There are a lot of strange stories in the NBA this season. The Phoenix Suns are their own little pocket bible of fun times and weird sub-stories. Two weeks into the new year, the Nets and the Knicks are in the process of perfecting a Jeckyll and Hyde routine so evocative that they're sending demo tapes to Broadway. (They're 11-2 in the new year. They were a combined 19-42 in 2013. They've got a puncher's chance at winning more games in a 20-30 game January than they won in 61 games in 2013. This is NOT a drill.) The difficulty of picking the West's deserving all-stars out of a surfeit of fantastic seasons is made even more absurd by the difficulty of picking anyone in the East's candidate pool even having a decent one. Stories are everywhere, if you take the time to look.
Me, though, I've been focusing in on one particular team-contained storybook over the past few weeks. The Memphis Grizzlies have had a rough season by any metric you care to look at. They enter tonight's contest against the Bucks with an 18-19 record, which puts them three games out in the Western Conference playoff picture with a little under half the season in the books. They aren't struck with any particular bad luck in close games, a la the Timberwolves -- their point differential (outscored by about one point per contest) befits that of an 17-20 team. Most people would glance at their tepid injury-tarred season and change the channel, assuming it's a garden-variety treadmill of mediocrity and small-market woe. Not me, though. And that's mainly due to the brilliance of one incredible season.
Come, my friends. Meet Mike Conley: all-NBA point guard.
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If you say "Mike Conley" to an average NBA fan on twitter, you'll generally elicit little more than a shrug. Perhaps a joke about Matt Moore. Perhaps -- if they're really tuned in -- a note about how Conley's footwork is nothing short of immaculate in its trickery. That's about it, though. Conley has been a very good player for quite some time, and I've been nestled snug in his bandwagon for quite some time as well. After all, I wrote in my capsules about his strong case as an elite point guard in the NBA, which actually inspired some laughs at my expense. Perhaps not now, though. Conley has never played quite as well as he's played this season, and he's enjoying one of the easiest-to-underrate seasons in recent memory.
Much has been written about how Kevin Love's bonkers numbers tend to be overlooked because his team has been -- over his last few years -- rather mediocre-to-bad. And this is clearly the case. Love puts up numbers that defy our internal logic of what an NBA player is capable of on a nightly basis, and he does carry the otherwise-somewhat-disappointing Timberwolves to wins they have no business competing in. This is all true. Love isn't Kevin Garnett, but he's his generation's equivalent thereof. A game changing super-duper-star mired in a franchise with a knack for constructing underperforming, defenseless rosters. You know the type -- those collections of castaways that can blow the roof off on a good offensive night but have trouble stopping even the NBA's simplest offensive attacks. That's Love's biggest problem, and most people who watch the Wolves can't come away without feeling a little bit sorry for the man.
Conley hasn't had to deal with those issues over much of his career. He's had a much more enviable position, historically, orchestrating the offense for a team with virtually no offensive expectations as defensive talent carries the team to wins regardless of Conley's personal ups and downs. But that's the past. This season, he's actually had to deal with exactly those issues I described for Love, as injuries have ravaged the complexion of the Grizzlies in such a way that's made it next to impossible to compare this year's Memphis team to the grit-and-grind hustlers of yore. At no point in Conley's career have the Grizzlies had a higher-ranked offense than they sport this season -- they're 13th overall offensively, about a point per 100 possessions better than league average. This ranking actually underrates them slightly -- their tough schedule (toughest in the league by a fair margin per Basketball Reference's "strength of schedule" calculation) has been skewed towards the league's best defenses, so it's likely that Memphis' "true talent" offensive numbers exogenous to their rough schedule are even better.
It's the defense that's been their biggest problem, as the Gasol injury (and Gasol's somewhat out-of-shape first frame pre-injury) left Memphis wanting in the middle for their anchor. With Gasol in the game the Memphis perimeter talent (mainly Conley and Allen) are able and willing to adhere to their men like glue, keeping players off the three point line and largely eliminating the types of easy threes that many great offenses live off. With Gasol out, that firm adherence wanes -- Kosta Koufos is a solid defensive center, but he's no Marc Gasol. The Memphis perimeter attack is unable to stay quite as locked in as they are with Gasol in the middle, and they have to fade back to help guard against drives to the rim. This in turn adds a few more inches of space to shooters behind the three point line, which lets opposing teams get off a few more threes and shoot a bit better on them.
