As our summer mainstay, Aaron was writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. As the summer dies down and the leaves turn, this quixotic quest of a series has happily reached the last third. But it's certainly not done yet! Today we continue with Mike Conley, Chauncey Billups, and Shannon Brown.
When you list off elite point guards, Mike Conley doesn't always come to mind. There's the usual suspects. You think of Chris Paul, because as Gregg Popovich might say, "he's Chris Paul." You think of Derrick Rose and the Chicago offense's single-minded dependence on him. You think of Steve Nash and his historic offensive achievements. You think of Rajon Rondo and his enigmatic command of the floor. You think of Russell Westbrook and his obscene takeovers. Tony Parker and his cubist post play. Deron Williams and his scoring acumen. Kyrie Irving and his blitzing attack. Stephen Curry's quiet brilliance. Et cetera, et cetera. You don't tend to think of Mike Conley's contributions and think him worthy of inclusion on that list. He's good, but not quite elite. Or so the story goes.
Well, honestly? At this point? He's right about there.
I've never been his biggest fan, but watching him more last year finally converted me. Conley is elite, or at the very least tantalizingly close to it. He's an extremely good three point shooter who has always put in some incredible work on that end. Consider how poor the Grizzlies were at making three point shots last year -- Conley was their best and most consistent three point shooter by a country mile, and would almost always draw the other team's best perimeter defenders on switches. Still made 37.7% of his threes. Conley's at-rim game gets less notice, but deserves more -- on a team with Randolph and Gasol, Conley orchestrates the offense in such a modulated and pinpoint fashion that he too can make his living at the rim, and over 1/3 of his points-from-shots came from at-rim conversions in 2012.
Conley and Hollins have built an offense where Conley's three point range and the threat of a Gasol/Randolph post-up gives Conley just enough room to run plays and flash to the rim, whenever the Grizzlies decide to run a play for him (which isn't often, admittedly -- he's a low usage guard at heart, and doesn't look for his shot quite as much as he perhaps should). In general, though, it works really well. Conley has been so completely essential to the Memphis attack these last three years that it's a minor miracle that Hollins is able to keep him under 36 minutes a night -- in 2010, 2011, and 2012 merely having Conley on the floor improved the Memphis offense by 7.3, 9.4, and 10.2 points per 100 possessions (per Basketball Prospectus). This fits another one of Conley's "silent" skills -- he's gone from a point guard who can't dribble a few years back (seriously, his handle was horrible) to one of the most controlled handles in the game among point guards, and his turnover rate has gotten lower almost every year of his career. Last year, he was 3rd among starting point guards in assist-to-turnover ratio, bested only by Chris Paul and Jose Calderon. Could he shoot a bit more? Definitely. But when you make as few mistakes as Conley does, it's not that hard to look past that.
His defense is also quite underheralded -- Conley isn't exactly Andre Iguodala, but he's a decidedly elite defender at the point guard position. It's very hard for point guards (even really good ones) to break free from Conley with just a simple screen or two, as he's nimble and slippery and has a talent at slipping past screens more quickly than almost anyone in the league. Just as he's modulated and controlled on offense, he's the same on defense -- he rarely takes idiotic steal attempts, but he still rates out as one of the best per-possession steal-generating guards in the league because he picks his spots so well and scouts his prey with the best of them. Memphis is a team that talks a lot -- on defense and offense -- and Conley takes an active leadership role in both discussions. He directs the offense and keeps people in shape on defense. He's Hollins' "voice on the floor", so to speak, and he's absolutely essential to that team. Just compare the Grizzlies' awful night at home against the Kyrie-lacking Cavaliers last week to any of the other games they played this season. They barely beat an injured, terrible Cavaliers team because -- quite simply -- Conley matters that much. Gasol/Randolph are important, and Gay/Allen are great players. But Conley is the mixer that puts it all together, and he's evolved into arguably their most important non-Gasol player. He's the straw that stirs the drink. He may not be elite in the tangibles, and his lack of offensive usage will always hurt him a bit. But in what he brings the Grizzlies beyond it (and his astounding lack of cogent flaws in any specific areas of his game), Conley becomes elite. Or, as I said before, dang near close to it. Which, let's be fair, probably all happened just to make Matt Moore look really astonishingly silly.
Thanks, Matt. Apparently, your criticism is the best pal a guard can hope for.
