Here’s a fun exercise: Pick any NBA player and try to picture his go-to move on offense. For LeBron James, you’ll likely think of him negotiating a pick-and-roll up high, probably going to his left, scanning the defense for a driving lane or a clear pass to a spot-up shooter in the corner. For Tim Duncan, it’ll be a pet post-up move from the left block. Tyson Chandler is almost tearing off the rim while finishing a lob dunk, and Matt Bonner is shot-putting a 3-pointer from the top of the arc.
Now try it for Mike Conley, point guard of the Memphis Grizzlies, the team that just might be the favorite in the Western Conference after taking a 3-1 series lead with an OT win Monday night over the Thunder. This exercise is easy for most point guards, because they dominate the ball and get to imprint their stylistic flair into our brains. But it’s tough for Conley, isn’t it? If you’re a regular Grizz watcher, you’ll eventually land on his righty floater in the lane. But how did he get into the lane? And how does he score the rest of his 15 points per game (up to about 17.5 in the playoffs)? What are his trademark passes?
Conley sort of defies this exercise, even for those of us who spend unhealthy amounts of time watching NBA basketball. And that’s fitting. Conley’s game on both ends is one of refined subtlety, and it can take a long time in the NBA for that sort of player to find the right rhythms. That has been doubly so for Conley, who entered the league a “frail” 19-year-old, says his coach, Lionel Hollins. Conley spends the bulk of his time on the floor with two slow-moving behemoths who control the Grizzlies’ pace, own the real estate south of the foul line, and prop up one of the league’s last true inside-out offenses. Conley doesn’t have spectacular pick-and-roll lob partners, a 3-point shooting power forward to open up space down low, or even all that much time when he’s clearly the controlling figure in Memphis’s offense. So how good, really, is Mike Conley?
That mystery made even the sunniest members of the Grizzlies organization a little nervous when they unloaded Rudy Gay, the team’s leading scorer, in a trade meant primarily to clean up the team’s short- and long-term salary cap picture. The Grizz, who received Tayshaun Prince and Ed Davis in return, were a bottom-10 scoring team even with Gay.1 If everything went right, the Grizz could remain a fringe contender built around a ferocious top-three defense and a sputtering offense that might fart out enough points to win some 90-85 games in the first round or two of the playoffs.
Memphis has become more than that, in large part because Conley has flourished under the pressure of an increased burden. The same is true of Marc Gasol. Both have been more efficient since the Gay trade despite taking on a larger burden within Memphis’s offense — a transition from low-usage to high-usage that makes most NBA geeks queasy. Guys taking 10 carefully selected shots every night might flounder a bit, the thinking goes, if the departure of a high-volume shooter forces them to add three or four tougher shots to the menu.
Conley has blown away even the most optimistic projections and taken the Grizzlies’ offense to a new level with him. Since the Gay trade, Conley is shooting more, shooting better, getting to the line more often, dishing more assists, and turning the ball over less — without sacrificing anything on the defensive end, where he has morphed during the last few years from a “frail” liability into a sturdy top-five defender at his position. The Grizzlies ranked 21st in points per possession when they traded Gay. They ranked just outside the top 10 after the Gay trade, and they’ve actually increased their scoring rate in the playoffs; only Miami, San Antonio, and Golden State have averaged more points per possession, per NBA.com. The Grizz are actually in a virtual tie with the Warriors and Spurs after their Game 4 win, meaning Memphis, once a traveling clank-fest, has been something like the league’s second-best postseason offense. They cut their turnover rate and started getting to the line more, trends that would offset their slight decline in offensive rebounding without the downgrade in athleticism that came with the Prince/Gay exchange.
And, holy shit, have they maintained those trends into the playoffs. The Grizz through 10 playoff games have turned the ball over at a rate that would be an all-time low over an extended season and have earned more free throws per shot attempt than any team has over a full season since 1998-99, per Basketball-Reference.com. Playing the foul-happy Clippers helped, but the Clips also led the league in forcing turnovers, and they couldn’t pry the ball from the Grizz. Conley has coughed it up two or fewer times in eight of the Grizzlies’ 10 playoff games.
League history tells us teams with merely decent offenses and elite defenses are better title contenders than teams with the opposite combination. The Grizz weren’t anything close to decent on offense before the deal, and Conley has helped carry them there ever since.
