It was halftime of a game five years ago, and Lionel Hollins was scolding Mike Conley. The Memphis Grizzlies coach was denouncing Conley’s performance, peppering his language with expletives. Conley didn’t think he’d played that poorly. The Grizzlies had been mildly out of sorts, fumbling their way to 11 turnovers in the first two quarters. It was an exhibition game against Spanish club Caja Laboral, which had been employing a full-court press against its NBA hosts. Hollins told Conley he had been dominated by a player who wasn’t even in their league. Conley felt like defending himself, but he held back. He remained stoic — a trait his father had praised and encouraged for years. In the second half, Conley orchestrated a 10-0 run and finished with 27 points to guide Memphis to the win.
Conley estimates that he and Hollins shared hundreds of similar moments throughout the coach’s tenure in Memphis from 2009 to 2013. It was all part of the give-and-go, ebb-and-flow relationship between a young point guard and his demanding coach, who had also played the position at a championship level. “There was nothing I could do right,” Conley recently explained. “I would always get called aside, yelled at, cussed out. That made me believe that he saw something in me. He wanted the best. He wanted to push you to the limit.” Back then, Conley considered himself a table-setting point guard, but his scoring outburst in the seemingly unimportant exhibition reinforced how important it was for him to remain aggressive. “I felt like I was a 10-point guy, and he knew I had something else in there that I wasn’t showing,” Conley said.
Today, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the Grizzlies’ success without Conley. Hollins has moved on (he now stalks the sideline for the Brooklyn Nets), but the “underrated” label that has long been attached to Conley is outdated and no longer applicable. He is one of the league’s best orchestrators for one of the league’s best teams, and he serves as the guiding, steadying influence on an emotional roster. “When you look at Mike Conley, he’s just as important to the success of the Memphis Grizzlies as Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol,” said Johnny Davis, a Memphis assistant coach when Conley entered the league. “If he goes out, you’re talking about a different team. He has evolved into one of the better point guards in the NBA.”
It was not always that way. Conley, drafted fourth overall in 2007, arrived to a Grizzlies franchise in disarray. He faced stiff competition at his position and an injury that curtailed his rookie year. He developed so slowly that the organization even considered trading him. In those years, Memphis seemed to draft, trade, or sign a new point guard each season. There was always a fresh face to challenge Conley and possibly take his job. “Back then, I thought my position was up for grabs,” Conley said. “It was an uncertain situation and I thought I could be gone any day.”
It’s often said that the point guard position carries the steepest NBA learning curve. “The point guard has so many duties on the floor,” said Mike Miller, a Memphis forward when Conley was drafted. “He’s got to keep guys happy, which is tough to do, but he’s also got to command leadership.” To find success, Conley had to learn to walk that tightrope between being respectful and cocksure. He had to sense when to defer to teammates and when to take command.
“He would probably be the first to tell you that he wasn’t good enough at that time,” said Damon Stoudamire, a veteran point guard who played in Memphis during Conley’s rookie season. “But you could tell that if he put in the work he was going to be successful. The calmness that he had got him through the rough patches when people were questioning whether he was the type of player [who] warranted getting drafted that high. I don’t think Mike ever wavered in his confidence. That’s the biggest thing, especially in the NBA. You’ve got to be so confident in yourself that nothing can rattle you from the outside, because there’s always going to be people taking shots at you.”
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Conley, one of the NBA’s most prolific southpaw scorers, is not left-handed. “It wasn’t until he got to the NBA that he could actually create separation with his left-handed layup and finish it,” Mike Conley Sr. said about his son.
