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Mike Conley’s Surge into Elite Territory

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Photo: Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports

Asking the average fan about Mike Conley will generally elicit little to no response. There isn’t anything really interesting about your garden-variety, middle-of-the-pack point guard playing for one of the smallest markets in the NBA. Conley doesn’t have Stephen Curry’s shot, Chris Paul’s brilliance, Russell Westbrook’s blitzing attack, Tony Parker’s finesse, et cetera, et cetera. Long story short, there’s nothing that really stands out about Conley. However, since Rudy Gay’s departure from Memphis in January of ’13, Conley has taken a huge leap forward and hasn’t looked back. If he’s not considered elite at this juncture, he’s tantalizingly close to attaining status as a top-tier point guard in the NBA.

Dave Joerger has relied heavily on Conley to be the team’s primary perimeter scorer with Gay’s departure, and he’s blown away even the most optimistic of projections. His play after the Gay trade from last year has carried over to this year, as Conley is averaging 18.8 PPG on a 46% Field Goal Percentage and doling out 6.6 APG, while turning it over less, getting to the line more, and being more efficient all-around. Conley has seen an upward spike in his Usage Rate – which is a career high 24.4% is – coupled with increases in his Effective Field Goal Percentage (51%) and True Shooting Percentage (55%). His assist numbers aren’t gaudy, and are a little low when compared to other elite point guards, but that can be chalked up to the snail-pace at which the Grizzlies play. Fewer possessions leads to fewer opportunities to score, which ends up hurting Conley’s assist numbers. Nonetheless, Conley still passes the ball a lot. According to NBA.com/stats, Conley passes the ball 66.5 times per game, which places him at eighth in the league. Why exactly is that an interesting statistic? It makes his high usage and low turnovers that much more unbelievable. Passing the ball more and using up more of your team’s possessions usually lead to more turnovers, yet Conley is currently turning the ball over on only 10.5% of his possessions. In comparison to his peers in the Western Conference (l intentionally left out Westbrook due to injury):

Player

Passes Per Game

Turnover Percentage

Usage Rate

Mike Conley

66.5

10.5%

24.4%

Chris Paul

72.0

13.3%

23.4%

Ty Lawson

57.8

16.0%

23.4%

Stephen Curry

57.5

16.6%

28.4%

Goran Dragic

54.5

14.9%

24.7%

Damian Lillard

63.6

11.7%

24.5%

Tony Parker

58.1

13.2%

27.0%

Average (among these PG’s)

61.4

13.7%

25.1%

Conley’s turnover percentage stands out (as does Damian Lillard’s) like the sun in the sky. It’s reasonable to assume that he’s simply good at controlling the ball and aiming his passes, but that’s an understatement. Conley’s having a historically strong campaign that places him in elite territory, among the likes of Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton, and Chris Paul. The biggest knock on Conley is that he doesn’t get to the line enough, and he tends to get passive when he could be terrorizing defenses with his speed.

So how does Conley do it? Memphis’s main offensive strategy has always been to feed it inside to draw in the defenders and kick it outside for the open shooters – a simple in-out game. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol function as vehicles for opening up other tactical options on the floor, and they’re also able to brutalize their opponents in the post for points. As an above-average shooter (37% Field Goal Percentage from beyond the arc), Conley’s able to function organically within this post-heavy offense as a shooter that Randolph/Gasol can kick the rock out to, or he can flash to the rim using the space that Randolph/Gasol provide when defenders collapse onto them in the post. But Conley works best when he’s running the pick ‘n roll (ranked 9th in the league in Points Per Possession as pick ‘n roll ball handler). Conley’s speed and ability to penetrate make him very adept at maximizing the efficiency of the pick ‘n roll, as he’s able to quickly drive to the rim and finish with force on bigger defenders, or make an accurate pocket pass as Gasol/Randolph roll off the screen. Conley utilizes not only his physical ability to operate the pick ‘n roll, but he uses various tricks in order to fool the defender. Conley is ambidextrous, and he uses that to his full advantage as he’s able to drive strongly to the rim with both hands. When it comes to ball-control, Conley is a near savant, and he can fake his defenders out with hesitations or spins, and bob-and-weave his way into any corner of the floor. Conley either takes advantage during those possessions and scores for himself, or he confuses the defender long enough to either get Gasol an open mid-range shot, find Tony Allen on a backdoor cut, or an open shooter for three. The addition of floor spacers in Courtney Lee and Mike Miller, and Quincy Pondexter’s growth into a shooter has given Conley more space to work with than he’s ever had. Conley drives to the rim roughly 8.0 times per game (placing him 9th in the league), and he finishes at an elite clip (50% Field Goal Percentage on drives – placing him third among all point guards, behind Tony Parker and Ty Lawson). Conley’s ability to control the pace has allowed him to succeed within Memphis’s offensive stratagem as he functions well as merely a post entry passer while doing damage off-ball, or he can quicken the pace and stimulate ball-movement in order to create for others and himself.  As a highly efficient floor general with vision and awareness who can exploit kinks in opposing defenses, control the pace of the game, and has an astounding lack of cogent flaws, Conley is the x-factor of the Grizzlies offense.

Conley is most definitely elite on the defensive end, as well. He’s an excellent pick ‘n roll defender, and it’s extremely difficult to shake Conley off after screens due to his speed and finesse, and his awareness of them before they’re even set. Conley and Allen have proven to be an effective defensive duo as they harass the opposing team’s perimeter players and continuously trap them on the sidelines, force a turnover, or swipe a steal. Conley’s most interesting talent is his ability to steal the ball at high rates without really gambling. He picks his spots well, and scouts out the most efficient way he can force a turnover instead of heavily playing the passing lanes. While the Grizzlies haven’t been as unstoppable of a defensive force like they have been in the past, most of that has to do with coach turnover, as Joerger implements a new system, and Marc Gasol’s injury. The advanced metrics currently don’t favor Conley this year as much as they used to, but he has an entirely new offensive load on his back, and playing without Gasol behind him has forced Memphis’s perimeter defense to slouch back a little in order to provide more help against the drive when necessary. Nonetheless, when the Grizzlies are fully healthy, Conley is a decidedly important factor on defense as a perimeter stopper and a leader on that end.

So does all this make him elite (or at least on the precipice of becoming elite)? I can’t exactly say for sure. In a league filled with high-quality point guards, Conley seemed to have found himself hidden in the middle, but his recent burst of production has separated him from the bulk of the group, and placed him towards the top of the point guard spectrum. He may very well be the type of player that doesn’t make the jump to elite, but is consistently very, very good, or he may make the jump as he hits his prime. Regardless, at the very least Conley is above-average on both ends of the floor, and his proficiency in keeping mistakes to a minimum makes him a rare breed in today’s game. He’s not a bulked up athletic specimen that can bulldoze his way into volume points, nor does he have a stroke from beyond the arc that makes even the Gods weep. Instead, he’s in the vein of Tony Parker/Chris Paul – mixing mouse-like speed and finesse with high levels of control and efficiency – and that makes him a very special player.

2 Comments on Mike Conley’s Surge into Elite Territory

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