Chauncey Billups -- by all accounts -- is a really respectable guy. A nice dude, even if his calculated statements after his amnesty would tend to imply otherwise. He's been the locker room glue behind six conference finals teams in his career (so far), and good luck finding a former teammate that seriously dislikes him -- excuse the use of the relatively worn down tropes, but Billups is a leader in every sense of the word. Leads his teammates on the floor, leads his teammates in the locker room, leads his teammates in their off-hours. He's one of those all-encompassing figures, and he's a good bet to become a future coach. Or a GM. Or something. He has a sense of humor, although I have not confirmed this by paying him $75,000 to bake me a cake. And by all accounts, each of his last three teams have done him wrong -- he was in no way expecting to be traded from Detroit, Denver actively promised him he'd stay a Nugget, and New York gave him little say in his future by waiving him straight out of nowhere. A guy with Billups' pedigree and generally good-natured devotion to the team deserved more.
None of that means I can handle watching him play offense.
This isn't even new -- this has been true for years. Billups is not a fun player for me to watch, offensively. In his long and successful career, one of Billups' biggest "successes" has been popularizing something that should have absolutely never been popularized. I refer of course to his undying love of the transition three. The pull-up jumper in transition several feet past the three point line, with a trailer on him, nobody on his team back to rebound the ball, and generally little-to-no chance of making the shot. Back on the early-aughts Detroit teams, this strategy made a limited amount of sense -- those teams weren't very good on the offensive glass anyway, and they wouldn't be setting up high-percentage offense in the first place. There's a time and a place for everything -- transition threes can be useful in an offense. But when they make up every single transition play a particular player runs, their main use (as a change-of-pace offsetting factor) is completely abandoned. No surprise remains. We get on Rondo's back for ignoring opportunities for his own offense and making the pass. Why not get on Billups' back for ruining untold numbers of 3-on-1 fastbreaks with his frustrating three-point heaves with no regard for his teammates, the fundamentals of play-calling, or logic?
The first set of games I watched thoroughly with the intent to recap were played in the summer of 2010, when I watched the FIBA world championship games with Alex Dewey and wrote recaps and analysis of Team USA's ultimately successful romp through the FIBA weeds. In my game-watching, I took notes in a little notepad. The format of my notes became more and more informal as time went on, eventually becoming a loosely-bulletpointed mess of disconnected thoughts and ideas. But about two games in, there was one thing that remained throughout the rest of the exercise. For every team USA game I'd watch and take notes on, I'd add a little box in the corner of my notes titled "Chauncey Chucks". For every time Billups would blithely ignore several open teammates in pursuit of a chucked-up shot, I'd notch a tick mark. It says something that two games into my FIBA experience, I felt I really needed a box to keep track of that. It also says something that I can't remember a single FIBA game where the box had five or fewer tick marks. He makes the shots -- sometimes -- but to call them anything but errant chuckery is to misstate your case. The "Mr. Big Shot" nickname relies less on his ability to make the shots and more on his ability to take the shots -- Billups has no remorse, which is useful at times, but can just as often be harmful as he passes up better options and isolates to no end in pursuit of a clutch isolation. It's kind of annoying.
All that said, he's not terrible or anything -- simply not quite the offensive mastermind many take him as. Despite the chucking, he's still an effective three point shooter and he draws free throws by the boatload. He can't make a two-point shot to save his life (last season Billups shot 38% at the rim, and 34% from two point range overall), but he takes 55% of his shots from three point territory, so he minimizes that damage a bit. I'm of the lonely view that his formerly excellent defense suffered a bit of a letdown period from 2009 to 2011 as his athleticism waned, but I'm with the pack that Billups' move to the two-guard last year was a bit helpful to him on that front. He clearly can't cover point guards anymore, but he's large enough and smart enough to cover the average NBA shooting guards with some manner of efficacy. He gets lit up by the stars, but so does everyone. The big concern with Billups now is simply that of his comeback potential -- the only NBA player to ever successfully return to form after a ruptured Achilles is Dominique Wilkins, who returned around the age of 33. Billups will be returning around the age of 36, after several years of declining performance to begin with. Whatever he can bring the Clippers off an injury like that is going to be gravy -- there should be no serious expectation for Billups to produce offense, defense, or anything of present value. Except $75,000 cake. He should be expected to bring that. I mean, if I was on the Clippers, I'd expect him to bring that...