Conley Sr. grew up in Chicago back when Isiah Thomas was a baby-faced phenom known throughout Illinois. Conley Sr. earned a scholarship to the University of Arkansas, where he played basketball his freshman year and ran track. He eventually gave up basketball to devote himself to track and field, and he ended up representing the United States and winning a gold in triple jump at the 1992 Olympics. But basketball was Conley Sr.’s first love, and he shared it with his son. “He started playing at like 13 months old,” Conley Sr. said. “I gave him a ball and he grabbed it with his left hand and started shooting before he even knew what hand he was. He was already starting to shoot with his left and making it at a young age.” Conley Jr. remembers trying to shoot on a regulation-size hoop instead of a smaller one for children. The only way he could get the ball over the rim was to heave it from his hip on the left side of his body. “I just did it with my left hand for some reason, and ever since then my mind felt that it was left-handed when it came to basketball,” Conley said.
The family moved from Arkansas to Indiana in the late 1990s, when Conley Sr. accepted a job with Indianapolis-based USA Track & Field. When Conley Jr. was about 12 years old, he met a tall, goofy kid who wore big glasses at a tournament in Terre Haute. His name was Greg Oden. After much convincing, the boy’s mother allowed her son to join Conley Sr.’s AAU team, and Oden spent the summer living with the Conleys. It was the beginning of a long union between Conley Jr. and Oden. Their team, Spiece Indy Heat, stockpiled talent and wins. Over the years, Oden and Conley were joined by other future NBA players including Josh McRoberts, Eric Gordon, and Daequan Cook.1
Not to mention Grantland’s Mark Titus.
Over four years at the highest level of the national AAU circuit, Spiece Indy Heat lost only twice. “We would beat good teams really bad,” Conley Sr. recalled. They won so often and by so many points that it hardly mattered who scored most of the time. “You see the dividends of the success you get from sharing the ball and everyone getting their piece,” Conley Jr. said. On a team full of developing superstars, including Oden, who was then considered to be the best big-man prospect in a generation, it was easy for the small, quiet point guard to be overlooked. “He’s one of those guys who you might not notice because he’s so steady and he might not do anything too flashy,” McRoberts said. “But he always makes the right play, and [you] look up at the end of the game and [he] has a triple-double. That’s the way he’s always been.”
Despite his team’s rollicking success, Conley Sr. encouraged his players to keep an on even keel, reminding them that another play was always on the horizon. “That’s something his dad preached to us all the time,” Oden said. “Never get too happy, never get too low. That’s just how Mike was raised.” Conley Sr. wanted his son to play like Isiah Thomas, an athletic point guard who didn’t always rely on his physical gifts because of his knowledge and feel for the game. Both Conleys got the chance to learn firsthand from Thomas when his son, Zeke, joined the AAU team. “He was always a pretty good ball handler,” Thomas recalled of Conley Jr. “He was ambidextrous, so he wasn’t quite sure of his jump shot. Sometimes he would shoot right-handed and sometimes he would shoot left-handed, and sometimes he would shoot with both hands. But he always knew how to get to the basket. The thing I [tried] to work on with him [was] to get him confident in his shot.”
Sometimes, Thomas would caravan to tournaments with the team. “They were all big Boyz II Men [fans],” Thomas recalled. “They thought they had nice singing voices. And they thought the best meal was Old Country Buffet.”
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When Conley and Oden enrolled at Lawrence North High School, Oden was seen as the sure-shot NBA prospect, but it didn’t take long for their coach, Jack Keefer, to realize that Conley bonded the team. Once, before a game that Oden had to sit out with an injury, Conley saw Keefer pacing anxiously in the locker room. It’s traditionally a coach’s job to instill confidence in his players, but this time, the relationship worked in the opposite direction. Conley came to Keefer and said, “Coach, we’re going to win. Just relax. We’ve got this.”
“[Conley] didn’t score a lot because he took care of everybody else, but that game he had to, and he had 38 and just played a wonderful game,” Keefer said. “[He] made sure that we won.”
Conley and Oden won three state championships and went 103-7 at Lawrence North. Almost from the moment Oden entered high school, there had been murmurs that the 7-footer would skip college and enter the NBA draft. But Oden’s graduating class wound up being the first group subjected to the NBA’s age-limit rule, which requires players to be at least one year removed from high school before they can be draft-eligible.
