A few weeks back, Jay Caspian Kang wrote a piece for Grantland in which he speculates on how Jeremy Lin’s career will turn out once he recovers from the knee injury that has momentarily sidelined him. He suggests that Linsanity was not a one-off, and indeed, Lin will have a long, prosperous career as a starting NBA point guard. At that point, I was nodding my head in agreement, until one unfortunate sentence where states that Lin will “likely be better than Jameer Nelson or Mike Conley, Jr.”
Ugh, here we go again. It wasn’t so much that I disagreed with him – Lin is, if nothing else, a more explosive point guard than Conley – it was that once again Conley was being used to represent mediocrity. An average-at-best point guard who isn’t terrible, but doesn’t do much else. Anyone who watches Conley on a regular basis knows this is simply not the case. He may not be flashy, but he does an excellent job facilitating the Grizzlies offense, and creating opportunities for Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph. Also, I hope Kang was talking about 2009 Jameer (when he was admittedly pretty good), because Conley is a considerably better player than 2012 Jameer, who appears to have crumbled under the giant mess that is the Dwight Howard situation.
In some respects, Conley is a victim of an era he plays in. When trying to figure out where he ranked among current starting point guards, I had to concede that he was somewhere in the middle of the pack, probably in the 10-15 range. But that’s not because Conley is a mediocre or average player, it’s simply because the league is clogged with elite point guards right now. It seems like at least a third of the teams in this league have their point guard as their best player, and have teams that revolve around him. From undeniably elite leaders like Rose, CP3, Rondo, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, and Steve Nash to potentially elite young guards like Ricky Rubio, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, and even John Wall, the number of teams who base everything around the guy playing the 1 is staggering. As a result, someone like Conley, who is simply a facilitator, and not an elite scoring option can’t help but be overlooked.
Which is a shame, because as anyone who watches Conley knows, he does a lot for the Grizzlies. Along with Tony Allen, he’s half of one of the best defensive backcourts in the league. Anyone who doubts his ability to create plays should remember that he averages 2.3 steals per game, good for second in the league behind Chris Paul. When you see Gay or Mayo slam home a dunk on a fast break, there’s a good chance that play started with a steal by Conley.
When looking at Conley’s advanced numbers, Conley’s efficiency becomes readily evident. His offensive rating is seven points higher than his defensive rating, which basically means that the number of points he scores per 100 possessions is seven points higher than what the players he’s defending will score with the same number of possessions. Admittedly, these numbers weren’t this strong during his first four seasons, but that just shows that he’s on an upswing, and could become even more efficient in the future.
One thing that hurt Conley from the beginning of his career is that Grizzlies mere acquisition of him felt like a bit of a disappointment. After a wretched 06-07 season where the team racked up only 24 wins, everyone was excited about getting a top-two pick, and building around Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. Instead, the Grizzlies got the 4th pick, and took Conley, the second best player on Oden’s Ohio State team. He felt like a consolation prize, and while anyone would have him over Oden after his injury-riddled career, there are probably some fans who are bitter than Oklahoma City gets to watch Durant light up the scoreboard for the next 15 years. The controversy in 2009, when Allen Iverson made it abundantly clear how insulted he felt having to “come off the bench” in relief of Conley didn’t help either.
But while he hasn’t become a superstar, he has blossomed into an extremely valuable player, and the perfect point guard for this Grizzlies team. We’ve seen the Grizzlies be effective without Rudy Gay, and without Zach Randolph, but I shudder to think where this team would be without Conley to run the show. He may not be spectacular, but he plays a big role in keeping the team together. A “glue guy” if there ever was one.
John Hugar is a new blogger at 3 Shades of Blue. A native of Buffalo, New York, John has been a follower of the Grizzlies since they were located in Vancouver. While not a local fan John brings a unique national exposure to covering the Grizzlies which should be very illuminating and informative.