Every once in a while, Mike Conley will look up, thinking he has spotted a figure from his not-too-distant past inside the Memphis Grizzlies' locker room.
"I'll just see somebody walking in and I'm not really looking at who it is, and I swear it's Tony [Allen]," Conley said. "Or I swear it's Zach [Randolph] moving real slow, going through the locker room, and it'll be like Bruno Caboclo or somebody like that instead."
Oh, OK. Never mind, Conley tells himself as he refocuses on the present and the players that are around him: Kyle Anderson. Jaren Jackson Jr. Tyler Dorsey. Dillon Brooks. There's also a sprinkling of veterans who have arrived via trade or free agency. All are trying to build some sense of cohesion, quality quarter by quality quarter, to build confidence, but Conley is the last of the Grit 'n' Grind Grizzlies—the lovable, rugged squad that he helped guide to the playoffs seven consecutive times from 2010-11 through 2016-17.
Allen last played for New Orleans in 2017. Randolph signed with the Kings as a free agent in 2017, fell out of their rotation and was eventually traded to the Mavericks, who waived him last month. And after a promising 15-9 start to this season unraveled, the Grizzlies shipped Marc Gasol to Toronto for Jonas Valanciunas, CJ Miles and Delon Wright as well as a 2024 second-round pick.
Conley remains. He's started all but six games this season after missing most of last season with Achilles and heel injuries. And despite the new cast around him, he's directed the Grizzlies to a 8-12 mark since the trade deadline. That wasn't enough to get them back into the playoff race, but it was enough to cobble together some hope for a team that looked to be careening deep into the draft lottery.
"He doesn't waver because of outside circumstances," Grizzlies head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "Wins, losses, Mike is still the same human being and treats everybody the same no matter what. He gets pissed off and he gets upset, but that doesn't change who he is or how he treats people."
He'll tell his younger teammates that today matters and to worry about tomorrow when the day arrives. He'll see a challenge in his rookie teammate Jevon Carter, a second-round selection from West Virginia, and try to match his energy because "I'm trying to make sure that I'm competing at that level that I know that he's going to compete at."
It's the mentality he's carried since he arrived in the NBA a dozen years ago. Every drill, every practice, every game counted for a young point guard vying for minutes and respectability.
"Nothing was ever easy coming out of college for me," Conley said. "There was competition at the point guard position for my first five years in the league. Every year, we'd draft a point guard, and I was always having to fight for every minute I got on the court. So, every day was important to me."
It's becoming a rarity for NBA players to carve out long careers with one franchise. Players are looking at free agency years in advance. Teams are more apt to trade centerpieces soon after they sign long-term contracts, like the Clippers did with Blake Griffin. Conley, 31, has spent almost 12 seasons in Memphis, which stands as the NBA's third-longest active streak, trailing only Udonis Haslem's tenure in Miami and Dirk Nowitzki's in Dallas.
That the streak has continued this season surprised many, not least of all Conley himself.
The night before the Feb. 7 trade deadline, Conley tried to remain calm during what many around the NBA assumed would be his final hours with the Grizzlies. I don't feel any stress, Conley told himself. I'm good. I'm just going to go lay down and go to sleep. Instead, he spent the night sleepless and continually checked his phone.
"Like somebody's going to call me to say, 'Oh, you've just been traded,' at 4 in the morning," he said. "I couldn't control that and I still couldn't turn my mind off."
He eventually found out he was staying. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies sent Gasol north of the border and packaged JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple in a deal to the Clippers for Avery Bradley. While his teammates were headed to chase playoff berths, Conley had a game to play that night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, playing for a team that likely won't be in the playoffs anytime soon.
Conley thought relief would wash over him once he found out the deadline had passed. He felt some comfort, but also something else.
"It's like an empty feeling," Conley said. "A weird feeling, like, So, now what? That kind of feeling. What am I supposed to think? What am I supposed to do going forward? You really do feel like for a split-second that everybody you know is gone. The whole team that you started the year with is gone. All the guys that you're used to playing with are gone. Not saying that you don't love the guys that we brought in. I love every one of them, like Avery [Bradley], and all those guys we brought in have been fantastic and I love the team we have, but there's just a weird feeling knowing that all my guys are gone. Where do I go from here?"
So he went back to work, as he's always done in Memphis. And though the Grizzlies lost to OKC that night, Conley has played on, steadily taking on more and more since the trade deadline. In March, he even earned Western Conference Player of the Week honors for the first time in his career.
The trade deadline may have passed, but that doesn't mean Conley has picked right back up where he was with the franchise. He is in Memphis for now, but he's had to become comfortable with the idea of being traded from a city he has spent more than a decade in, one he loves and one in which the community embraces him. Still, the possibility of being traded looms large over the approaching summer.
"In this day and age in the NBA, talent moves around so much that it's almost like there's no value to that identity that you have with the city," said Mike Conley Sr., Conley's father and agent. "So that part is tough, but that's part of the business now.
"So, if the Grizzlies are in a rebuild, Mike can't be around for that. It's unfair to put him in that situation. He's given too much to the program and to the city for him to have to be put through that. So, I hope whatever they end up doing, they do the right thing by him."
When his son arrived in Memphis as a rookie, Conley Sr. recalled the organization had no identity or playoff series wins.