A short history of Shannon Brown's career seems fitting here. Drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers as a jitterbug point guard to change the pace and complement LeBron, Brown never quite lived up to that role -- it didn't much help matters that Mike Brown downright refused to play him (just 420 minutes in around 1.6 seasons under coach Brown, and less than a minute of playoff burn in an NBA Finals playoff run). He was ported to Chicago in the Ben Wallace trade, where he (again) couldn't get minutes and left immediately for greener pastures. The Bobcats signed him in the pre-2009 offseason, and after some of the most productive minutes of his career, he came to the Lakers in the same deal that got them Adam Morrison. Then he sort of broke out, became a replacement level player, and has been there ever since. This isn't to say he had a massive, enormous, or incredible role with the Lakers -- merely that Phil Jackson figured out where his skills were, put him in a position to maximize those skills, and let that be. Those skills? An acumen for cutting, a high vertical, and absolutely no conscience when he misses a shot. That last one also hurts him, particularly when he has one of his frustrating games where he takes 7-8 long twos and makes one. But who's counting? (I'm counting.)
Brown represents one of the things most people don't recognize about Phil Jackson (myself included, at times). Jackson wasn't the greatest player development coach in the world, but he wasn't bad at all -- there are a rare few players who couldn't get minutes in Jackson's rotations that went on to become brilliant players in a different situation. Jackson gets a lot of flack for being a less-than-stellar player development coach, but that seems to be more based on judging his player development skills in relation to his best-in-class skills in other areas of his coaching rather than in relation to the rest of the league. He wasn't excellent, but he was average at worst in a league filled with coaches who are abhorrent at it. Just look at Shannon Brown's time with Mike Brown (utter failure), Jim Boylan (hah), and Larry Brown (no thanks). None of them were able to really figure out how to use and develop Brown's gifts. Jackson was the first to really crack it, and although Brown has improved a bit under Gentry's tutelage in Phoenix, it's hard to argue Jackson didn't do a good job developing and bringing out Brown's latent talents. He did a fine job.
As a last note on Brown, I'm still strangely enthralled by 2010's "Let Shannon Dunk" movement. In a very distilled form, the whole ordeal provides a simple explanation for why exactly the dunk contest has descended to such nasty depths over the last few years. The storyline, if you forgot, was rather simple. Brown had a few vicious breakaway slams early in the 2010 season. There were rumblings of him potentially participating in the dunk contest. Rumblings grew to mumblings. Mumblings grew to shouting. Things got a bit crazy. Twitter feeds, websites, a franchise with 16 rings openly prostrating itself and rallying in hopes of getting Brown a spot in the contest, et cetera. Finally, he got his invitation. He shows up, the world prepared for something special. And, well... he sucked. His dunks were terrible. The whole contest, really, was a tired reprisal of the same old thing we'd seen millions of times before. The fun of a modern NBA dunk isn't in the dunk itself, it's in the raw aggression of the action -- not aggression towards the rim or a prop, but aggression towards an objectified opponent. That's why dunk contests with amateurs have become so superior to dunk contests in the pros. Pro dunk contests involve professionals trying to recapture that aggression without an object to act against. Amateurs have molded their dunks to fit the loneliness of the contest dunk, the vacancy of the empty court. Their aggression is focused differently, towards physics and convention and the limits of the human body. NBA dunk contests are players trying to ignore the loneliness and emulate an in-game matchup with props or bounces. Amateur dunk contests are players coming to terms with the loneliness of the form and making it work to their advantage. I don't really understand why the NBA shows the pro dunk contest while ignoring the amateurs, at this point.
Star-power can only go so far, you know.
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At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. Comment-folk Sir Thursday and Alex were batting 1.00 last night.
- Player #307 is an excellent defensive player who I thought would be a great fit on his new team. He hasn't been, but he might be turning it around.
- Player #308 could be given the exact same riddle as Player #307. Instead, I'll just say this: I'll always wonder what would've happened to him if he'd converted that tip-in.
- Player #309 has a detailed, extensive, and serious "cookbook" of moves. They are not very good moves, mind you, but it's still a downright clever nickname.
Today, I'm getting on a plane to Los Angeles. Vacation Part II: The Rejazzebration. Let's see if I can get another set done before I take off.
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