By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – So yeah, Mike Conley, one of the truly Mr. Nice Guys in the NBA, wants to see his name in lights as a Western Conference All-Star.
“I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t care about making the All-Star team. That would be the ultimate honor,” Conley told NBA.com last week. “But I also understand the way things shake out, especially being in the West, there’s a lot of good guys out there. I’m going to put myself in position, that’s all I can do; just play well and do what’s best for the team first. If we win games, we as individuals get noticed, and I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Conley didn’t even get a sniff in fan voting last year, and West coaches again overlooked him as a backup. It didn’t matter that he was on his way to averaging a career-best 17.2 points; or continued to extend his range beyond the 3-point arc (he made 36.1 percent on a career-high 4.0 attempts); or committed to attacking the rack more (his 548 drives ranked 15th in the league and, for comparison’s sake, were more than All-Stars John Wall and James Harden); or that he rarely turned it over (his 8.6 turnovers per 100 possessions ranked third among point guards behind Chris Paul and Jose Calderon); or that he’s strong on defense; or that his leadership was key for a 50-win team that got off to a disturbingly sluggish start under a new coach and then lost center Marc Gasol for a good chunk of of the season.
The quiet Conley knows even his best might not be loud enough in a conference loaded with noise-makers. Think about it: Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook didn’t even play in last year’s All-Star Game because of injuries. Bryant is a virtual lock to be voted in by the fans and Westbrook, a three-time All-Star, is likely to regain his reserve spot, especially if he elevates his play with Kevin Durant out for the first month.
While Conley steers Memphis’ methodical, inside-out offense, he’s watched Stephen Curry zoom to superstardom — even beat out Paul as a starter last year — and cold-blooded youngster Damian Lillard make the All-Star team as a reserve in his second season in the league. Knocking on the door is a long list of hopefuls: Ty Lawson, Suns teammates Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, plus Ricky Rubio and Jrue Holiday, an East All-Star two years ago.
And those are just the point guards.
“It’s fun to be in this era of basketball where there’s so many great players, so many great guards, especially in the West where I get to play against them four times a year,” Conley said. “Every night you have your hands full no matter who you’re playing. That goes across the board. Every night you’re playing against a top-notch guard or a top-notch-caliber player, so you have to have your mind right, be focused and be on your best game.”
Conley’s best bet to crash the Big Apple All-Star bash this season is, as he said, to get the Grizzlies off to a fast start and steal the headlines. He believes Memphis is positioned to do just that.
“We’re going to be a team that people are going to hate to face, and have a chance to be considered as one of the teams contending for a title,” said Conley, who is entering his eight season in the league. “Going into the end of [last] year we started finally playing our basketball. We fought our way back into the playoffs and feel like we’re still on the up-and-up from that last run that we had.”
All that seemed to be spinning out of the players’ control during a very strange start to the offseason. Young owner Robert Pera wiped out the front office that had wiped out Hollins, and before that had wiped out newly reinstated general manager Chris Wallace. Coach Dave Joerger, who took over for Hollins last year, interviewed with Minnesota before agreeing to stay in Memphis, where he arrived as an assistant in 2007, two years before Hollins took over and began to turn the program around.
“It was a little weird right after being in the playoffs and the first month or so of the summertime was a bunch of uneasy, unsure feelings,” Conley said. “Not knowing what coach’s situation was, what management’s was, you just kind of had to sit back and let all that play out. Luckily, I think things worked out for the best for us, and I’m glad that’s behind us and we’re able to focus on going forward.”
Yes, there finally does appear to be a calm and optimism in Memphis. Zach Randolph, suspended for last year’s first-round Game 7 loss to Oklahoma City, received the extension he wanted. Vince Carter was signed to knock down 3-pointers and Quincy Pondexter, injured almost all of last season after starting to emerge in the 2013 postseason, is a key returnee around an ego-free core that’s come of age together.
“When Lionel was here, a lot of us were still young, still learning and still trying to improve in a lot of different areas,” Conley said. “Now with the help of Lionel grooming us, to now Joeger — we’re doing the same things — he’s got us in our prime and we’re playing great basketball.”