When Oden asked Keefer for advice on which college to attend, Keefer suggested that Oden should go wherever Conley went. “Greg had a wonderful life [playing with Conley],” Keefer said. “He probably shot 86 percent in high school because Mike would just throw him the ball two inches from the rim and all he had to do was catch it and dunk. He fed him in stride. It’s hard for a big man to find somebody that will take care of [him] that way. Every guard wants to score 30 a game. [Conley] never did.”
All the big-name coaches visited Lawrence North — mostly to court Oden. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, Keefer said, was still unsure at the time about recruiting one-and-done players. Indiana’s Mike Davis, Keefer said, already had an incoming point guard in Armon Bassett, so when Davis failed to show interest in Conley, Oden passed on the Hoosiers. Keefer was already friends with Ohio State coach Thad Matta. “They just fell in love with him,” Keefer recalled. “He pulls up in a limousine and takes them back to Ohio State and imitates me and makes them feel at home. When they got back, they said, ‘Coach, that’s where we’re going.’”
“From the day I started recruiting Michael Conley, I said he was the best point guard in the country and everybody laughed at me because he played with Greg,” Matta said. “I saw things in him.”
Ohio State caught fire during Conley and Oden’s freshman season in 2006-07. Together, they helped guide Ohio State to a 27-3 record in the regular season. Conley picked his spots like he always had, looking to score when the team needed it and assisting at other times. The Buckeyes entered the 2007 NCAA tournament as a no. 1 seed. They reached the Final Four, where they beat Georgetown in the national semifinal, but Ohio State lost the championship game to Florida, 84-75. Conley (20 points, six assists) and Oden (25 points, 12 rebounds) both had standout performances, but the Buckeyes couldn’t contend with Florida’s balanced inside-outside game.
That season, Conley Sr. had already been preparing to become an NBA agent to represent Oden. Once Ohio State’s postseason run was over, however, he was surprised to learn that he would also be working for his son. Both Oden and Conley declared for the draft. “After the tournament, I had no idea what I had done or what the NBA standings were — the mock drafts,” Conley said. “I had to really sit down with my father afterward. An opportunity like this doesn’t happen very often. A window could close. I had to jump on it.”
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The Memphis Grizzlies hired Chris Wallace to head their basketball operations and replace outgoing team president Jerry West a few days before the 2007 draft. The Grizzlies had regressed that season, falling to 22 wins and a spot in the lottery after three consecutive trips to the Western Conference playoffs.
The Portland Trail Blazers owned the first pick and made their fateful selection of Greg Oden over Kevin Durant, who went second overall to Seattle. Atlanta chose Florida’s Al Horford third. Wallace believed in drafting for talent over positional needs, especially with a rebuilding team. He made Conley the fourth overall selection. “Point guards are so valuable in the NBA,” Wallace said. “It’s like quarterbacks in the NFL. You really can never have too many of them that are quality players.”
In Memphis, Conley joined a roster that was already crowded at his position. The Grizzlies’ point guard backlog featured Kyle Lowry, who’d been the team’s first-round pick in the previous year’s draft, and then 12-year veteran Damon Stoudamire. “It’s funny because I was there at the draft party,” Lowry said. “I didn’t understand what the situation was going to be … I love Mike. Mike’s my guy. We play golf and I always knew Mike would be as good as he is. But you never understand the politics of no matter what you do, you’re [drafted] 24. He’s four. He’s going to be given the opportunity.” As much as the players liked each other, professional pride and ambition was bound to come between them. Whichever point guard Memphis chose as its future leader was bound to get more chances to prove his worth, to play well, and to increase his market value for his next contract.
Stoudamire mentored both young players. He phoned Lowry as soon as Memphis drafted Conley to let Lowry know that he still had a future with the franchise. Lowry and Conley had starkly contrasting approaches to the game. Stoudamire figured that the hard-nosed and aggressive Lowry had spent his life trying to prove himself. Conley, meanwhile, had always been a highly regarded player on highly regarded teams, the type of guy who was comfortable blending in with the talent surrounding him and who was seldom forced into a leading role.
