MEMPHIS — The journey began in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on the cracked asphalt covering the narrow driveway, on the seven-foot rim Mike Conley intentionally lowered because, hey, every 11-year old kid wants to dunk. This was where Conley’s game was originally molded, in the 100-degree heat with the 100% humidity, with the collection of jorts-clad kids from the area Conley would beg to come over. Where most grew up trying to be like Mike, Conley patterned his game after Gary Payton, the leader of his beloved Sonics, whose ability to change directions without changing speeds was a skill Conley marveled over.
“In transition, where he was able to move the ball from left to right going full speed, not change any pace, get to the rim, it was amazing,” Conley said. “He could go full speed when most guys have to slow down. Gary could bring it over to the other side, do a spin move and finish."
It’s relevant to remember those days now, because nearly two decades later, after moves from Fayetteville to Indianapolis, from Ohio State to the NBA, Conley is on the brink of seeing all his hard work pay off. At 28, Conley is just entering his prime. He’s a leader in the Grizzlies locker room, an often steady, occasionally spectacular playmaker both durable and reliable. Conley has never made an All-Star team and chances are he never will. Such is life in today’s NBA, where point guards are MVP’s. Yet his reputation among NBA executives is sterling and many expect that in a 2016 free agent class light on point guards and heavy on teams with gobs of cap space, Conley will command an average salary of $20-plus million per year.
Asked if he ever stopped to think about how far he has come, Conley is diplomatic. “I’ve never had an opportunity to sit back and think about it,” Conley said. “I’d rather think about it after I’m done. I’m completely blessed to be in the situation that I'm in. It’s been a lot like a rollercoaster, up and down, with both our team and myself. For me to be in this position, a ninth-year vet, it’s something I never dreamed of.”
So what about that situation? That team? There are many in Memphis that refuse to believe Conley could go anywhere. He was instrumental in recruiting Marc Gasol to return last summer and there are those that believe he would never have pushed so hard if he was planning on exiting a year later.
“Me and Marc, he knows if I call him two times in two weeks and he is in Spain, that’s a lot,” Conley said. “That’s something very important to me. “I stayed in contact, checking in on him. When it came down to it, I told him ‘We’re not going anywhere if you’re not here.’ I hoped he would make the right decision, and he did.”
Said Gasol, “Mike [being in Memphis] was big. I will go through any type of wall for that guy.”
Did Gasol ask Conley about his own commitment to Memphis?
“No, those are the decisions you make on your own,” Gasol said. “I’m going to let him do the same thing. I’m going to work my butt off though so he thinks this is the right place for him.”
Conley has nothing but praise for Memphis, for the organization, and the thinking that he is likely to return is probably right. But the Grizzlies are a team in flux. A three-game winning streak has eased some early season concerns, at least for now, but Memphis is still a team that can’t find consistent perimeter shooting and scouts say Zach Randolph looks half a step slow, an unsurprising erosion for a 34-year old power forward. An overhaul could be coming, a shift away from the ground-and-pound offense that has defined the Grizzlies for the last seven years.
That’s not to say Conley won’t want to be a part of it, but if Memphis owner Robert Pera messes around during contract talks it could open the door for another team—Brooklyn, currently coached by Lionel Hollins, a close Conley ally, and with a gaping hole at point guard is expected to be aggressive—to pull him away.
Like it was for Gasol last season, Conley knows the questions about his future are coming. “I mentally prepare myself by trying to deflect it all,” Conley said. “Now, it’s not about that. It’s about the game tomorrow and practice today. At the end of the year, when the time comes, whatever decision will be made will take care of itself.”
Make no mistake: Conley doesn’t feel indebted to Memphis, to Gasol. He loves the city, loves the fans, loves his teammates, but he knows what this game is all about. Players are pawns, and when opportunities to take some control come up, you have to take them.
“It’s easy to feel obligated; it’s easy to want to stay,” Conley said. “This is where I’ve had my whole career. At the same time I understand this is a business. I have to weigh my options just like [Gasol] did. Hopefully it will be an easy decision, whatever it is.”
And now, on to your Tweets....
I don’t think Bojan Bogdanovic is going anywhere. He’s a young, rising guard tied to a reasonable contract. I think the Nets would love to be rid of Johnson, but his awful shooting early in the season (34% from the field, 25% from three) makes him impossible to move, even with his massive expiring contract.
Hollins's situation bears watching. The Nets have been competitive in many of their losses and the front office believes the team is close to turning a corner. Not a run-towards-the-playoffs corner, mind you, but one that gives them a chance to be respectable. But losses are losses and Hollins's far to frequent misuse of Brook Lopez has not gone unnoticed. The Nets recently hired Randy Ayers as a scout, and though officials insist Ayers is not an emergency replacement for Hollins, there is respect for Ayers's coaching within the organization. Brooklyn has a tough stretch to finish the month: Back-to back with Boston, trips to Oklahoma City and Cleveland and a home date with Detroit. Will Hollins survive that gauntlet? Probably. But the team will need to play much better during a home-heavy schedule in December.
McHale is not a horrible coach. Coaches that take injury ravaged teams to the second seed in the Western Conference and all the way to the conference finals, by rule, cannot be classified as horrible. Is he an elite X’s and O’s coach? No. His strengths lie more in leadership. That said, I understand why Houston fired McHale. The steps forward the team took defensively last season had been washed away by several long steps in the wrong direction. When that happens, the coach is held accountable, and from what I’m told there was a strong belief from ownership down that McHale had lost the locker room.
With McHale gone though, the Rockets are out of excuses. They have to play better, and that begins with James Harden, whose alarming indifference on the defensive end is obvious to anyone watching. Harden is never going to be an elite defender but his commitment on that end was a big reason why Houston surged late in the season and Harden was runner-up for MVP. He has been one-dimensional this season; even on offense, his shooting woes (37.3% from the field, 26.3% from three) have led to transition opportunities the Rockets have been helpless to stop. Consider: Houston is surrendering 14.9 fast break points, ranking the Rockets No. 25 in the NBA.
Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff has a defensive reputation, but all the schemes in the world are not going to help if Houston doesn’t ratchet up the effort on that end.
ZINGER-MANIA HAS HIT MANHATTAN! Kidding, but enthusiasm for Porzingis is at an all-time high after a 29-point, 11-rebound effort against Charlotte’s defenseless front line. It’s going to be a wild season for Porzingis, with plenty of highs and lows, but any fear that the Knicks might have drafted the next Frederic Weis have evaporated. Porzingis can play.
As for Anthony, it never made much sense to me to trade Anthony midseason. His stock isn’t great after last year’s injury riddled campaign and the Knicks should take the season to evaluate how Porzingis and Anthony play together. A trade can still happen next summer, when the dozens of teams pining after Kevin Durant start searching for other options after Durant chooses someone else. Anthony makes a lot of money, but with three years left on his deal after this season, that contract gets more palatable by the day.