Q&A: Mike Conley on Being Tricky and the ‘Why Not Us?’ Grizzlies

It has been a disjointed season for the Memphis Grizzlies. Despite making the Western Conference finals in 2013, the team made the semi-surprising decision to let Lionel Hollins walk and replace him with Dave Joerger. The new coach has revamped the offense, but any scoring success has been sporadic. The Grizz rank 19th in points per possession, and they’ve stayed right around there since Marc Gasol returned from a knee injury in mid-January. Despite an early edict to get into the offense more quickly, the Grizz still play at the league’s slowest pace and take about as many shots late in the shot clock as they did last season.

Mike Conley missed a handful of games after Gasol’s return, and the Grizz have indeed scored at a borderline top-10 rate when the duo have shared the floor this season, per NBA.com. The team’s defense struggled early, even when Memphis was at full health, but the Grizz have been neck-and-neck with Indiana and Chicago as the league’s stingiest since Gasol’s return.

The underlying signs are there. Memphis just hasn’t been able to put everything together for any extended stretch, and it is now locked into a fierce 4.5-team battle for the final playoff spot in the brutal West. It has a road-heavy but otherwise nondescript schedule down the stretch, though its final two games — at Phoenix, and then home against Dallas — could be crucial.

Conley sat down for an extended courtside one-on-one with Grantland on Wednesday in Brooklyn to discuss all things Grizz.

Lionel Hollins told me last season he actually didn’t know if you were left-handed or right-handed. What’s the answer?

If I had a choice, I’d say I’m right-handed.

Really? Wow.

Yeah. I’m right-handed in everything other than basketball. I actually use my right hand a lot more in basketball than people think.

So you write, and eat, and everything else righty?

All of it. Everything. Throwing a baseball, throwing a football — all right-handed.

I remember reading you played both those sports, and pretty well, as a kid, right?

I did. I was confused on which way to go. But I figured it out.

What positions did you play in baseball?

I was a center fielder, and I played shortstop.

Rumor has it you’re a great golfer.

[Laughs.]

How good are you? And I assume you golf righty?

I golf left-handed, actually.

Come on. You have to get lefty clubs and everything. It’s work to golf lefty!

It is! But I putt right-handed, so that’s the funny part. When it comes to touch, I feel like I’m a little bit better right-handed.

What’s your handicap?

I’m an 8 right now. I mean, right now, at this moment, I’m probably a 10, 11, or 12, because I haven’t played. When I’m in golf season, I’m around an 8.

You probably play mostly at home during the offseason, but are there any good golf partners for you in the Grizz family?

If we get back early in September, Mike Miller is a huge golfer. He’s really, really good. He’s better than I am. He won’t admit that, but he is.

Dave Joerger redesigned your offense this season — more read-and-react, more continuity, some corner actions. He wants you to play a bit faster. The pieces are mostly the same, though. How different is the new offense, really?

It’s a little bit more of an equal-opportunity offense, where you have guys at all positions who you have confidence in to make plays. That’s what we’ve incorporated this season — getting the ball in to the elbow, going to the corner actions, dribble handoffs.

Courtney Lee has fit right into that — cutting up from the right corner a lot.

Yeah, coming right from the corner, and getting handed the ball for jump shots or stuff off the dribble. That stuff is all really good for us.

It was slow going early. Someone told me everything looked better in practice, in 5-on-0 walkthroughs, than it did against real defenders.

[Laughs.] Oh, that’s very true. I think once you got into the full speed of the games, guys’ minds started racing through so many different options, we didn’t know which one to choose. We were just thinking too much, and we finally slowed it down a little, and got back to where it has been more efficient.

I nominate you for the honor of league’s trickiest player.

[Laughs.]

You’re not the tallest guy, and you’re not dunking on anyone, but you have a ton of moves — the hesitation dribble, and that fake spin move you break out.

Oh, yeah.

The in-and-out lefty dribble.

Yep.

You had one move against Washington the other day, where you used a one-handed lefty in-and-out dribble, veered to the middle, and then hit a right floater. Is that all natural to you? Do you just pick that stuff, and continue to add things, as you gain experience?

That’s all stuff I’ve learned throughout my career — stuff I’ve gotten from different players, and from different coaches. I worked a lot with Lionel on those things. I worked with Damon Stoudamire for a long time when he was a teammate and an assistant coach here. I learned a lot of those in-the-paint shots, and just being tricky. I am shorter. I’m not dunking on guys. I have to find another way of getting the ball up in the air.

What’s your pet move? Or the one that when you pull it off, it feels the best?

Oh, man. It’s probably my in-and-out to a quick right-handed floater. I bring it in and out with my left, hopefully spin the defender around a little bit, and come back with a quick right-handed shot. That’s my favorite out of all of ’em.

Teams still go under you on picks now and then, and let you shoot jumpers. Do you take that as an insult? Your shooting percentages say they shouldn’t do that, right?

Right. I think of it less as an insult and more of them being really worried about me getting into the paint. If we get into the paint as guards, the game is a lot harder on the defense. So they look at it as, “Hey, we’ll live with you making a couple of 3s here and there, and jumpers, but if you get into the paint, it’s going to be a long night.” That’s the way I see it.

Lionel also says you don’t like shooting. Like, you object when the team asks you to shoot more. Is that true? You wouldn’t love to shoot 20 times a night? Everyone wants to shoot more!