“Kyle was a pit bull,” Stoudamire said. “The way he played, the things that he did, it was straightforward. He wanted it all. Mike, I wouldn’t say that he never had a chip on his shoulder, but with the players that he grew up playing with, he never had to be that guy.”
Stoudamire told both to stay aggressive. Early in his career, Conley needed to improve his shooting. Until he developed a consistent jumper, Stoudamire told Conley, defenders would play off of him, daring him to shoot and giving themselves extra space to contain his drives. Stoudamire would point to spots on the court. He told Conley he could score from those areas whenever he wanted to, provided he could get there. “You’ve got to have different spots where you feel comfortable and can say, ‘This is where I’m going to make my money,’” Stoudamire told Conley.2 Stoudamire’s mentorship was perhaps too good, since it didn’t take long for his two protégés to crowd him out of the Memphis rotation. Stoudamire asked for a buyout halfway through Conley’s rookie year and signed with San Antonio in February 2008, although he continued tracking the two guards’ progress over the years.
Conley’s floater, which he shoots with his right hand, is now his go-to shot. “I’d shoot it from anywhere and feel like it’s going in 90 percent of the time,” he said.
“Mike being a young point guard, especially when you’ve got Zach [Randolph], and Marc Gasol, who is emerging, you still had Rudy Gay, you had O.J. Mayo coming off the bench — they all wanted the ball,” Stoudamire said. “But as a point guard, you’ve got to be able to say, ‘Nah, it’s not your time.’ You’ve got to have a feel for everything that’s going on on the floor. What I tried to tell him is that if you put your foot down and be more assertive, then they’ll back off you.”
Conley understood the advice, but he still did things his way, winning teammates over with his quiet confidence and mellow personality. “I wanted to fit in,” Conley said. “It was weird for me playing [with] guys that were a lot older. Guys like Mike Miller, Damon Stoudamire, Stromile Swift — and them just automatically listening to me at such a young age. I felt like I needed to learn to adjust and get to the point where these guys can respect me on the court as opposed to me just coming in and expecting them to follow my lead. My natural personality is more laid-back and not as aggressive.”
A muscle tear in his right shoulder kept Conley out for six weeks during his rookie season. When both Conley and Lowry were healthy, the Grizzlies developed a curious rotation that involved giving both point guards a shot at running the team early in each game, and then devoting the bulk of the remaining minutes to whomever got off to the better start. The system did not work well for either player.
“Coming out as a rookie, no. 4 draft pick, you expected to see some playing time,” Conley said. “I never played a home game until after January, but I’d play on the road. They played me on the road games. Mentally, I was like, What is going on?”
The backcourt gridlock reminded Memphis assistant Johnny Davis of the situation that the Cleveland Cavaliers faced in the late 1980s, when the team had both Kevin Johnson and Mark Price. Neither player managed to fully blossom until Johnson was traded. Conley and Lowry became friends and helped each other adjust to NBA life on and off the court, despite competing head-to-head for playing time. “It made us both better,” Conley said. “It made us hungrier. We just continued to work. There was never a day where we came into the gym and it was like, OK, cool. We can breathe. It was like, I’ve got to play better today if I want to have a chance.”
The Grizzlies did little to improve upon the previous year’s 22-win total during Conley’s rookie campaign. Midway through the season, Wallace traded franchise center Pau Gasol and a second-round pick for what many NBA observers considered to be the Lakers’ scraps: Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton (another point guard), Aaron McKie, and Gasol’s unproven brother, Marc, along with two draft picks. The move was widely criticized by rival coaches and general managers, and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich went so far as to call for the introduction of a trade committee that could overrule transactions that it deemed outlandish.
Conley finished his first year with averages of 9.4 points and 4.2 assists, far below the benchmarks that tend to accompany a top-four pick, and especially low for a guard the Grizzlies hoped would eventually ascend to stardom.
