Mike Conley steadily built himself to become a solid point guard for the Memphis Grizzlies, but Memphis must wonder if he'll enter the rigid group of elites. In this age of the point guard, reaching the upper crust is difficult, but not impossible. Conley can make a couple of small adjustments to join that class.
Who are the elites Conley is chasing?
Before delving into the necessary adjustments for Conley, establishing which point guards form the upper crust is important. Chris Paul tops the list. His combination of terrific scoring, efficient passing and sound defense put him head and shoulders above the rest.
Derrick Rose might have been right next to him if he were healthy because he possesses many of the same traits as Paul, but he'll sit next to Tony Parker behind CP3 when he's back in full form. Parker has what Conley lacks—elite scoring to go with remarkable passing and strong defense.
Next is Rajon Rondo. Rondo is an incredible defensive player, a pretty good passer who is helped by his veteran teammates and a very capable scorer. Like Rondo, Conley can occasionally provide a scoring burst, but it's not really Conley's role to pick up scoring like it is for Rondo.
Defense is a key difference between Rondo and Conley. Rondo's tougher to beat, partly due to discipline and also personal style.
Then comes Steve Nash. I've made laudatory remarks about Nash, but I've recently become fixated on his 4.2 turnovers per 36 minutes and 27.1 percent turnover rate in 2011-12 were factors of the Suns' lack of playmakers or his age. That will be revealed this year with the Lakers.
The sixth and last player who's an elite point man is Russell Westbrook. He takes over the game with his scoring and passes. Conley is light years ahead of Westbrook on defense, but the opposite can be said of Westbrook on offense.
Now, Conley leads the second tier of point guards. Along with him sit Deron Williams (a terrific lead guard on offense, but a defensive liability), Ricky Rubio (also amazing on offense, but poor on defense), Kyrie Irving (an up-and-comer who could pass up Conley), Brandon Jennings (similar to Westbrook, but better on defense) and Conley's old backup, Kyle Lowry (a promising lead guard who can defend).
Efficient shooting is a must
Mostly, what stands between Conley and the elites is offensive efficiency. All of them shoot better than Conley. The Ohio State product shot 43.3 percent from the field last season, one percent lower than each of the previous three years. Rose shot the worst (a career-low 43.5 percent). Rondo shot 44.8 percent.
Paul, Parker and Nash shot better than 47.5 percent. A terrific role model in the area of shooting accuracy, Nash shot 53.2 percent from the field. That includes a 39 percent three-point figure.
Conley hit 37.7 percent from three-point range last season. He's a career 38 percent three-point shooter, 89th all-time. His already fine shooting from downtown could get even better now that the Grizzlies have added two long-range shooters, Jerryd Bayless and Wayne Ellington.
Being on the floor with one of them, along with Rudy Gay—a decent three-point shooter—and perhaps Josh Selby, will help Conley boost his three-point figure. Having an extra outside shooter on the floor would reduce attention paid to Conley on a team that has been in the bottom five in three-point attempts the last four years.
What Conley needs to improve is his mid-range shot. According to basketball-reference.com, Conley hit 35.6 percent (16-of-45) from 10 to 15 feet and 38.2 percent (73-of-191) from 16 to 31 feet.
Fixing this comes down to spacing. Conley, who stands 6'1", needs to separate himself from defenders in order to hit more of his shots from that range.
Not taking those shots or taking closer shots isn't an objective. Conley is too small and lean to drive the lane often. Besides, this isn't about changing his game, but seeing him become better at what he currently does.
Be true at the charity stripe
Also, Nash shot 89.4 percent from the line, leading all starting point guards. Conley was seventh, but no elite point guard shot better from the line than Conley.
Conley started to pick up his free-throw shooting last season. He went from 73.3 percent in 2010-11 to 86.1 percent last season. This raised his career mark to 77.5 percent. Further improvement at the line can only help his profile.
While free throws are often overlooked, they're a vital part of a player's efficiency. Being an excellent free-throw shooter is like being great at drawing walks. Rather than ensuring that he get on base, the player ensures that he scores points.
Nash, the best free-throw shooter among active players and second-best ever at 90.4 percent, has only lost 313 possible points at the line in his 16-year career. Dwight Howard lost almost as many at the line (291) in just 54 games last season.
Conley can guarantee one degree of offensive efficiency by becoming as precise at the line as Nash.
Improve passing a bit in transition
Faulting Conley's facilitation for the Grizzlies having trouble scoring would be misguided. The Grizz just don't have a player who will take over night after night on offense.
Also, pointing at his assist numbers as a way of saying he isn't a strong point guard is weak because it overlooks the style of the offense.
Assists and the assist rate metric are, to a certain extent, a function of an offense. A floor general who controls the ball a great deal collects more assists than one with a looser grip on the offense like Conley.
Also, assists in transition depend on who makes the last pass. Conley doesn't always make the last pass.
Now, Conley does have improvement to make in transition. He hasn't always been one to make things happen in transition when he has the chance, whether on fast breaks or other transition opportunities.
Sometimes, Conley hesitates when a play can be made off the dribble in the half court. At times, he isn't aware of playmaking opportunities soon after entering the half court in transition. That leaves Rudy Gay and others at a loss after making themselves open for a quick shot or drive.
Fast breaks aren't always for Conley to control. Often, Conley or another Grizzlies player makes the pass soon after getting the steal. That isn't always a bad thing. Generally, his teammates know how to finish. Besides, Gay dunks more than any other backcourt player.
However, Conley could lead his teammates a little better with his fast-break passes. Tony Allen is one who doesn't always finish well on fast breaks. He sometimes goes in at the wrong angle or mistimes his approach at the rim. Conley could help him by ensuring that his passes go to the right place to put Allen in the right position.
Conclusion: Conley could join top five
The idea of Conley entering the top five shouldn't come as any surprise. His offense is respectable. He shoots very well from beyond the arc. The Indianapolis native is efficient, with a 3.1 assist-to-turnover rate.
Defensively, Conley is as good as almost anyone. He's the same type of ball hawk that Chris Paul is. Conley only trailed Paul in steals per game last season. The player from the "Grindhouse" actually edged Paul in points allowed per 100 possessions (102 for Conley and 104 for Paul).
Somewhat improved passing and mid-range shooting would negate the edge that Rondo and Westbrook have on him offensively.
If Conley puts all of these things together, he'll pass up the defensive sieve that is Westbrook and perhaps Rondo, that is, if the Celtics' man struggles with his shifting role in Boston.
Conley's contribution to the rise of the Grizzlies can't be underestimated. Soon, his stature among NBA point guards won't be, either.