Why Mike Conley Is Critical to Memphis Grizzlies Success

Jared DubinFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2014

Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley (11) shouts to teammates during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards on Monday, March 3, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci/Associated Press

It's been quite a banner year for Mike Conley. He is one of 12 players currently averaging at least 17 points and six assists per game, and he's sporting career highs in player efficiency rating (19.8), assist percentage (the percentage of teammate baskets a player assists while on the court; 30.2 percent), free-throw attempts (3.7 per game), and points (17.1 per game), as well as a career-low turnover percentage (11.6). 

His usage rate has hit a career high of 24.9 percent, according to Basketball-Reference, and he's been able to mostly maintain the efficiency he sported while at lower degrees of usage, while assisting more baskets and cutting down on turnovers. 

Few players have been as important to their team's degree of offensive success this season as Conley.

When Marc Gasol went down with an early-season injury, Conley's responsibility level took a massive jump, as evidenced by that increase in usage rate, as he was left as the sole player on the Grizzlies roster with the ability to create open looks for both himself and others.  

During Gasol's absence, the Grizzlies managed to score 104.6 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com, which would rank 12th in the NBA had it marked their full season's effort. That number is also within 0.1 points per 100 possessions of Memphis' season-long mark with Conley on the floor, which stands at 104.7 points on a per-100-possession basis. 

Without Conley, the Grizzlies have scored only 100.4 points per 100 possessions, which would rank just 23rd in NBA. 

The Grizzlies score more points off turnovers, more points in the paint, more fast-break points and more second-chance points per 48 minutes with Conley on the floor than off. They go from the second-least turnover-prone team in the league with Conley on the floor to the most turnover-prone team in the league without him on the floor, per NBA.com.

They take better shots, and make more of them, with Conley than without. Approximately 34.5 percent of Memphis' shots come in the restricted area with Conley in the game, compared to 32.1 percent when he's out. And the Grizzlies convert 61.4 percent of those shots with him compared to 60.2 percent without. 

It's easy to see how important he is to the success just by taking a quick look through NBA.com's numbers. They jump off the page. 

On an individual level, Conley has never been better, as evidenced by all the career-high numbers referenced above. The most important part of his success as an offensive player has been the pick-and-roll. 

Quietly, Conley himself has turned himself into one of the best pick-and-roll players in the NBA over the last few years. He has scored 0.95 points per play (PPP) out of the action this season, good for 14th-best in the league. He's made 47.1 percent of his field-goal attempts and 51.2 percent of his threes out of pick-and-rolls, which have made up over 40 percent of his plays. 

via mySynergySports

As the above chart shows, each of those numbers is fairly easily Conley's best within the last five seasons. He's become more efficient even while increasing his per-game usage of possessions out of the pick-and-roll by nearly 50 percent over that span of time, a remarkable accomplishment. 

Conley now has the ability and willingness to pull the trigger from deep when defenders give him space as he comes over a screen, along with the ability to jet into the lane for one of his signature floaters when the defense decides to crowd his dribble. 

And, of course, he still has the mid-range pull-up that has been a part of his pick-and-roll game since the beginning. 

Meshing all three of those crucial elements has just made him that much more dangerous when navigating screens. Add that to the advantage Conley already has with such mammoth screeners as Gasol and Zach Randolph paving his way, and it's incredibly difficult to even figure out which option Conley will deign to choose after using a screen, let alone to put a stop to his plans. 

The Conley-Gasol two-man game out of the pick-and-roll is brutishly effective, particularly when they get it working out of a dribble handoff situation. 

Gasol is just so versatile as a screener that anything can happen when these two get themselves isolated on one side of the floor against just two defenders, or better, at the top of the key where Gasol can roll, pop, slide to the free-throw line or just slip his screen and get out of Conley's path and clear a lane to the rim. 

The expanding army of shooters Memphis now has—let's just say Mike Miller and Courtney Lee are slightly more accurate from outside than Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen—just gives him a little bit more room and freedom to operate, and the entire offense has been the better for it.

The Grizz are still slightly below average offensively this season, as they've been for the last few years of this Grit 'n Grind Era, but there seems to be a little more spice, a little more variety to the offensive sets this season.

It's not all Conley, of course. The aforementioned wings, along with James Johnson, have combined to give Memphis a few different looks this season, and that's helped inject some life into an offense that had a propensity to look stale for long periods of time last season.

New head coach Dave Joerger, as he indicated was his plan upon taking the job, had Memphis get into its sets slightly faster early this season. 

According to Chip Crain of the Grizzlies blog, 3 Shades of BlueJoerger, in his introductory press conference, mentioned an "intention of crossing mid-court with at least 20 seconds left on the shot clock, something that rarely if ever happened last season." 

That approach didn't exactly mesh with the personnel, though, and eventually Joerger and Conley came to a sort of agreement to slow things back down.

Conley told USA Today's Sam Amick in late November:

It took us some time because we tried to change (the offense) and I don't think it really (worked). We went fast, and I think we got a little bit out of control for everybody. We're still playing a little bit quicker, but when we get to our offensive sets, we're able to slow it down to a pace that's better for our bigs, and it's working.

Since then, Memphis has just been gritting and grinding away. It may not be the prettiest version of basketball (just look to the rest of the spread-pick-and-roll-heavy Western Conference if you want to see that), but it fits the personnel on hand.

Memphis often has to work very hard to get good looks, with Conley and Gasol doing the lion's share of that work getting others into position to score. 

It's helps that Conley has completely rounded out his offensive game to the point where the dribble-pass-shoot decisions come easy, and it's the defense that has to be on its heels whenever he hits the moment of truth.