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Memphis started poorly again in 2008-09. The unpredictable rotations featuring Lowry and Conley were limiting both players’ development. “I was literally playing four minutes a game,” Lowry said. “I’d play two minutes. I’d come in at the one-minute mark at the first quarter, play that out. [Then] play the first minute of the second quarter and I would come out of the game. I would work out after the game on the main floor just to get some shots up.”
In January 2009, Memphis fired coach Marc Iavaroni and brought in Lionel Hollins. It marked Hollins’s third stint as the Grizzlies’ coach, although the other two times he had served on an interim basis. As a player, Hollins had been more like Lowry than Conley. He was headstrong and resilient, part of the Portland Trail Blazers 1977 championship team with Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas.
Upon being hired, one of Hollins’s first orders of business was to ask the Memphis front office to clarify the franchise’s point guard plans. He believed that neither Conley nor Lowry could flourish if they always had to worry about losing playing time to one another. “If we were going to make a decision with Mike Conley, I wanted it certainly to be a decision after we’d given him an opportunity to fail,” Hollins told The Commercial Appeal. “And I don’t think everybody else looked at it that way because I know that before I got here they were trying to trade him. And all of a sudden we found out that the kid could play a little bit, he could get better.”
Wallace said that Hollins’s faith in Conley prevented any deal. “I’ll admit it,” Wallace said. “And I’ve said this before. I got frustrated with the slowness of his development. There were [offers] that came up, and for a variety of reasons, they never got consummated. But I give Lionel Hollins a great deal of credit here. He stood up and said, ‘We’re really selling ourselves short if we move him. We don’t know who he is yet.’ And basically, he was eager and excited to take on the task of developing Mike. He believed in Mike. Even when Mike was not the Mike of today, when he was a young player and he was up and down.”
When Hollins explained to Conley that he would be the Grizzlies’ point guard moving forward, he delivered the good news in blunt, no-nonsense terms.
“I’m going to give you a chance,” Hollins told Conley. “If you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough, and we’re going to go another way.”
Davis, the Memphis assistant, explained that Hollins preferred Conley’s meticulous approach to the game. “Kyle was aggressive: Let’s charge in and figure it out on the run,” Davis said. Conley, Davis added, was more deliberate: “Let’s look at it and analyze it and figure out what we need to do.” At the 2009 trade deadline, Memphis sent Lowry to Houston in a three-team deal. Lowry found more success in Houston, but he didn’t truly thrive until he was traded again, this time to Toronto in July 2012. Since then, Lowry has played at an All-Star level, and this season he’s led the Raptors to the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.
“Lionel thought highly of Mike and thought that he just needed a chance without Kyle Lowry over his shoulder,” Davis said. “Mike’s personality is such that he would have blended in. Kyle is different. He’s a hard-driving, very aggressive personality. But Mike is the type where, if you believe in him and give him a comfort level, his skill is as good as anybody’s in the league. Lionel made a choice to give Mike the opportunity to show what he was capable of. But that never would have taken place with [Lowry] on the same roster. And Mike would have been OK backing up Kyle Lowry because he’s not a rock-the-boat type of player. He’s not going to insist, I get my minutes. I get my time on the court. He’s the type of player that’s going to do whatever it is he thinks is necessary for the team to win. If that meant taking a backseat, he would have taken it.”
The following season, with assurances from Hollins that he was the team’s point guard, Conley expected to thrive while receiving more minutes and more responsibility. But then, less than two months before opening night, Memphis signed Allen Iverson, who was in the twilight of his career. Iverson still possessed a superstar mentality and expected to be a starter. “That was just a shot at a guy who had been a great player,” Wallace said. “The contract was favorable to the team and maybe some magic happens. That really had nothing to do with Mike.” Still, the Iverson signing left Conley to navigate yet another odd predicament. Growing up, Iverson was among his favorite players. “He was cool as a teammate and I loved him and all,” Conley said. “[I] idolized the guy, basically. But I’m sure he expected to come in and be a starter, and I’m sitting here like, ‘I’ve been working pretty hard myself.’”