Of course, that description assumes Tony Allen is healthy. He hasn't been. He's missed 9 of their 36 games, nine games in which Mike Conley became their de facto perimeter stopper. It makes sense, given that he's the best perimeter defender on the team when Allen is out, but it's evocative of the struggle Conley's had with the roster around him. Point guards have a tough enough job on a normal night, being tasked with orchestrating -- effectively -- a massively complicated multidimensional sonata and keeping everyone happy without overcomplicating the offense. But acting as your team's top perimeter stopper besides? That's like plopping a friend who's never played a single video game in front of Doom on Inferno difficulty and expecting them to make it through in one sitting. Sure, it can theoretically be done, but you have to have a gift to even be in the conversation. Also: why would you do that?!
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So. How exactly has Conley acquitted himself in this tough situation?
Spoiler alert: very well.
The load on Conley's back this season has been -- quite simply -- absurd. In a recent contest, Conley scored or assisted on 23 points of the Grizzlies' 31 in the fourth quarter of a close Memphis win. This isn't particularly rare. Conley is averaging his highest usage rate of his career by a large margin, and -- unusually -- is coupling that with his highest effective field goal percentage as well (50.6%, above his former sophomore-year high of 50.3% and well above his shooting in recent vintages). But usage rate doesn't fully account for things like free throws made off of Conley passes -- one of the neat little things one can find in sifting through the new SportVU data is a better sense of "true" usage for high-touch point guards. In Conley's case, he's producing 14.6 points per game off his assists directly. He also sets up one trip to the line per game, and is the secondary-assist producer on two made shots a night.
This is a bit difficult to compare directly with other players, mostly owing to the fact that the Grizzlies have played -- very nearly -- the slowest basketball in the league. (It's oscillated back-and-forth between the New York Knicks and the Grizzlies over the past few weeks -- at time of writing, the Knicks had the title.) The average Grizzlies game has roughly four fewer possessions than league average, and many of the league's best point guards operate on the faster-paced end of the spectrum. For instance, Stephen Curry's Warriors play roughly seven more possessions in an average game. The Thunder, Suns, Clippers, and Nuggets all play roughly six more possessions in an average game. The Spurs and Blazers generally play five more possessions. Hence, comparing the raw points-off-of-assists in a game is a bit misleading, as it blithely ignores the pace-of-play difficulties that work against Conley's all-star campaign.
This argument extends to the normal box score averages, like points and assists. Conley's averages don't exactly jump off the page. He's putting up 18.1 points a night, with 2.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists to boot. He's got 1.6 steals a game, and turns the ball over two times a night. None of that is bad, necessarily, but at first glance, you wouldn't exactly think those are the numbers of a strong all-star candidate. They are, though. In the following table, I'm going to roughly calculate the percentage of their team's offense the eight leading western all-star candidates are responsible for on any given night using APTS (the points-produced-through-assists metric from SportVU), foul assists (adding team FT% multiplied by two for the two free throws multiplied by the number of free throw assists SportVU says the player produces), and their own points. I'll also relay their counting stats and turnover rates, as those are moderately relevant to my next paragraph.
Adjusting for differences in pace using the "percentage of team production" metric virtually erases the large gap in Conley's stats when compared to most of his prime competition. Yes, he still gets pasted by Curry and Paul, but so does everyone. Conley produces more offense for the Grizzlies than Dragic, Lillard, or Parker produce for theirs, and he's closer to Westbrook than Westbrook is to Curry/Paul. Translation makes the heart grow fonder, at least in Conley's case. The same is true for his stats -- if the Grizzlies played at the pace the Warriors play at, a direct translation of Conley's line would average out to 20-7-3 with 2 steals a night and 2 turnovers besides. His shooting efficiency (via eFG%) is less than Dragic/Lillard/Parker but markedly higher than that of Lawson's, and his main bugaboo offensively is his general inability to sell a call -- he shoots just 3.4 free throws a game despite shooting an excellent 85% from the line, far fewer trips than anyone else on this list. That's just about the biggest nit to pick with Conley's production.
One other notable point from the previous table? The turnover rate. Mike Conley's turnover rate of 10.8% may look roughly equivalent with the rest of the guards in the table -- it's true, most of them are reasonably good at taking care of the ball. But 10.8% isn't just a garden variety "good ball control" number. It's actually a historically strong campaign. Consider it as a mental venn diagram. In one circle, you have high usage players, who score the ball a lot and are responsible for putting up a decent number of points every night. In another circle, you have prolific passing players, who pass the ball a lot and are responsible for setting up a large number of teammates on any given night. And in the last circle, you have low turnover players, who are extremely hard to steal the ball from and who rarely make sloppy passes. It's not particularly hard to locate players who have one of those three traits -- 10-20 a season, usually, even if you put in a decent minutes restriction. It's not even particularly hard to find a player that combines two of the traits -- low turnover high usage setup scorers were big a few years back (think Michael Redd, Ray Allen, the best case scenario for Klay Thompson) and there are many low-usage point guards who are borderline savants at ball control (think Chauncey Billups, Kirk Hinrich, the best case scenario for Kendall Marshall).