“He’s just steady Eddie out there,” says Hollins, who knows Conley is about to earn some major publicity if the Grizzlies advance another round — or even further. Hollins has played the “nobody cares about small-market teams” card aggressively, both with the media and behind closed doors with his players. “There are lots of players in this league who are very good and don’t get any recognition,” Hollins says. “And I tell the players — I talk to them directly: The longer we’re in the playoffs, the more you’ll get national recognition. It’ll come if we win. You don’t have to force it.”2
And yet, save for a clutch basket — and Conley has generated a surprising number of those this season — it’s hard to remember a single Conley highlight even right after watching a Memphis game. The Grizzlies’ offense is about precise continuity, Conley prodding in the area between the 3-point arc and the dotted line — the most boring and least efficient area of the floor. A pick-and-roll with Zach Randolph flows into either a post entry for Z-Bo or a kick to Gasol at the elbow. Conley might then scurry over toward Gasol to take a handoff, which works as a second pick-and-roll and triggers a bunch of actions elsewhere on the floor. Everybody knows the order of events, and even though Hollins allows for a certain level of improvisation, the players know how to react if Conley and Gasol — the two guys who make those improv calls, Hollins says — begin a possession by doing X instead of Y.
The ball and bodies move until the Grizzlies spy an opening they like, or until the shot clock forces them to settle upon whatever opening might be available. Conley is a very fast human being; he speculated he could run a 4.3 40-yard dash (his college teammates joked he could run a four-flat). But he rarely gets to unleash that speed over extended stretches of real estate within Memphis’s slowpoke offense. Conley has had to adapt — to become something like the slowest fast guy in the NBA.3
Conley has channeled his speed into vicious change-of-pace moves that pry open tiny openings for both himself and his teammates. The “for himself” part of that might be a bigger deal than Conley’s passing. He’s unselfish by nature, and Hollins told him upon the Gay trade that Conley had to transform into an every-night scorer — that he had to hunt his own shots. “Earlier in his career, he just wanted to pass to everybody else,” Hollins says. “But I’ve told him, ‘You’ve gotta be that guy who can get us 25 or 30 on some nights when we’ll need it.’”4
The biggest difference between Conley and Gay — and Gasol and Gay — is that Conley’s shot-hunting grows organically from within Memphis’s offense. Gay’s shot-hunting largely existed outside of that offense, or ground it to a halt. Most of Conley’s scoring chances come via the pick-and-roll, which means that if a Conley scoring pursuit goes nowhere, there is a natural pass available — one that keeps all the screening and cutting gears turning.
The Grizzlies without Gay use fewer isolations and rely more on post-ups and pick-and-rolls, per Synergy Sports. Conley has become a more efficient scorer on pick-and-rolls, and the Grizzlies have been insanely efficient when a Conley pick-and-roll leads directly to the end of a possession — via a shot from Conley, or a shot someone else takes out of a Conley-directed pick-and-roll.5
Conley does three things especially well in seeking scoring chances:
• He’s a genius at rejecting screens on pick-and-rolls. Saying a player “rejects” a screen is a wonky way of saying he goes in the other direction instead of using the pick. Conley did this on about 16 percent of pick-and-rolls, one of the highest Reject Rates in the league among guys who run the play a lot, per Synergy. Conley is brilliant at using slight shoulder and head fakes to convince defenders — both his man and the big guy guarding the screener — that he’s going to head around the screen as expected. And if those fakes get one of those defenders leaning toward the pick, he’ll cross over immediately and be in the paint before either guy can recover:
Even the great Chris Paul can be fooled:
One reason Conley can do this so well, and so often: He’s very good at disguising which way he wants to go, and his big men are whip-smart about disguising until the very last second whether they are going to screen to Conley’s right or left. Other big guys are good at this — Duncan comes to mind — but it’s especially effective with Conley because he’s ambidextrous and thus capable of driving just as powerfully in either direction. Hollins says he has no idea to this day whether Conley is left- or right-handed.
Watch Conley and Randolph combine to trick a jumpy Serge Ibaka into thinking that Conley will drive left around a screen:
“It’s something that comes with experience and confidence,” Hollins says of Conley toying with defenses like this. “You’re not just out there running a play. You’re playing the defense, and seeing what you might be able to get if you get more aggressive.”
• He has an absolutely brutal hesitation dribble when he does go over picks and encounters a big-man helper in the lane. It might be the best hesitation dribble in the league, though Paul, Isaiah Thomas, and others would have a claim. Conley’s hesitation bounce is a full-body acting job, one that also leverages his ambidexterity. When Conley is dribbling at something like full speed, he hunches forward, lowering his body to the ground like a base stealer. When he slows up, he de-hunches, almost standing straight up and bringing his head and neck closer to eye level. But that’s just the bait. Defenders often read that change in height as a sign that the drive is over, and it’s safe to relax; they may come out of their defensive crouch, or poke at the ball. That is death against Conley.
Here’s Dwight Howard about to fall for a classic Conley acting job:
This is actually a combination of a hesitation dribble and a crossover. Note how Conley is dribbling to his right with his left hand. He’s about to cross up Howard by dribbling back to his left, and he can do that without changing hands, because the ball is already in his left hand. He can mimic this action on the other end of the floor with his right hand. Being ambidextrous is pretty cool.
