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Conley bouncing back, propelling Grizzlies to playoff conversation

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A small bone intrusion in a left heel -- the season-ending injury that paved the way to one of the worst seasons (22-60) in Grizzlies history.

From ESPN’s Best Overall Professional Sports Franchise in 2013 to one of the NBA’s worst teams in 2017-18 -- Memphis has both embraced and dearly missed Mike Conley’s presence.

The Grizzlies went 22-60 last year, mainly because of Conley’s long-term absence that thrusted names like Andrew Harrison and Dillon Brooks into unfamiliar, substantial roles. After undergoing surgery in January 2018, Conley now finds himself spearheading a playoff-caliber roster just 10 months later.

Conley is averaging 20.3 points, a career-high 6.6 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.1 steals on 41.7 percent shooting from the field over 33.5 minutes (19 games) this season. All of his numbers have elevated from this past campaign, as head coach J.B. Bickerstaff and company have also risen to fourth place in the Western Conference with a 12-7 record.

The additions of Jaren Jackson Jr., Garrett Temple and Kyle Anderson have all helped dig the Grizzlies out of their second-to-last-place rut, but Conley’s long-awaited return might carry the most weight. His 1.9 win shares and 19.7 player efficiency rating are second to Marc Gasol, forming a quality tandem for a team that needed it the most.

But why is this season different and better compared to the first 10 years of Conley’s career comprised of consistent production?

Bickerstaff has made it more of a priority to give Conley a role on the offensive side of the ball, with his usage rate climbing to a career-high 28.2 percent in 2018-19. The acquisitions of Temple and Anderson have allowed Conley to operate more as a scorer, and the early returns have justified that.

The selection of Jackson Jr. has not only injected life into the once-lifeless franchise, but it has also allowed Conley to effectively distribute the ball and operate more as a passer, and the early returns have justified that.

The 31-year-old veteran’s banner season is still 2016-17, but his ability to recover from heel surgery and immediately propel his team back to relevancy in a short span is encouraging. For a player who signed a five-year, $152 million max contract in July 2016, that kind of production is expected.

Conley might not be shooting the lights out of the arena or flashing the three-point stroke he showcased in 2016-17 (40.8 percent), and that is OK. What matters for the Grizzlies is his health and integral role in the backcourt, specifically in teaming with Gasol, unlocking the potential in Jackson Jr. and optimizing the investments in Anderson and Temple.

A small bone intrusion in a left heel -- the season-ending injury that is now forgotten and shoved in the rearview mirror amidst a worthy Comeback Player of the Year resume.