Up to that point, Conley had been, arguably, the Grizzlies' most consistent performer in last spring's first-round playoff series against the Clippers. But, in Game 7, he didn't have it. Yet Conley was forced to play nearly 40 minutes anyway. Even a dramatically diminished Conley was more likely to safely transport the ball down the floor against defensive pressure than the team's other alternatives.
This was an illness-influenced, spotlight-focused representation of much of Conley's season. It was his best yet in many ways. He showed more consistency and leadership than ever before. He notched a career-high 16.8 Player Efficiency Rating (15 is league average, 20 is All-Star territory). His trademark blend of offensive steadiness and defensive dynamism continued to flower, resulting in the league's eighth best pure point rating — a stat devised by ESPN's John Hollinger to gauge playmaking — and the second highest steal average in the NBA. Conley and the Clippers' Chris Paul were the league's only point guards to actually register more steals than turnovers on the season.
But Conley seemed to wear down.
Mike Conley, Shooting Percentage by Quarter (NBA.com/Stats)
1 — 47%
2 — 49%
3 — 46%
4 — 29%
The Grizzlies made a big mistake prior to the season, jettisoning second-year point guard Greivis Vasquez (who was among the league's most improved players in New Orleans, with a five-point leap in his own PER) and entrusting the back-up point guard spot to a pair of rookies, Jeremy Pargo and Josh Selby, neither of whom proved ready. This forced O.J. Mayo into minutes at the spot, where he confirmed, conclusively, that he doesn't quite have the ball-handling ability to log significant minutes at the position.
So, most of the season, as in Game 7, Conley had to stay on the floor. On the season, per 82Games.com, the Grizzlies' scoring fell by six points per 100 possessions when Conley went to the bench. As a result, despite being a physically slight guard with production somewhat below the All-Star level, Conley again was among the league leaders at his position in playing time.
Minutes Per Game, Point Guards:
Rajon Rondo — 36.9
Chris Paul — 36.4
Deron Williams — 36.3
John Wall — 36.2
Russell Westbrook — 35.4
Brandon Jennings — 35.4
Derrick Rose — 35.2
Mike Conley — 35.0
Common sense suggests there's a relationship between Conley's size, his minutes, and his fourth-quarter struggles, though it's impossible to prove.
For what it's worth, of the seven point guards who averaged more minutes than Conley, four — Williams, Wall, Westbrook, and Rose — are bigger, more muscular players. Of the three other smaller guards, Paul and Rondo are freakishly gifted. Jennings was the only other point guard who fits Conley's profile that topped the 35-minute mark. Of the whole group, fourth quarter regression was the norm, with Rondo, Westbrook, and Wall all showing sharp shooting declines as well and Jennings and Williams milder declines. Only Rose, who generally held steady, and Paul, who actually got better, bucked this trend.
To the degree that Conley's size and workload impacted his play late in the games, both the player and the team have taken steps to address the problem this season.
For Conley, that meant adding about a dozen pounds of very apparent muscle to his frame.
“The amount of minutes you play and as hard as you play, your legs do get tired in the fourth, late in the fourth, and that can cause you to shoot short late in the games,” Conley acknowledged after practice, in the days before the team tipped off its preseason schedule. “I think, physically, I wanted to come back in better shape. I think I'm in the best shape I've been in. I'm heavier, stronger, and almost quicker despite adding a little more weight. So I'm just trying to utilize that.”
If there were any concerns about the added muscle costing Conley some quickness, those were abated last Saturday against Real Madrid, where Conley looked quicker and more explosive than ever, losing multiple defenders on a blink-and-you-miss-it baseline spin move that earned the first FedExForum “beep beep” sound effect of the season and later jetting past a defender along the sideline with such a woosh that it nearly ruffled papers along media row.
“It's going to help a lot when I'm matched up against bigger guys,” Conley says. “I'm always going up against bigger, stronger guys. So I have to be able to hold my own down low.”
Another area where it could help is at the free-throw line — as in getting there. Last season, Conley, a slithery athlete and ambidextrous finisher, shot better than 60% at the rim, a good number for a guard his size. But he also had one of the lower free-throw rates at his position. Conley is a very good shooter at the line — 86% last season — so drawing contact more frequently could significantly boost his scoring efficiency. Conley got to the line five times in the first preseason game and seemed to finish shots with contact better than he has in the past.
“I can't really put my finger on that one,” Conley says, acknowledging the low free-throw rate. “But I was talking to coach about this earlier. I am going to make more of an effort to create contact and get to the free throw line. Because I do want to not only make a high percentage at the free-throw line, but get there at a higher rate. So if I can get keep getting to the basket and finishing, and also get to the line, that'll add another element.”
If Conley adding strength without losing quickness can help with his stamina, defense, and ability to get to the line, the team is also assisting these developments by getting Conley some more help this a season.
“You're blessed with the body you have,” coach Lionel Hollins says, suggesting that it's unrealistic to expect Conley to attack as effectively with a heavy minutes burden, despite his added strength. “If you're playing 38, 39 minutes, you're going to get tired. And if you're doing that over a stretch of games, you're really going to be tired. And when you get to a point in the game where you need your legs to make a shot, you're not going to have them. So addressing the back-up point guard need was huge for us. We recognized it. We knew what was going on. It was just a matter of us being able to do something about it.”
The Grizzlies doubled-down at the back-up point guard position over the summer, spending a first-round pick on talented teenager Tony Wroten Jr. and, of more immediate relevance, signing young veteran Jerryd Bayless in free agency. To make room, Pargo was traded to Cleveland and Selby, presumably, will be developed primarily as a shooting guard.
