begins to become reasonable.

And it's easy to see why, based on Conley's career and season-by-season production (per game) through his first three years:

07-08 9 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 43% shooting, 12.6 PER (15 is league-average)
08-09 11 points, 4 assists 3 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 44% shooting, 14.3 PER
09-10 12 points, 5 assists, 2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 45% shooting, 13.9 PER

Not that impressive.

But if you've watched Conley up close, day-by-day, the career arc is a lot more complicated than those numbers suggest. Unlike many recent one-and-done players, Conley did not come into the league with a fully formed body. As a 20-year-old rookie, he was slight of build, and the penetration-based game that was so effective at Ohio State was greeted with considerably more resistance. Conley got knocked around, and that impacted his confidence. As Lionel Hollins has noted, Conley had to build up his body — had to get stronger — as a precursor to rebuilding his confidence.

Having already come out too early, Conley also spent the first year-and-a-half of his career a victim of the rather shaky tenure of his first coach, Marc Iavaroni, who shuttled Conley in and out of the lineup, uncertainly splitting starting duties among Conley, Damon Stoudemire, and Kyle Lowry. After his departure, Iavaroni admitted that his handling of the point guard situation was probably his biggest mistake.

Conley seemed to settle in after a coaching change that brought in Lionel Hollins and he finished his second season — at age 21 — in promising fashion. After averaging 9 points and 4 assists on 42% shooting before the all-star break that season, Conley finished by averaging 15 points and 5.5 assists on 47% shooting.

Conley seemed poised for a breakout entering year 3, but it didn't happen. The Grizzlies had signed Allen Iverson, ostensibly to be a sixth man, but Iverson thought he should be starting, and starstruck and impatient fans and media agreed, turning Conley into a target of resentment and derision — the alleged mediocrity holding up the circus everyone wanted to see. Conley responded poorly, getting off to a terrible start.

I had been a proponent of the team drafting Conley, but by this point I was on the verge of giving up on him too. But in a repeat of the previous season, Conley settled in and finished strongly: After averaging 10 points and 5 assists on 43% shooting before the all-star break, Conley finished by averaging 15 points and 6 assists on 46% shooting.

Conley entered this, his fourth season, with a clear claim to the starting job for the first time in his career. His physical strength had been built up and — recognizing a problem — Conley took steps to get his mind right too. He had a terrific preseason and, rather than taking a step backward, this time he's started the season strongly.

My radio partner, Chris Vernon, who has been a vocal critic of Conley from day one, has responded to this contract extension by asking what evidence we should trust, three seasons or three games? And this sounds completely logical given the stark juxtaposition of Conley's career averages and his averages from so far this season (now five games):

Career: 11 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 14 PER (roughly)
This season: 16 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds, 3.4 steals, 21.2 PER

But you know what? I trust the five games. Conley's career numbers give you a somewhat distorted picture of what he's been. But I think his start to this season gives you a much clearer picture of the player he is now and will be going forward.

Do I think all of those numbers from this season will hold up? No. Conley has always been a good rebounder for a small guard, but once Zach Randolph returns to the lineup the team won't need him to dart in for defensive rebounds as often. And a return of Randolph and hopefully improving bench production might bring Conley's scoring average down by a point or two. His steal average is obviously unsustainable (Rajon Rondo lead the league at 2.33 last season), but I expect Conley to remain among the league leaders there. And while that PER is probably unsustainable too, I'll be surprised if he doesn't finish comfortably above the league-average 15. The assists should be more stable. Conley has been and will remain one of the league's most improved players this season.

I'd like to see Conley improve his finishing ability — though once Randolph is healthy and he and Gasol can really go to work on the offensive boards, just getting into the paint and getting the ball up on the rim will be effective for the Grizzlies — and he needs to be much more effective in the pick-and-roll. But what we're seeing from him this season is not a fluke.

Conley may have come into the league too early and he may have add an erratic start to his career, but there is a reason he was the #4 overall pick and a reason he came up third (behind only Kevin Durant and Greg Oden) in John Hollinger's draft prospect rater that year. What we're seeing right now is Conley's real ability level. He had to get his body and mind right to reach that level, but the ability has always been there.

You can assume that what we've seen from Conley through the bulk of his career is what we'll continue to see or you can see his terrible start to last season as an aberration in an upward trajectory that is picking up steam. There's no way to know for sure which opinion is correct, but we're about to find out. And if the Conley we're seeing right now is the "real" Mike Conley, then he's a quality starter with a well-rounded game, just beginning to enter his prime. If that's the case — and I believe it is — then Conley's production will be well within the expectations that should come with this contract.