The experiment was short-lived. Iverson lasted three games in Memphis before leaving the team. But even though the Iverson interlude was just a blip in Conley’s NBA lifespan, that signing advanced a theme that has nagged Conley throughout his career. “Every year, we’d draft a point guard,” he said. “We drafted Greivis [Vasquez, in 2010]. I love Greivis — love him to death. We drafted Tony Wroten [in 2012]. That was a little bit later on, but we kept getting point guards. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, They’re still probably thinking I’m not the one or they’re trying to find someone else. It always kept me on my toes.”
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Memphis nearly finished even in 2009-10 with 40 wins, buoyed by the addition of Zach Randolph, who was acquired in a deal for journeyman Quentin Richardson. Meanwhile, Hollins continued to mold Conley through tough love. “You have to be honest,” Hollins said to The Commercial Appeal. “They’ll hate your guts for what you tell ’em but they’ll hate your guts because you’re honest. And that’s all you can do. That’s what I try to do with all the guys. Rudy Gay and I go at it. O.J. Mayo and I go at it. Mike Conley doesn’t ever talk back to me, but I get on him pretty good.”
With Hollins pushing him, Conley improved in all aspects of the game. He worked every summer to become a better scorer, and with each season of NBA experience he gained, Conley noticed the floor opening up and the game slowing down. And eventually — and perhaps most importantly — Conley began to run the Grizzlies the same way he’d run those talented AAU squads from his youth. He made it his mission to deliver the ball to his teammates in scoring position, and just like when he was younger, wins erased selfishness.
“We had a lot of young guys that wanted to show what they could do,” Conley said. “So you had to be able to look at certain guys and say, ‘I’ll get you. We’ve got to try to get Zach going right now because if we get him going, we’ll win by 20.’”
In November 2010, Conley agreed to a five-year, $45 million extension with Memphis. The contract was ridiculed at the time, viewed as a small-market franchise unwilling to lose a former lottery pick even if Conley hadn’t fulfilled the team’s lofty expectations for him. Conley had averaged 12 points and 5.3 assists the previous season. (A Grizzles fan message forum has since debuted a Mike Conley apology thread.)
Despite the criticism, GM Chris Wallace still considered Conley two or three years away from reaching his potential. He believed Conley would keep improving and didn’t want to risk losing him in free agency if Memphis chose not to extend his contract. On the open market, developing young players always have suitors, Wallace said. Just a few months earlier, over the summer of 2010, the Grizzlies signed Rudy Gay for $82 million over five years. The contract was more than they would have paid if Memphis had locked up Gay before he entered free agency.
“You have no choice with some of these up-and-coming kids [but] to give a contract that may be a little ahead of where they are performance-wise,” Wallace said. If you don’t extend them early, he added, “your gambles are going to catch up because you don’t really have any way to duplicate that player if the guy gets away from you.” Conley wanted to show that he had earned the contract. “Everybody out there was probably like, ‘Mike Conley, who? I haven’t heard of him. He hasn’t done anything,’” Conley said. “Which I hadn’t. It was one of those things where I had to look at myself and say, ‘I have to show people what the Grizzlies see in me and the improvement I’ve made over the last few years and eventually people will see how valuable I can be.’”
Conley can’t remember the exact game when it happened, but he can still recall the sequence when he realized he had finally taken control of the Grizzlies — when he told Randolph what to do, and the big man accepted it. “I was able to tell Z-Bo, ‘Hold up, I’ll get you. Just not right now. Give me a couple of minutes. This is working,’” Conley said. “We all know Z is very tough-minded and straightforward and he’s the man and I’m just a young guy. At the end of the day, he’s my vet. If I can tell Z-Bo this and [for] him to shake his head, ‘All right,’ then I can tell anybody.”
