Friday December 19th, 2014

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Mike Conley remembers all of it. Every word. In November 2010, the Grizzlies signed Conley to five-year, $40 million contract extension. Conley, then 23, had produced three so-so seasons since being drafted fourth in '07, and to say the reaction was negative would be a staggering understatement. Grizzlies commit franchise suicide, blared one headline. One baffling deal, declared another. Critics bemoaned the domino effect that Conley’s extension would have on other point guards due for new deals.

“I saved a few of those [articles]," Conley said. "I remember how some fans treated me. I remember how people reacted on the Internet. That was a tough time for me. But I used it. That stuff drove me, and it still drives me today.”

These days you won’t find anyone criticizing Conley. At 27, Conley is having his finest season. He is setting career highs with 17.6 points, 46 percent shooting from the field and 41.6 percent from three-point range, along with averaging 6.4 assists. The 6-foot-1 Conley is surgical in the pick-and-roll, splits traps as well as any guard in the league and beats defenders with a deceptive hesitation dribble. His best moves won't make SportsCenter, but they will be on the first page of opposing scouting reports.

The Western Conference is so loaded with point guards -- a position that deepened with the Mavericks' acquisition of Rajon Rondo on Thursday -- that Conley will always face an uphill battle to make the All-Star team. But Conley is smart and steady, at the top of the second tier of playmakers and worth every nickel of the $8.7 million Memphis is paying him this season. When asked what Conley would be worth on the open market, an Eastern Conference executive said “at least $14 million.”

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Conley is also a big reason why the Grizzlies (21-4 through Thursday) are off to the best start in franchise history and have emerged as a title contender after a tumultuous offseason. CEO Jason Levien and assistant general manager Stu Lash were fired in May. Coach Dave Joerger, who guided the Grizzlies to a 50-32 record in his first season, was granted permission to interview for the same position with the Timberwolves. Quirky owner Robert Pera -- who had wanted Joerger dismissed early last season but ultimately backed down -- was under fire, and players wondered if there would be significant roster changes.

“We had no idea what Robert Pera was going to do,” Conley said. “There was some mystery about what the team’s intentions were.”

Things straightened out, of course. Joerger's contract was sweetened. Chris Wallace, brushed aside in the Levien regime, was reinstalled as general manager. And in many ways, it’s business as usual. The Grizz still pound the ball inside, with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol leading a physically overwhelming group that ranks second in the league in points in the paint. Memphis lost some of its offensive identity last season as it attempted to mix in Joerger’s motion-based, perimeter-oriented sets with the post-heavy attack that former coach Lionel Hollins favored from 2009-13. This season, players say, the Grizzlies are emphasizing their roots, an approach that has generated the NBA's eight-most-efficient offense, up from 16th last season.

“Dave is keeping it simpler,” Gasol said. “We tried to do a lot of different things last year. But we are what we are. This year we went straight to what we feel comfortable with.”

Said Conley: “[Joerger] has earned more respect from guys. He has grown as a coach tremendously. He understands when to yell at guys, when to not yell. He’s decisive, whether it’s rotations, play calling or letting us play through some stuff. He’s learned a lot in one year. It’s a testament to him wanting to be great.”

Video: Grizzlies outlast Spurs in wild, three-overtime game in San Antonio

The Grizzlies have added another layer to their offense too. Perimeter shooting has not been a strength for years: Since 2007, the Grizzlies have not finished higher than 19th in three-point percentage. Memphis is fifth this season (37.7 percent), though, and shooting guard Courtney Lee leads the NBA in long-range accuracy (55.6 percent). Defenses must now account for the Grizzlies on the perimeter, creating easier opportunities for everyone else.

“I can feel it,” Gasol said. “And you can tell when Mike wants to get to the paint, he has more space. Defenses don’t rotate like they have in the past.”

Injuries cost Gasol 23 games last season, which motivated him to slim down over the summer by cutting sugars, soda and processed foods and adopting a vegetarian-based diet. Gasol dropped more than 20 pounds from his 7-1 frame. He hasn't missed a game this season, blending a career-high 19.8 points with his usual elite defense to stake his claim as the NBA's best center.

“Being injured was so frustrating,” Gasol said. “When the season ended I thought, What else can I do? I wanted to see how far I could take it. It’s still not a finished job. I’ll never be a high flyer. I’ll never jump over a nickel. But I want to have the stamina to play the whole game.”

The Grizzlies won’t win at an 84 percent clip all season, but this team has staying power. Gasol and Randolph are as steady as any duo in the NBA. Lee, a career 39 percent three-point shooter, is comfortable playing on a team that stresses post play, as Orlando did during his rookie season, which ended in a trip to the 2009 Finals. Conley believes his career-best shooting is sustainable after improving his balance in the offseason by working with physical therapists to strengthen his hips and ankles. The defense remains stingy, with stoppers in the paint (Gasol) and on the perimeter (swingman Tony Allen), and the bench is solid.

Conley won’t say he saw this start coming, but the internal expectations were raised in September when, at Joerger’s suggestion, most of the team came together for a few weeks of workouts. Conley credits those sessions for building momentum heading into training camp and establishing the season’s barometer for success.

“We said, ‘We’re not training for the playoffs, we’re training for a championship,’” Conley said. “It set the tone early. It was our goal then, it’s our goal now.”

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