Catching Up With Conley
The Grizzlies guard promises a faster style of play.
by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista
Few teams have an identity as defined as the Grizzlies. Memphis has capitalized on controlling the paint on both ends, limiting opponents and creating opportunities for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to dominate inside. Since Randolph joined the team in ‘09-10, the Grizzlies have led the League in paint scoring two out of those four seasons.
On the other end, the Grizzlies can guard, both individually and as a team. While Gasol was named Defensive Player of the Year, the backcourt of Tony Allen and Mike Conley is known for tenacious perimeter and on-ball defense. Last season, the Grizzlies led the NBA in opponent scoring, allowing just 89.3 points per game. They ranked third in opponent field-goal percentage and second in opponent three-point percentage.
The connection between both ends of the court is Conley, who happens to be the Grizzlies’ longest-tenured player. Drafted fourth overall in 2007, Conley has developed into the veteran needed to propel the team from 22-win seasons (like his rookie year), into the territory of the League’s elite. He helped lead the franchise to its first playoff series win in 2011 and then to the Western Conference finals in 2013.
On his journey the past six seasons, Conley says, “It’s been phenomenal to just see the growth of the team over the six, seven seasons I’ve been here. It’s been unreal to just see how far we’ve come. For us to make the Western Conference finals last season, and almost have a chance at making it to the Finals is everybody’s dream. To do that in the small market of Memphis is fun to be a part of.”
Last season, Conley was one of two players to average at least 14 points, 6 assists and 2 steals while shooting at least 44 percent from the field. The other was Chris Paul.
In the Playoffs, Conley, Gasol and Randolph each averaged 17 points. The Grizzlies have relied on inside-out offense and playing at a methodical, slow pace. Last season, Memphis used just over 91 possessions per game, ranking 29th in the NBA. But Conley says that’s about to change.
Asked about training camp under new head coach Dave Joerger, he says, “It’s actually been a little bit of a learning experience for a lot of us, ’cause we’ve had to kind of revamp our offense a little bit. We’ve got a whole bunch of new plays, some new faces here and there, and we’re just all trying to get used to each other. I think it’s helped over the last couple of [pre-season] games, we’ve gotten to see different lineups and things like that. Hopefully, we’ll jell it all together and get the chemistry going and be ready to go.”
Regarding the adjustments to the offense, Conley says, “I think the biggest thing is our pace. Our pace of play will be a lot faster. We’re not necessarily going to be shooting quicker, but we’ll definitely get up the court a lot faster. Hopefully, have a little more perimeter shooting out there, allowing our bigs to work a little bit more in the paint and having guys to kick to that can knock down the three. Hopefully, with that spacing element, we’ll be able to score a little bit more.”
Based on the above, we should expect to see Randolph and Gasol run down that floor during the season?
“[Laughs] You’re exactly right!” says Conley. “We’re hoping that’s the case.”
While Conley has defined his place in the League and within the Grizzlies’ history, his former college teammate and draft classmate Greg Oden is hoping for a successful return this season. The former first overall pick signed with the Heat after last appearing in a regular-season game on December 5, 2009. Asked if he spoke to Oden, Conley says, “Yeah, I have. He’s had a great camp and I’ve heard that he’s feeling real good about himself. He’s confident, he’s excited. Who wouldn’t be in his situation, getting a chance to come back to the League on a great team. I know he’s just excited to get back on the court and play the game that he’s loved all his life.”
A lot has changed in these six seasons. As Conley continues to evolve, he has the unique opportunity to help transform a franchise. Oden has the chance to transform his career. Where will the two meet next?