By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Mike Conley is having the best all-around season of his career. Even he, not one to toot his own horn, won’t deny this, calling it his “most productive year, by far.”
His biggest assist though can’t be found on any stat sheet. It’s been revealed in the locker room, during film sessions and on the practice floor where his cool demeanor, his evolving, encouraging style of leadership helped pull the Memphis Grizzlies back from the brink of disaster.
He won’t, however, go all individualistic in taking credit for a turnaround of a team that started the season adrift, as if it had yet to make peace with the summer’s upheaval, the controversial transition from stalwart Lionel Hollins to his youthful assistant, Dave Joerger. Now, through renewed health, a return to their trademark defense and a forged camaraderie, the 2013 portion of the season seems a distant memory.
“The chemistry is as good as it’s been since I’ve been here, and that speaks to the fact that we have a bunch of veteran, professional guys who realize how to be unselfish, sacrificing for the next man, and that’s something that’s rare to find,” Conley told NBA.com during a phone conversation Thursday shortly after the Grizzlies arrived in Miami for tonight’s game (7:30 p.m., ET, League Pass). “We just love being around each other. We all hang out off the court and laugh and joke all the time. We’re a funny group, a loose group and we try to keep it that way. It’s playing in our favor right now because everybody’s just doing the little things to try to win.”
The only thing loose about Memphis early on was its defense. The Grizzlies have fought their way into the Western Conference playoff picture after scuffling to a 13-17 record and 12th place in the West on New Year’s Eve. Since, the Grizzlies have gone 27-10 and ascended to seventh place. They’re considered by many to be the scariest of the lower seeds, assuming they can nail down a playoff spot in this final month of the regular season.
“There were times we questioned what was going on, but there was really no panic,” Conley said. “I think we kind of just sat back and evaluated the situation like, ‘Man, we got to get this thing turned around and quickly.’ We feel like we’re a playoff team and we’re taking each game and making that the most important game of the year, and that’s how we’ve been playing it seems like since the beginning of January. We’re not going to stop now just because we’ve cracked the top eight.”
As long as Conley remains on the floor, the Grizzlies seem a safe bet for a fourth consecutive playoff appearance. And yes, this modern-day, non-traditional, slow-it-down outfit boasting two low-post beasts would be a first-round terror for either Oklahoma City, San Antonio or the Los Angeles Clippers, all teams the Grizzlies have dispatched in the postseason over the past three seasons.
So how’d Memphis get back in contention to begin with?
Conley points to Marc Gasol‘s return from a knee injury, Zach Randolph‘s quiet, but machine-like season, a refurbished bench that’s provided greater firepower and consistency, a shot of athleticism from James Johnson when the team was stagnant and, of course, the re-emergence of suffocating defense that is the backbone of the grit-n-grind movement. Since Jan. 1, Memphis’ defense ranks tied for third in 3-point field-goal percentage, third in overall field-goal percentage and third in defensive efficiency, allowing 98.8 points per 100 possessions. All are significant improvements from the first two months.
Still, the surge up the standings isn’t possible without Conley, the Grizzlies’ driving force and arguably still the league’s most under-the-radar point guard, a 6-foot-1 non-All-Star who seizes more and more responsibility directly linked to the team’s success.
He’s averaging a career-best 17.1 ppg, obliterating his career average of 12.9 ppg and last season’s average of 14.6 ppg, while making 36.5 percent of his ever-increasing 3-point attempts. He’s the only player on the team who consistently attacks the rim for layups and soft floaters, while he and Gasol combine for one of the best pick-and-roll duos in the game.
Conley’s also averaging 6.0 apg and 1.52 spg. He’s one of eight players in the league, six being All-Stars, to average at least 17.0 ppg, 6.0 apg and 1.5 spg. Add his efficient 2.09 turnovers per game to that equation and the list shrinks dramatically, to one — Conley.
“Coming into the year I knew my role would change, that I’d be more relied on to pick up a heavier load scoring and I think that’s helped a lot for my confidence and knowing my teammates trust me with the ball,” Conley said. “I think my game has evolved over the years. I’ve played different roles, I’ve been Mr.-Defensive-Guy, I’ve been just a set-up-plays-for-other-people kind of guy and now I’ve got my game to a level where coaches and players are comfortable with me taking shots and making shots in big-time situations.”
Conley said he’s been aided by the acquisition of more shooters, including Mike Miller and Courtney Lee, a midseason pickup, and Jon Leuer‘s emergence as an accurate 3-point gunner in limited minutes. And while the offense has shown greater versatility and increased ball movement, it remains one that plays slowly and doesn’t score easily.
It is constructed in a non-traditional way, at least as traditional pertains to today’s game dominated by spread-the-floor offenses that bomb 3-pointers. It is somewhat ironic because Memphis’ management team, which took over at the start of last season, leans heavily on analytics, which emphasizes layups, free throws and 3-pointers. While they haven’t had time to reshape the roster in perhaps their ideal vision — beyond trading mid-range jump-shooter Rudy Gay last season — it is notable these Grizzlies are arguably the most analytics unfriendly team in the league.
“It’s funny because we do have the management and everybody backing the analytics side and our team is just built different,” Conley said. “We’re just a team full of guys that grind out and try to win games however we can, and that’s what Memphis has been about over the years. Obviously, I don’t think it needs to be changed right now with the way that we’re playing.”
Even during their run since Jan. 1, they rank last in 3-pointers attempted, 29th in 3-pointers made, 29th in free throws attempted, 30th in free throws made, and only Conley (14th) ranks in the top 75 of players in the league who drive the most. Incredibly, the Grizzlies have attempted 472 fewer 3-pointers than their opponents this season and have been outscored beyond the arc by 513 points.
It puts a heavy burden on the defense to consistently hold down high-powered offenses. In back-to-back victories in January against Houston, the Grizzlies held the Rockets to 87 and 81 points. But it begs the question if the Grizzlies can do that — and score enough — over a seven-game series against the Rockets or Thunder or Clippers or Spurs.
“I do think we can generate enough offense, and I think a lot of it is we let our defense dictate that,” Conley said. “That’s why if we can keep teams within a certain number, keep them under 100, or in the 90s or 80s, we feel like we’re very comfortable in those closer games and in that kind of pace of play.”
With a major assist from Conley, it appears the Grizzlies will at least get the chance to find out.