In 2011, Wallace watched his long-term vision for the Pau Gasol trade materialize. Marc Gasol had lost weight and was beginning to look like one of the best two-way centers in the NBA. His passing and defense paired almost perfectly with Randolph’s low-post scoring. In the Western Conference playoffs, the Grizzlies entered as an 8-seed and upset the no. 1 Spurs in the first round. They pushed the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven games before losing in the conference semifinals.
This taste of postseason success convinced Conley that if he continued to elevate his game, the Grizzlies could be perennial contenders in the West. “It was very noticeable when I played better — the team kind of went as I led,” he said. “It went as far as I was able to take us. It was one of those things where my value was on display.”
In the summer of 2012, Robert Pera agreed to purchase a majority share of the Grizzlies franchise from Michael Heisley. Memphis advanced all the way to the Western Conference finals the following season before being swept by San Antonio. The changes to the front office, along with the midseason decision to trade Rudy Gay, strained Hollins’s relationship with management. “It’s a business of basketball,” Hollins told TNT after Gay was sent to Toronto. “I understand that perfectly well. I think our players understand the business of basketball. When you have champagne taste, you can’t be on a beer budget. We’re in a small market.” Hollins was not offered a new contract with Memphis after the 2013 playoffs and the team replaced him with longtime assistant Dave Joerger.
“I’m looking at the guy who was basically like a father figure — really tough and wanted the best for me and my teammates — and all the success that we had together,” Conley said of Hollins’s departure. “It was tough, but knowing we were going to stay with a guy like Dave Joerger eased it a lot.”
Although he would miss the coach who helped mold him into a complete NBA point guard, Conley felt that his apprenticeship with Hollins had been completed by the time Memphis hired Joerger. Conley had grown comfortable inhabiting that tough-to-find middle ground between knowing when to set up his teammates and when to look for his own scoring opportunities.
“It’s almost like you have a clock in your head,” Conley said. “I have a clock in my head for Zach. For Marc. For Courtney [Lee]. For anybody on the court. There’s guys that don’t need to play with the ball. Tony Allen doesn’t need to have the ball to be effective. I say, ‘Zach needs to get the ball. He’s working very hard on the defensive end and on the offensive end.’ And I can feel four minutes go by, Zach hasn’t had the ball and I can see it. He’s starting to get a little antsy. OK, now it’s time to bang it in to him four straight trips to see if he can get something going.”
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The Grizzlies seemed to spend the entire 2013-14 season making up for lost time. They started slowly while Gasol battled knee injuries before rallying to make up ground in a deep Western Conference playoff race. The Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks met in the last game of the regular season with playoff seeding at stake. A loss would mean the eighth seed and a first-round matchup against the Spurs, who had swept the Grizzlies the previous year. A win would bump Memphis to the seventh seed and a matchup with a similarly formidable opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder. But such is the Western Conference — there are no soft opponents, and nearly every series has the potential to become a seven-game slugfest. Dallas and the Grizzlies pushed each other for the better seed in that final regular-season contest, and the game was decided when Conley went to the free throw line in overtime and drained two shots to seal a Memphis victory. Conley remained calm as he iced the win.
“So much of the game is mental, and that’s one thing that I’ve always wanted to be good at,” Conley said. “That if I miss a shot or make a bad play, to never let your opponent see that you are in duress or upset — that they’ve won in any way. So if I make a big game-time bucket or if I miss a shot, you’ll see the same mannerisms. I move on to the next play.”
Jason Levien, then the team’s CEO, remembers the excitement of everyone inside the arena during that win over the Mavericks. Everyone except Conley. “Myself and [the] coaches and everyone were more excited than he was,” Levien said. “That’s quintessential Mike. Making the play, being aggressive, but also not losing his composure.3 On a team of guys who are emotional, like Tony and Zach and even Marc, he’s a steadying influence. People lean on him because he’s going to keep his head in the game. He’s focused. He’s never going to get too high or too low. And I think over time, people started deferring to him more and more, especially after Rudy left.”