Why Not Wait It Out?

Now, whether Conley can live up to this contract is not the same question as whether the Grizzlies were wise to give it. If the team hadn't extended Conley now, he would have become a restricted free agent next summer. After declining to sign Rudy Gay a year ago — which would have required something like $60-$65 million over five years — the Grizzlies found themselves facing a market this summer in which Gay was certain to get far more, and ended up retaining him for $82 million.

The Conley extension seems like an attempt to avoid a repeat of that scenario. But how likely is it that Conley, even with a breakout season, would have commanded a contract greater than 5/$40 next summer?

It's difficult to project exactly which teams will have significant cap space next season — it depends partly on in-season transactions yet to come and where the cap falls — and which of those teams might be in the market for a point guard. The Grizzlies claim to have done this homework, to the degree it could be done, and identified some potential Conley suitors next summer. And the point-guard market probably would not have been terribly crowded — Mo Williams has an opt-out and Aaron Brooks and Rodney Stuckey will be restricted free agents. But there is not the same clear and substantial market for Conley next season as there was always going to be for Gay. And that's not even factoring in a labor negotiation that could disrupt the free agency process and will likely result in a landscape that is more friendly to teams.

So, while I don't think it's entirely out of the question that Conley could have gotten an offer sheet equal to or greater than this next summer, I tend to think the team jumped the gun here. Signing Conley early to a more reasonable contract — I was hoping for 5/$30 — would have been worth doing. At 5/$40, I think waiting until next summer and letting Conley's restricted free agency play out was probably the smarter move. Though I disagree with his suggestion that Conley will enter next summer with a designation as a "fringe starter," I essentially agree with Yahoo's Kelly Dwyer on this point:

Had the Grizzlies just let him make it past last night without a contract extension, he would have hit the open market during one of the worst open markets in NBA history, stuck looking for a gig with another team with the knowledge that the Grizzlies (if they truly wanted to) could match any offer sheet he signed. Conley, a fringe starter at absolute best, would be forced into letting the market dictate his own terms.

And the market, in the NBA's case, probably won't even be open for business this summer, due to a potential lockout.

So, as is the likeliest case, Conley was looking at having to shop his wares around the league next September, after the labor standoff was resolved. And, at absolute best, he'd be looking for a gig and/or offer sheet throughout next summer under a slimmed down NBA salary cap, with the Grizzlies in the catbird seat, allowed to match any offer they thought reasonable.

The Long-Term Outlook:

One of the biggest complaints about the Conley extension is the assumption that it necessarily leads to the departure of more important players. The Grizzlies are currently negotiating with Zach Randolph about a contract extension ahead of his free agency next summer. Marc Gasol (who could not have been extended now) will be a restricted free agent next summer. And O.J. Mayo will be eligible to negotiate an extension next summer, though the Grizzlies could wait Mayo out a couple of more years, potentially.

The assumption seems to be that, because of this extension for Conley, the Grizzlies will now only re-sign two of these three players. And this is based on the conclusion that owner Michael Heisley's chief attribute is cheapness. But it isn't. Heisley is cost-conscious, for sure, but his ownership — which I have been very critical of — is defined more by brashness, stubbornness, and impulsiveness than by mere frugality. It may be that the extent to which Heisley is willing to continue building the team's payroll back up — a necessity for any meaningful contention — will be dependant on how well the team does this season (a playoff appearance would be very helpful), how well the fan-base responds (a decent attendance bump would be nice), and how much help he thinks he's gotten from the new collective bargaining agreement.

My hunch is that the team is likely to only retain two of the three remaining starters as well, but I think that was the case even before the Conley extension. Right now — barring potential CBA changes that make all long-term contract speculation somewhat flimsy — it looks like Gasol, Randolph, and Mayo will all command contracts that average eight-figure salaries. The Grizzlies have one of these players locked up — Rudy Gay. I could see them having three. I don't see four. For now, we'll call that a subject for further research.

But I don't think Conley's deal really impacts this much. If not Conley for $8 million a year, then what would be the team's investment at the point? Conley for $6 million if the restricted free agent market played out well? The team doesn't have other viable in-house options (like it or not, a full-time move to the point for Mayo simply wasn't going to happen) and wouldn't be in position to replace Conley on the free agent market given the need to deal with their other free agents. And this is a league where even the good back-up or platoon point guards (Kyle Lowry, Steve Blake, Luke Ridnour) tend to command $4-$6 million. Whether it was for Conley or someone else, the team was going to have to budget a certain amount for their starting point guard slot.

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