From the time training camp began, Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale made two things abundantly clear: Marc Gasol would be entrusted as the emotional center in Memphis and Mike Conley would be unleashed as its driving force. The crux of the thing rested on their balance; not only were Gasol and Conley the clear best players on a competitive Western Conference team, but the pull of their leadership on those particular wavelengths would dictate how far the Grizz could go.
That equilibrium was upset on Monday when Conley lined up to take a charge from one Hornet (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) and wound up falling awkwardly into the knee of another (Frank Kaminsky). As was confirmed by a team release, Conley suffered multiple transverse fractures in his vertebrae—a literal backbreaking injury for a player in the midst of a career year and a team that has no functional point guard alternatives. Memphis has been awful this season with Conley off the floor, regardless of who is on it. There are no significantly used positive lineups without him. The best stretches of Grizzlies basketball this season sans Conley have only managed to points they bleed, on both sides of the ball, in going from one of the league’s best all-around point guards to their choice from a pair of rookie backups.
Wade Baldwin and Andrew Harrison, plainly, are not ready for this kind of responsibility. Each has had promising moments this season but floundered on balance. At 20 and 22, respectively, they’re allowed. Both will need time to become more stable and productive NBA players. Until then, they default as the point guard incumbents when the Grizz take the court on Wednesday and will continue in that role until either Conley returns (which could take six weeks) or another point guard signs on. That’s more than enough time for the 11–7 Grizzlies to take a spill in a competitive playoff field. The thick of the West is looking for any opportunity; not only is Utah stabilizing and Oklahoma City surviving, but enough teams are treading water to at least make Memphis nervous. Thus far, the Grizzlies have tightroped the 17th-best net rating in the league to its seventh-best record. So continues a long-standing pattern for this particular franchise, though one could hardly expect the ride to continue so smoothly now that the wheels have come off.
If Memphis is going to win any games at all in Conley’s absence, it will first have to figure out how. Gone is the team’s best shooter, best ball handler, and best distributor. Chandler Parsons, who in a perfect world could help fill the creative void, has spent his season either sidelined or ineffective as he works his way back from knee surgery. Gasol will likely have to do more, even while his minutes are supposedly moderated. Vince Carter is dealing with a hip flexor strain and Brandan Wright remains more a Grizzly in concept than in reality.
In the best of circumstances, Memphis was going to have to make do with ho-hum play at several key rotation spots. Backup point guard was one of them. Now leaks are springing everywhere, leaving Fizdale to shift around minutes and responsibilities in an effort to bail out a roster that doesn’t have the flexibility to cope while retaining its usual function. Conley is too good—and Memphis too reliant on the fact that he brings productive, mistake-free offense and responsible, assertive defense in one convenient package.
This Memphis team was already a bottom-five offense and the third-lowest in the league in effective field goal percentage. Cutting out Conley both puts a freeze on any hypothetical upward mobility and takes out the floor. Don’t be fooled by the ranking itself; there is always further to fall when a team loses this critical a piece, particularly when the numbers without Conley on the floor thus far reflect an offense well under the league’s current worse and a defense in relative tailspin.
A possibility like this one has lingered about Memphis for months, considering Conley’s unfortunate history of painful, lasting injuries. His track record in those instances says he’ll fight for every game he can get; not only has Conley hobbled about when his ankles or knees weren’t quite right, he suited up to play just a few games after suffering multiple facial fractures. Conley insisted he was fine on the grounds that he seemed to have lost feeling in that part of his face entirely.
There aren’t many in the league tougher or with a higher threshold for acceptable pain or discomfort. There is also literally no player in the league on a richer contract—a separate fact which tends to swirl into the other. It’s only responsible to consider how and why Conley has been injured when assessing a five-year, $153 million commitment from an NBA franchise. That doesn’t make it a cause for referendum—not when the case at issue is that of a star playing his best basketball taking a hit from a driving opponent and a knee on his way down. When a player with no history of back injuries fractures his spine on impact, any attribution to Conley’s injury proneness lacks desperately for context.
None of that will make the next six weeks much easier on the Grizzlies, though there is at least some solace in the fact that this, too, shall pass. Memphis, as an organization, made itself on survivalism—weathering a quarter, a game, a week, or whatever seems to be necessary. The results aren’t often glamorous or even terribly effective in a broader sense. These Grizzlies will lose without Conley. But if they can manage to cope—to even scrape by—for the next month and a half, then Gasol and a returning Conley could manage to keep them in the mix come playoff time. December is now a schedule to endure.
The Grizzlies have taken the plunge after plunge in the last few months—with a new coach, a new style, a more lucrative contract than had ever been awarded, and a bigger free agent signing than any Memphis had made previously. Now it makes a different kind of jump: into six weeks of make-ends-meet basketball by way of a freak injury and a feared outcome. The roving constant of the Grizzlies’ season is out of commission and Memphis, again, faces a temporary crisis of redefinition.
“It’s easy,” Conley said back in October, “to fear the unknown.” In Memphis, isn’t it ever.