Conley says he relaxes by mastering popular dance moves. “There’s so much stress that can be involved in the game and every day you think about all the stuff that’s going on, and then you go to the weight room, you put the music on, you’re getting ready to lift, and I dance my way through half the lift,” Conley said. “It’s part of the day where it just unwinds you and you enjoy it.”
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Years after Oden was fast-tracked for stardom, it appears that Conley may be the first member of their heralded high school group to make an All-Star team. Oden played last season for the Miami Heat after missing several years with knee injuries, and it now seems that he will never get the chance to become the generation-defining big man that once seemed like his destiny.
“I’m proud of him,” Oden said. “It makes me feel like I’m a part of it, too.”
Conley, of course, knows how deep the Western Conference is with talent, and he understands that even if he plays at an All-Star level, getting selected for the All-Star Game remains a long shot. Bigger stars with flashier names are likely to receive All-Star recognition before him. “My ultimate goal isn’t making the All-Star team,” Conley said. “It’s bigger than that. It’s championships. But when it comes to just All-Stars, that is one of my goals. I told myself last year, ‘I didn’t do enough. We didn’t win. We weren’t a good team early.’ [This season], I feel like I’ve gotten much better and our team is where we want to be. We are one of the better teams in the league. We’ve put ourselves in a position where everybody can get noticed individually. This would be a good time [to be named an All-Star]. If it doesn’t happen, it would suck.”
The Grizzlies are 29-12. Conley is averaging 18.1 points and six assists. His play helped the Grizzlies hold their ground near the top of the Western Conference standings while Randolph missed nine games in December and January with pain and swelling in his right knee.
“You can’t find a spot where he didn’t make a difference to help a team be the best in the country,” Conley Sr. said, referring to the success his son has achieved at the different levels of his career. “That part never gets talked about. If another player has that résumé, that would be all they would talk about: ‘He’s a winner.’ And that’s what Michael is.”
“The big thing for me and Mike right now is getting rid of the ‘underrated’ tag and calling him what he is — one of the top point guards in the country,” Conley Sr. said. “I think it’s unfair that in order for him to get that tag off, he has to win a championship. Well, who has to get a championship to be considered one of the better players? You look at his playoff record and what he’s done against some of the best guards in the league, and that speaks volumes right there.”4
Conley on the “underrated” label: “It was just like giving me a position that said, ‘He’s good without disrespecting any other guys by putting him[self] ahead of people.’ I feel like that’s been the way it’s been, so I just have to live with it.”
For those who’ve worked with Conley and observed his progress since he entered the league, his transformation has been remarkable. “Now, he takes the reins and he drives that team and he knows that as he goes, so go the Memphis Grizzlies,” Johnny Davis said. “That’s a different mentality than, I just hope to maintain and not make any mistakes. Now he’s comfortable with who he is.” Randolph, who called Conley his little brother, added: “He’s just getting better and better. We’re talking about every aspect: leader, vocal, shooting.”
It is why, when the Grizzlies find themselves fighting to survive the Western Conference playoff gantlet, Conley will have the ball in his hands and the franchise will trust him to make decisions with the season on the line.
“For some guys, they just walk into this league and it’s easy,” Conley said. “They go to a big market. They get the attention. They get all the help. For us in Memphis, we’ve had to work so hard just to scratch the surface, just to get a little bit of attention. That’s something I don’t take for granted.
“This team has handled adversity well,” Conley continued. “We’re mentally tough. I don’t think people understand it. Like Zach says all the time, ‘We’ve got it out the mud.’ We started at the bottom. We’ve built this thing. There wasn’t a lot of money involved. There wasn’t the signing of free agents and putting the team together. We just drafted guys. We traded for a few and said, ‘We’ve got to do this ourselves.’ So we take a certain pride in this team, in knowing how hard it was to get to where we’re at. We’re never satisfied.”
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of former Memphis Grizzlies coach Marc Iavaroni’s name.