But a player who combines all three in a single year? High usage, high passing, low turnovers? That's rare. Exceedingly so, in fact, and Mike Conley's season is a quintessential example of such a year. Only 31 seasons around his level can be found when querying the historical data, and it's quite a neat list to be on. Chris Paul, Michael Jordan, Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, and prime Brandon Roy are all in the party. Turnovers tend to be one of those stats that people ignore a bit when assessing players -- unless a player is REALLY bad at them, it doesn't tend to enter the evaluation discussion unless nits are being picked, and a player with extremely low rates doesn't tend to get much credit for it. If you compound his fantastic turnover rate with counting stats that are easy to overlook given his team's pace/schedule and his best-in-class point guard defense, you have a surprisingly strong all-star candidacy.
(NOTE: It's also really quite impressive that these singular players are producing 30-45% of the offense for the league's best offenses, especially considering most of these players are only on the court for 2/3 of the game. For those who are bad at mental math, indicates these guys are producing 50% or more of their team's offensive production whenever they take the floor. Every offense helmed by these eight players is in the top half of the league. Point guards are often blasted for poor defense and their occasional off nights. Step back for a moment -- if you had to directly produce half of your team's best-in-class offense when you were on the floor, wouldn't you be a bit gassed?)
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He has a case, obviously, but I can't lie to you: Conley isn't going to make the all-star team. There's almost no way he makes it in at this point. The selections are later this month, and at 18-19 the Grizzlies are far enough out of the playoff picture to scrub him from the conversation. Not when Lillard's Blazers are the story of the season, Paul/Curry have locked up two slots, and Dragic is his team's only remaining all-star candidate. I'd venture that Monta Ellis has a higher chance at making the game than Conley, simply because I don't think it's likely that the Western coaches send 5-6 point guards and a single shooting guard to the game. Especially not with the surplus of excellent big men in the conference who deserve a spot there too. He might make the all-defense team (and he should!), and he has a shaky case for 3rd team all-NBA (an honor he will almost certainly not achieve).
There's a more interesting (and more pressing) question for Conley and the Grizzlies, far removed from the all-star game and any all-NBA questions. Very simply: can the Grizzlies make the playoffs? I'd venture they can. Conley has gotten good enough this year that they just might, although the margin for error is virtually nil. They've made one particular big problem for themselves in this first half of the season -- they're down 0-2 with two games to go in the season series against Dallas, who's one of their stronger opponents for the bottom two seeds. That's their main damage, tiebreaker-wise, and it probably is going to make the seven seed unattainable if the Mavericks can hold on to that (something I suspect they'll do). They're down 0-1 in the tiebreaker against Minnesota, although they have three games remaining to make that up. They have two games remaining against Oklahoma City, a team that despises them after last year's unceremonious ouster.
That said? It's not all bad. They've clinched the tiebreaker against Phoenix, which is EXTREMELY important since the Suns represent the most likely team to drop out of the playoff picture. They've still got a good shot at the tiebreaker against Denver, as they're 1-1 against them. Gasol has returned at essentially the perfect time -- he has over a week of easy games to get his legs back before their next big test, a home-and-home against Houston later this month. The three games they have against Minnesota are virtually going to be playoff games -- the Wolves and the Grizzlies have identical records right now, and they're each other's biggest competition in the race to unseat the Suns from the eight spot. And what's more, the tough schedule the Grizzlies endured is going to lead to a relatively easy slate for the rest of January, much of February, and a much of March. Their last few weeks are going to be difficult, but if they're sporting a full squad at the time they have a good shot at replicating their run to the 8 seed in 2011 where they started rolling around the all-star break and ended the year on a tear.
They'll also have their chances to mess up other teams' playoff aspirations, even if they're out of the playoff picture late in the season. From March 24th to the end of the year, they play Minnesota twice, Denver twice, Phoenix once, Dallas once, and play four of the league's six main title contenders in the final few weeks (Miami, San Antonio, Golden State, Portland). If they do manage to pull off the eight seed, they could end up as one of the most dangerous eight seed matchups in recent memory. Given how well that treated them the last time, I don't know if they'd really complain too much if that's the way the cookie crumbles. Luckily for Gregg Popovich, the Spurs aren't on pace for the #1 seed right now, so he doesn't have to worry about that particular potentiality.
... Hey, wait a second!