Twenty is tough for me. When I see that I shot 12 times, I’m like, “Whoa, man, I’m shooting a lot.” And now it’s 14 or 15 …

Wait … 12 times? There are bench guys who get up 12 shots in 15 garbage-time minutes.

Oh, yeah. I come from playing in Indiana, where we don’t care who’s scoring, or how many shots you get.

So the Indiana romantic team-first basketball thing is still true?

That’s just how it is. It was a culture shock for this season for them to tell me, “Hey, we need you to shoot 17 or 18 times and try to score 18 or 19 points per game.”

You guys got off to a slow start defensively, even when you and Marc were both healthy. I couldn’t put my finger on what was going on — the scheme was the same, the players were the same. What was up?

I really do think we were just thinking too much on both ends. We were trying to grasp this new offense, and we were so worried about us not being able to score, we forgot that we needed to work on the defensive end and try to get some turnovers and stops. If we’re not scoring, they better not be scoring. We just forgot that. We got away from it, worrying about so many other things. Once we settled in and got our offense where it needed to be, I think our defense got a lot more comfortable.

It is the same basic scheme, right? I mean, Dave has been here coaching for years.

Same scheme, same coverages, same guys. It shouldn’t be any different.

You guys were under .500 probably deeper into the season than you ever expected, and it took you a while to get over .500. You went to the conference finals last season. When you’re in that kind of hole, do you obsess over the standings? Do you start doing math, like, “Man, we have to go 40-20 the rest of the way just to make the playoffs?”

We did feel that sense of urgency. I mean, our schedule wasn’t going to get any easier as the year went on. We knew that if we were going to have a chance, we had to take care of business right now. I thought we did a great job of taking it game by game, and understanding the sense of urgency we needed to have to put our name back into that conversation again.

You’re not an old team, but you’re not a young one. Is there a sense of “We have a window right now, and we better take advantage of it”?

Right. We understand that. We understand we have a good mix of young and old, and this is only going to last however many years. You have to be able to strike when it’s hot. Hopefully we’ve grasped that now and understand we have a good window here to do something.

This might be a dumb question, but do you look at this roster now, and what happened last season, and think, Hey, why not us? Can this team win the whole thing?

I do think so. We have the same team as last season, with a couple more additions that are really helpful. We addressed our outside shooting.

You’re all of a sudden super deep.

Yeah. And now we’re so deep with all the healthy guys we have coming back. Hopefully that pays dividends in the end.

Do you ever worry Tony Allen is going to injure a fan with his bench celebrations?

Nah, not a fan. I’ve seen him throw towels on the floor in the middle of games, though. But never a fan.

He told me once he hit an old lady in the face with a towel, but that she liked it.

[Laughing.] Oh, I believe that.

Last time I saw you guys was in Orlando, and Gasol was singing “Call Me Maybe” during warmups as it blared over the PA system. Should he be embarrassed by that? Does he secretly sing all the time for you guys?

If he does sing, it’s in Spanish most of the time, so we don’t know what he’s singing. Man, I wish I was around when he was singing that. [Conley did not play in that game.] That’s funny.

You do this thing on defense that a lot of guards do, and that I associate mostly with Monta Ellis for some reason: On the pick-and-roll, you’ll sometimes spin back-to-chest off the screener, temporarily turning your back to the ball handler. Is that just a quirk you’ve always had, from when you started playing? Or did you learn it somehow?

CONLEY

It’s just natural to me, to be able to use my quickness. I think that’s a way of not getting screened, and not getting hit so much. It catches a lot of guys off guard. If you spin, they’re like, Wait, hold on. What is this guy doing? But now I’m back right in front of you. It’s something I’ve grown to use a lot.

Who is the toughest pick-and-roll combination to guard for you?

It’s tough guarding Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, because Chris is just so good on the pick-and-roll. When Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant go into that 1-3 [point guard–small forward] pick-and-roll, that’s a nightmare.

You have to think about switching that one, huh?

Oh, man, I don’t want to switch onto a 7-footer like KD. No way. No way.

Flip it the other way. When you’re running a pick-and-roll on offense, which defender concerns you more: the point guard covering you, or the big man covering the screener and helping on you?

The bigger concern is the big guy, and then the help-side defense. That’s what I’m reading most of the time. I trust my big guy to get me open with the pick, so I’m more worried about their man and the guys coming to the weak side — so that I know who I might be able to hit with a pass, or if I might have the opportunity to score myself.

Which big man has given you the most trouble in your career?

I always thought Kevin Garnett was the best. He probably still is. Andre Drummond is pretty good at it.

That’s a surprising name to hear.

Oh, he’s long, and he’s so quick with his hands. He’s really agile.

He does get a lot of steals.

Yep. You have to watch for that every time you come off of pick-and-rolls.

Is there more or less cursing now that Joerger is the coach?

I have to say less. A lot less.

OK, so, we’ve got about 20 games to go. What are you looking to see, from the team perspective, as we hit the stretch run?

We’re just trying to round everything out. I don’t think you’re going to see any one guy take our team under his wing. We’re gonna see a group effort. We understand what it takes. At playoff time, it’s all about the team. It’s not about one or two guys. Everybody’s confidence is key, our bench will step up, and I think it’s gonna be a good end of the year.

Filed Under: NBA, Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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