SLAM Top 50: Mike Conley, no. 32

Unfortunate discursive schemata prefigure the conversation on Mike Conley. This is an edifice built on cliché and narrative trope, vacuous description and madlib journalism.

Consummate professional. Game manager. Team guy. Facilitator. Archetypical Point Guard.

Sterilized language designed to reach all and offend none that ends up conveying nothing but empty abstraction. Having willed his way to being one of the best guards in the League the past few years, Conley is deserving of much better.

Beyond the Memphis effect (media capital it is not), one reason Conley is subjected to such apathetic treatment by the scribes and talking heads is because he eschews pomp and extraneous, self-referencing style in his game and in his life, and that shit is the lifeblood of the twiterrati as well as the engine of athlete celebritification.

Evidence of the power of this perverse incentive structure abound: exhibitionistic beards so starved for attention; ball players taking meetings on brand management, Q-scores and cross-industry appeal; dudes attending galas at the Met, hoping only to be seen; guys indulging in black and white photo spreads in pretentious print form for the consumption of urban patricians.

As for the on-court equivalent, think big crossovers and self-congratulatory no-look passes for which the no-look lacks any function beyond eliciting a gasp from a fan who doesn’t know any better.

This is what piques interest and drives a word count, and this is what helps explain why Conley is belittled as a lunch pale type player. He doesn’t trade in the bombastic and he doesn’t deliver the explicit, immediate, obvious rapture we like.

Of course, that is not the whole story. Conley is more selectively sublime than many of his elite peers. He is not Russell Westbrook, a man akin to a sentient, self-sustaining hurricane that has weaned itself off the need for warm ocean water. No, Conley typically reserves the full expansiveness of his game for the clutch and weighty.

And even then, his dynamism is less expressed through the silo’d one-on-one drives to the basket that so easily catch our eye and more via subtle, relational, synergistic forms.

Indeed, his is a dynamism privileging a properly timed entry pass to the post followed by a flare screen, a hesitation dribble followed by an off-hand floater as the shot clock ticks to zero, a couple bounces off a pick and roll, a feign of the shoulders, and an 18-footer.

It is a matured approach, conscientious of the truth that if you humble yourself before the discreet, you can orchestrate the movement, space and opportunity that make the game flow.

Sure, a Shammgod into a Eurostep may offer a more palpable signifier of creativity, but it is no more genuine an act of creation than are Conley’s preferred methods.

The first half of last season (prior to the onslaught of injuries that ravaged the post-All Star break period for Conley and Grizz) gives testament to the effect of his chosen means, a time when he averaged 16.9 ppg, dished 5.3 dimes with shooting splits of 45.5/40.1/85.9, all while leading the Grizz to a record of 39-14.

Post-season performance the past few years lends further credence to Conley’s claim at a place amongst the game’s best guards. With little fanfare, these last three Aprils and Mays Conley has gone toe to toe with CP3, Dame, Russ, Tony Parker and Curry.

While the aforementioned hurricane certainly posed the kind of problem that hurricanes generally do, in his understated way, Conley has more than held his own against the rest. That he nearly inspired the Grizz’s upset over the Warriors last May despite his physical condition (he was pretty much like this guy) is revelatory of the level he is at today.

Now, there are certainly questions coming into this season. First, rumors have it that yesteryear’s ankle injury continues to plague him. Second, looking at things from a historical perspective, it should be noted that Conley is now entering the ninth season of his professional career. As a rule, smaller guards tend to have a briefer moment at the peak of their powers, with age generally unkind to their most essential asset (speed).

Specific to Mike, hints of such universal life cycle phenomena making themselves felt can already be seen, if just barely. Though he remains highly efficient around the basket, last season witnessed a slight decline in the frequency with which Conley got to the tin (a pattern that became more marked after the All-Star break).

A foot injury was certainly a major intervening variable in this process, which the optimistic amongst us might deem aberrational, accidental and unlikely to be relevant going forward.

For the more pessimistic, however, who make note of the 631 NBA games already on the odometer for Conley, caution suggests we should approach the specter of injury as being less in the realm of chance and anomaly and more as a day-to-day reality that will have to be regularly negotiated.

Whichever way you lean, though, the prognosis should not be overly sobering. After all, Conley’s improved shooting, forcing defenders to extend further and further from the basket—thereby providing more accessible driving angles for himself as well as more open spaces for his teammates to exploit—should be a major help in mitigating these effects.

Looking ahead, should Conley keep the injuries at bay and continue to assert his measured influence on the game, with a fairly light free-agent class looming on the summer 2016 horizon, he could be looking at max money in a year’s time. Here’s hoping he gets it.


SLAM Top 50 Players 2015
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Rajon Rondo Kings PG 14
49 Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks SF 8
48 Rudy Gobert Jazz C 10
47 Al Jefferson Hornets C 9
46 DeMar DeRozan Raptors SG 7
45 Goran Dragic Heat PG 13
44 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 11
43 Jeff Teague Hawks PG 12
42 Bradley Beal Wizards SG 6
41 Joakim Noah Bulls C 8
40 Eric Bledsoe Suns PG 11
39 Tony Parker Spurs PG 10
38 Andrew Wiggins T-Wolves SF 7
37 Kyle Lowry Raptors PG 9
36 Serge Ibaka Thunder PF 10
35 Gordon Hayward Jazz SF 6
34 Pau Gasol Bulls PF 9
33 Paul Millsap Hawks PF 8
32 Mike Conley Grizzlies PG 8

Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2015-16—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.