Another cool Conley hesitation trick: When he drives toward the sideline, he’ll sometimes fool defenders by faking a spin back toward the top of the arc — even turning his entire body toward the sideline in the process, as if he’s beginning his spin move. Here he is mid-fake against the Wolves — a beat before burning Minnesota with a baseline drive:
• He’s a wiz at splitting traps. This is a risky move, but Conley usually pulls it off without turning the ball over, and the Grizzlies call plays that put him in position to do it. Memphis often has two guys set a monster stagger screen for Conley, knowing defenses facing that play often have the last defender in line leap out to cut him off. DeMarcus Cousins plays that role here at the end of a Prince-Gasol double screen, and Conley is already in the process of sliding into the space between Cousins and the crowd of players near the left elbow:
Conley can work in 90-degree angles, transitioning from a straight east-west course to a north-south drive in a blink.
But he’s generally a patient player, content to bob and weave until the Grizzlies get what they want. Conley understands opposing defenses and knows which ones he can fatally manipulate by running a pick-and-roll with Randolph, and then following it up with either a pass to Gasol or an immediate pick-and-roll with Gasol. Get two opposing big guys moving and there’s a good chance they’ll make a mistake. Both big defenders might chase Randolph rolling to the rim, or accidentally leave Randolph open there by running in tandem at Gasol’s very threatening midrange jumper. Conley runs the show, deciding whether to let it play out or if he might profit by cutting it short:
“He’s just really intelligent,” Hollins says. “He understands what we want to do, and how to get us there.”
And he’s learned to keep his head on a swivel while yo-yoing like this above the foul line. That hyper-awareness is crucial for the Grizzlies, because Randolph might duck into the paint for a quick-hitting post-up at any moment, or Tony Allen might sense a back-cut opportunity as an opposing defense tilts away from him. Conley is a very good entry passer who has gotten better at spotting these specific Grizzlian passing lanes.
Conley can even use that hesitation dribble to create shots for teammates, especially pick-and-pop jumpers for Gasol. Every fraction of a second a big-man defender spends patrolling Conley, unsure what the little water bug will do, is a slice of time he can’t spend scampering back to Gasol at the opposite elbow.
On defense, Conley was once so vulnerable that Hollins would have to hide him on weaker players when the Grizz faced a bullying point guard. Not anymore. When Hollins turns the CP3 assignment over to Allen or Quincy Pondexter, it’s more about giving Paul a different look than about hiding Conley. “Mike can guard anybody,” Hollins says.
And his combination of quickness and balance is perfect for an evolving NBA in which teams are flooding the strong side of the court — a defensive strategy that requires little guys to venture into the paint, bump a big man, and then run back out to their original guy without conceding an open jumper or running themselves out of balance. I mean, this from Game 3 is pretty close to perfect on-a-string 2013 NBA defense, with Conley capping the possession by shifting out from the paint to close out on Reggie Jackson:
Ditto for this, as Conley helps clog the lane (tagging Kendrick Perkins on the right block) before sprinting out to deflect a pass to Thabo Sefolosha:
Look, Conley isn’t close to a superstar, and he might not ever be an All-Star. But he is proof that a player without a single obvious can’t-miss NBA skill can work at all his little sub-skills to become a damn good cog on a damn good team. Conley has honed his own game and worked at skills that are important specifically to the Grizzlies. And that’s a cool thing about his improvement — it’s hard to separate Conley’s career arc from Gasol’s, or from the Grizzlies’ upward swing in general. Gasol and Conley have played five seasons together, and they’ve used that continuity to help each other with dribble handoffs, hard screens, artful two-man stuff, and high-low chemistry.
He’s also proof of how tough it is to be an NBA GM. People — including a certain Sports Guy — laughed at the Grizzlies when they signed Conley to a five-year, $40 million extension in 2010, and the evidence on record very clearly suggested he didn’t deserve that kind of salary. But he had only just turned 23 when he signed that extension, even though he was already entering his fourth season. General managers have to weigh unknown upsides, and make uncomfortable bets based on projecting those unknowns, when signing a 23-year-old to his second NBA contract. Those deals are no-brainers with the max guys, but they are very tricky with the next tier. Some corners of the NBA viewed Jrue Holiday’s four-year, $41 million extension as a risk; it looks like a very good deal now. The mocking of Jeff Green’s contract isn’t quite as loud as it once was, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a “blah” player such as DeMar DeRozan performs up to his bloated $9 million annual contract on the back end. Keep this in mind over the summer and fall, when Brandon Jennings, Tyreke Evans, Evan Turner, Eric Bledsoe, Derrick Favors, and LARRY SANDERS! cash in.
We used to laugh at Mike Conley, too. We don’t anymore.