For all the talk about the Grizzlies' three-point shooting woes, a bigger killer last season — especially in the Clippers series — was a lack of reliable ball-handling behind Conley, an assertion with which Conley seems to agree.
“I really do think that's our biggest addition,” Conley says of the ball-handling depth, which will allow the team to better function offensively when Conley goes to the bench. “Really adding Jerryd Bayless and more depth will allow me to play harder for shorter periods of time and be fresher late and finish games better.”
In the first preseason game last weekend, the team paired Conley and the slightly bigger Bayless (who's 6'3” to Conley's 6'1”) for 10 minutes, and both Conley and Hollins have suggested the team would like to make regular use of this configuration, something perhaps made easier — and more necessary — by the increasing prevalence of smaller lineups around the league.
“Because Jerryd is so versatile at his position, it allows me to play more freely and run and not always have to come back to the ball and think I'm the only one who can bring it up,” Conley says of the pairing. “I know that when we play together, either of us can bring it up and make plays for people, so it's going to be fun to play alongside of him.”
As for Bayless, his shot hasn't been falling through two preseason games (3-12 from the floor) and he's clearly still adjusting to new teammates and new offensive sets, but, despite suiting up for his fourth team in five seasons, he's the first back-up point guard since the departure of Kyle Lowry who is a proven, in-his-prime contributor. Other options have tended to be rookies (Vasquez, Pargo, Selby, Ish Smith) or players at the back end of their careers (Gilbert Arenas, Jason Williams, Jamaal Tinsley).
His negligible preseason struggles notwithstanding, Bayless is sure to provide some scoring punch off the bench. Even if his 42% three-point shooting last season regresses closer to his career 35% mark, he'll still be a viable shooter. And Bayless is an explosive driver who, unlike Conley, does have a reasonably high free-throw rate (six attempts) and, like Conley, is also a good shooter from the stripe (85%) last season. If anything, Bayless should look to attack more often. Last season, Bayless' game was actually more jumpshot dependent than Conley's. Bayless took 83% of his attempts from the perimeter, compared to 71% for Conley. (Per 82games.com.) And Bayless' combo guard versatility will give the team match-up options.
The questions with Bayless will be on the defensive end and, more significantly, in terms of traditional playmaking. Like Conley, Bayless is match-up dependent defensively, but isn't nearly as disruptive off the ball. As a back-up point guard, this shouldn't be too much of an issue, but the team will have to be careful about when they deploy a small-ball backcourt of Conley and Bayless. As a playmaker, Bayless' limitations are the main reason he's been a well-traveled third guard rather than settling into a starting role somewhere. But if he can just get the ball down the floor, get into offensive sets, and present himself as a viable scoring option, that's something that Grizzlies will probably be content with.
As a 19-year-old rookie, there's reason to doubt that Wroten makes much of an impact this season. But I wouldn't count him out. What Wroten has shown in Summer League and in a mere 19 minutes of preseason action so far is that his upside is considerable. He's a true point guard — if still a wild one — at 6'6”. He's got the size, ability, and, crucially, the demeanor to be a meaningful defender at both backcourt spots. He can get to the rim. For now, he can't shoot, and that's a problem. But history — Rondo, Rubio, Kidd, Miller, etc. — has repeatedly shown that point guards who are dynamic playmakers and/or defenders can still be successful even without a jump shot. Wroten will also be turnover prone as a rookie — because almost all rookie point guards are turnover prone, and a flashy teenager is certainly not going to be an exception — and that, as much as anything, may limit his opportunities on a veteran team trying to win big right now. But Wroten's defense and size (he'd be a nice fit alongside Bayless) opens up possibilities.
Even with better depth behind him, Conley will still bear a lot of responsibility for making this season a success.
In a league that's becoming more perimeter-oriented, the Grizzlies might have the least dynamic guard rotation of any potential contender. (No, I don't consider the Knicks potential contenders.) Though the team has, crucially, added better ballhandlers behind Conley, they probably don't have anyone else in the backcourt with the all-around dynamism of the departed O.J. Mayo. The committee at scoring guard — defender Tony Allen, strictly a shooter Wayne Ellington, strictly a shooter and cutter Quincy Pondexter, undersized Bayless — is full of questions and limitations.
More catalytic ballhandling and playmaking from Rudy Gay would be very helpful, but at this stage of his career, with his high dribble and lackluster court vision, expecting a major advance from Gay as a playmaker is probably unrealistic.
And that leaves Conley. The best case scenario for the Grizzlies is what Conley is hoping: That reduced minutes and more strength that make the minutes he plays more dynamic.
Even with a frontcourt full of All-Star level talent, the Grizzlies need Conley to take more control and be more dynamic.
Lowest Usage Rate, Point Guards, min. 30 mpg (HoopData.com)
Jose Calderon 16.00
Darren Collison 17.05
Luke Ridnour 17.69
Mike Conley 18.31
Ricky Rubio 18.69
If Conley can bump up that too-low usage rate while maintaining or increasing his effectiveness as a scorer (starting with making more frequent use of his solid three-point stroke) and playmaker, it will be enormously helpful.
With the Grizzlies, the spotlight tends to be on other players, but Conley might be the biggest key to how far this team can go. For the Grizzlies to have a big season, Conley has to have a big season, and he appears ready for that responsibility.
“No doubt,” Conley says. “I've prepared myself for that. For those seven games in the playoffs, I had a glimpse of what I should be doing, how I should be aggressive, how I should play every game of the season. I'm trying to apply that to this year. We're going as far as I help take us, because I'm the one leading the way in terms of having to organize everyone, but I also need to run the court and shoot the ball and be aggressive as well.”
(Photos by Larry Kuzniewski)