"There was nobody in the stands, and they didn't believe in Grizzlies basketball. Then for the team [to take] the culture of the city, and they felt that those players were extensions of themselves, it was just remarkable to watch the community rally behind them," Conley Sr. said. "Zach Randolph and Tony Allen and Marc, they'll always be beloved in the city because the city felt that they were a part of them.
"Michael has done the same. He's the least imposing of the crew, but he'll sacrifice his body for the team and for the city. When he broke his face and was laid up in the hospital and then shows up on the court to help the team win, that was appreciated by the city, and I know he appreciated them."
That injury personified those Grizzlies teams. Conley sustained three fractures in his face after inadvertently colliding with CJ McCollum's elbow during Memphis' first-round playoff win over Portland in 2015. He returned in Game 2 of the second round against Golden State with a face mask and estimates he played at only about 75 percent of full strength.
"It just so happens it was too much stress on the body coming off of surgery and just not getting any rest and losing weight, not eating and all the things that's just kind of hard to recover fully from in that little, short period of time," Conley recalled. "Had we not had that injury, history might be different."
Instead, it wasn't enough to stop the then-emerging Warriors, who took the series in six games. Two first-round exits against San Antonio followed before Conley lost last season to Achilles and heel injuries.
"There were a few moments through his tenure with the Grizzlies that you look on and you feel that they didn't capitalize on the moment, all the way from making it to the Western Conference championship and then getting rid of [head coach Lionel Hollins] to having the team that comes back that has a chance and [then] trades ... a couple of other key players ... when they actually had a shot at it, right?" Conley Sr. said. "So...you look back and go, 'Man, those were those times,' and in this league, they don't come around very often. You got to take advantage of them while you can."
The faces in the locker room may be mostly different. Conley is the same.
He employs a mental clock for each of his teammates, keeping in mind who needs a touch when and where. Once, that meant knowing when Randolph needed the ball or how to get Gasol going. Now, he watches film of his new teammates, trying to find their rhythms, while keeping in mind that he is now a focal point of the team's offense.
"You have to learn on the fly," Conley said. "For me, I'm out there just trying to figure out who likes the ball where. Where somebody's more comfortable than others. And meanwhile, I try and continually stay aggressive for myself to keep myself engaged in the game so that I don't go four or five minutes without looking at the rim. My role has changed so much that I can't afford to not shoot the ball and not be aggressive because our chances of winning go down a lot if I'm not able to be aggressive."
Rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. added: "He knows the game so well that if you have a question, he can answer it. But even if you don't have a question, you watch what he's doing on the court and you definitely can learn something."
Chris Wallace, the team's general manager, said Conley has arguably been at his best this season and is long overdue for an All-Star nod.
"This is my 12th year here in Memphis," Wallace said. "I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him. The high-level play and leadership that he has been demonstrating throughout his career, we would never have survived [without it]."
Conley prefers to be in the present, and he is playing that way. The Grizzlies won't make the playoffs, but he's performing as though they're fighting for seeding.
"He's doing it for the person next to him, and for the people in the stands," Conley Sr. said. "I'm more proud of that than anything. That takes character. He's not out there going, 'I better not get injured, or I better not do this.' He's putting it on the line."
It's all he can do...for now.
"If we're going to rebuild or whatever it may be, all that stuff, I can't control," Conley said. "I can't control what direction management wants to go and what team is going to offer trades. ... For my mindset, it's just best to lock in and control what I can. Control my attitude every day when I come on the court, when I'm in the locker room. Not being bitter. Not being upset. Not having any kind of animosity toward the situation that I'm in. I've got to come in and be the leader that I'm normally accustomed to being, having fun every day, competing every day and just being a role model. Being a leader for the younger guys on our team and helping them become the best players that they can be. In the time that I'm here, whether I'm here for the rest of the season only or for the foreseeable future, I've got to be that guy."
But at the age of 31, it would be hard for him to return to the beginning.
"It's just really late in my career, and I want to have a chance to win," Conley said. "I want to be able to contend and compete or have an opportunity. Whether that's here or anywhere, I'd love to have that opportunity, but I love Memphis. I love being here. I love all of the things we've created and still are creating. But if they're willing to trade me to help force that rebuild, then I am all for competing for championships and other things like that elsewhere."
The well-worn mantra is that the NBA is a business. Conley says it's different in Memphis. But is it different enough to spend what could be the final years of his prime teaching a team how to eventually become the kind of team he once was a part of years ago?
"You're a part of the city," he said. "You're a part of the community. They embrace you. They love you and you love them back, and that's something that you don't get—that intimate relationship—everywhere you go. That's something that we've never taken for granted being part of the Grizzlies organization. So at the end of the day, it's going to be hard, just like how they had to trade Marc by the deadline. Marc's meant so much to this community and this city, but as far as the team is concerned, the business side of things, it was a move that they had to make. And there are going to be times where those moves happen, and it could be me next.
"That's something that diehard Grizzlies fans and myself, everybody included, will ... have to swallow if that point comes. So, we just try to enjoy the moments you have and the community like we have here in Memphis and know how much that you've meant and how much they've meant to you and [how much they've helped you develop] you into the man that you are today."
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.
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