This article was first published on SLAMonline.com
Coming off of a career best season, Mike Conley is ushering the Grizz into a new era.
By Peter Walsh
Mike Conley may go down as the most underappreciated player of this generation. Entering his tenth season with the Grizzlies, Conley has never been an All-Star, even though he has led Memphis to the playoffs seven straight times (Conley missed the ’16 playoffs with an Achilles’ tendon injury).
The lefty is widely considered one of the top point guards in the Leauge and was one of just eight players to average at least 20 points and 6 assists per game in ’16-17 (the others: Eric Bledsoe, Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Kyle Lowry, John Wall, and Russell Westbrook.)
Conley, at this point in his career, is best known for inking a massive 5-year $153 million dollar deal that made him the highest-paid player in the history of the NBA during the summer of 2016. The general reaction from fans and those who follow the League was basically, “What the hell?” The point guard responded by having the best year of his career, averaging 20.5 points and 6.3 assists, while shooting 46 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range. Memphis finished 49-39, good enough for seventh in the West. In the first round of the playoffs, Conley elevated his game, scoring 24.7 points and dishing out 7.0 assists in a six-game series against the Spurs.
So what’s next for the Conley, and the Grizzlies, in general?
At age 29, Conley is playing at the highest level of his career. He has not played in 70 games since the 2014-15 season and with Memphis sporting a bench that consists of guards Wade Baldwin IV, Mario Chalmers and Andrew Harrison, the Grizz need Conley to stay healthy, and keep posting career-best numbers, in a bad way.
The Grizzlies are in a curious position in that they are transitioning from the Grit-N-Grind era into a rebuild on the fly. This past offseason, they inked Chalmers, Tyreke Evans and Ben McLemore to short-term deals and said goodbye to Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and Tony Allen.
Franchise center Marc Gasol recently told Spanish outlet Cataluyna Radio that the team has to “keep growing” and “If this is not lined up, maybe we have to revisit things.” Earlier this month, a different report surfaced that both Gasol and Conley are “untouchable” in trades, and that the longterm contracts signed by Conley and Gasol means that the Grizzlies have the intention of building around those two in the future.
For a team that hasn’t missed the playoffs in nearly a decade, anything short of a berth would be a failure, but with Conley and Gasol, and coach David Fizdale, the team has at least a fighting chance for a spot in the loaded West.
Of course, any positive contribution from Chandler Parsons, who has unfortunately been slowed by injuries since signing with the team, would boost Memphis’ chances.
As far as the elusive All-Star berth, Conley will forever be fighting an uphill battle in the West. Playing in a smaller market certainly doesn’t do him any favors, but either does playing in a conference where Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, and Damian Lillard all dwell.
All-Star or not, Conley has solidified himself as one of the top floor generals in the League and Memphis will need him more than ever if they are going to make a run.
2016: No. 32
2015: No. 32
2014: No. 40
2013: No. 45
Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2017-18—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.
No. 50 – Dion Waiters
No. 49 – Ben Simmons
No. 48 – Brook Lopez
No. 47 — Harrison Barnes
No. 46 — Jrue Holiday
No. 45 — Lonzo Ball
No. 44 — Myles Turner
No. 43 — Goran Dragic
No. 42 — Andre Drummond
No. 41 — Al Horford
No. 40 — LaMarcus Aldridge
No. 39 — Kevin Love
No. 38 — Paul Millsap
No. 37 — Hassan Whiteside
No. 36 — Andrew Wiggins
No. 35 — Marc Gasol
No. 34 – DeAndre Jordan
No. 33 — Bradley Beal
No. 32 — Kemba Walker
No. 31 — CJ McCollum
No. 30 — Devin Booker
No. 29 — Nikola Jokic
No. 28 — Joel Embiid