A Plan Comes Together: The Pillars of Mike Conley's Breakthrough Season



When Mike Conley scored nine points in the final four-and-a-half minutes to complete a comeback against the San Antonio Spurs at FedExForum on Monday night, it felt like the final breakthrough of what has been — so far — a career-best campaign. Taking over a game offensively in the final minutes was something relatively new, but playing well late wasn't. And how Conley did it — with three driving lay-ups and a three pointer, playing some off the ball alongside sixth-man Jerryd Bayless — was a microcosm of larger trends helping drive Conley's emergence.

Organizations and coaches love it when a plan comes together. For Conley, the preseason plan was to play less while doing more — reduce his playing time some while having him become more dynamic and productive and having him hold up better late in games.

The playing time hasn't actually changed much — Conley's minutes per game are down very slightly, from 35.1 to 34.6 — but the better and more sustained play the team hoped for from Conley has indeed materialized.

I wrote in that season preview piece that Conley, more than his higher-paid and more-celebrated teammates Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol, would be the key for this season's Grizzlies. The reasoning was that the Grizzlies had, arguably, the least dynamic backcourt rotation among NBA contenders as the game is evolving to be more guard-oriented. Conley had to play at a high level to keep up, no matter how strong the Grizzlies were in the paint.

As the season's progressed, I've half-jokingly been tracking what I call “the Conley Correlation,” and it's held up:

Conley, in wins: 16/7 on 47% shooting, 38% from three, +12
Conley, in losses: 12/5 on 37% shooting, 33% from three -6
(All stats, unless otherwise indicated, from NBA.com or ESPN.com.)

No other player's individual production has been as sure an indicator of team success. And as the Grizzlies inch toward the best regular season in franchise history, one of the biggest reasons they've gotten there is because Conley is also having his best regular season.

The Value of Shot Selection

The biggest difference for Conley this season has been as a scorer, where he's boosted his scoring average by nearly two points despite minimal difference in minutes, field-goal attempts, and shooting percentages. Conley's field-goal attempts per game are up very slightly, from 11.0 to 11.7. His overall shooting percentage is also up only slightly (43% to 44%), while his three-point (38% to 36%) and free-throw (86% to 85%) percentages are down slightly.

How has all of this added up to a more potent offensive package? Conley's offensive improvement this season is a case study in the value of shot selection. This season, Conley has been far less reliant on mid-range shooting while actually making them at a higher rate. After taking 29% of his field-goal attempts from mid-range last season, Conley's sliced that number down to 17% this season. Where has that extra 12% gone? Three percent have come in the paint, where Conley's pushed his percentage of attempts up over 50% this season, but most of them have come from stepping back behind the three-point arc, where Conley took 23% of his attempts last season and has taken 32% of his attempts this season, making much smarter use of his solid outside stroke.

Conley's also significantly boosted his free-throw rate, which is especially helpful considering he's one of the league's very best foul shooters. And Conley's more judicious use of the typically lower-percentage mid-range jumper has yielded a better success rate (he hit 38% of mid-range attempts last season, up to 47% this season). Why is Conley shooting so much better from mid-range this season? I think it's telling that only 17% of his mid-range baskets were assisted last season while 36% have been assisted this season. Rather than forcing contested mid-range shots off the dribble, more of Conley's attempts from that area this season have been open catch-and-shoot shots. Observationally, I think this has a lot to do with Marc Gasol's high-post game (he's become very adept at bumping defenders while simultaneously delivering handoffs and other close-quarters feeds) and, more recently, Jerryd Bayless' ability to draw defensive attention on dribble probes and kick out to Conley.

As a result of this shift in shot selection, Conley's true shooting percentage (which accounts for threes and free-throws) has improved from 52.3% (24th among starting point guards last season) to a more respectable 54.7% (14th this season). And this more dynamic overall play — Conley's usage rate is also up, from 18.9 to 21.1 — has elevated Conley toward the “borderline All-Star” tier of NBA point guards, with a Player Efficiency Rating (up from 16.8 to 18.2) that's crept into the Top Ten among starting point guards.

The Value of Strength

And even that may under-sell Conley a little, because PER is primarily an offense/rebounding stat, and Conley continues to evolve into one the better defenders at his position. Conley again trails only Chris Paul among steals leaders, with 2.3 a game this season, and other measures — along with the eye test — grade out well defensively. Per 82Games.com, the Grizzlies rank first in opponent field-goal percentage against point guards and in the Top Ten in most other categories, though having Tony Allen around to match-up with bigger and more prolific points is obviously a factor. Observationally, Conley's added muscle seems to have made him less susceptible to post-ups this season. Against the Spurs on Monday night, Conley got switched onto bigger players such as Stephen Jackson and even Boris Diaw defensively and was able to body them up well enough to keep the team defense from collapsing. Overall, the Grizzlies elite team defense has been more than two points per 100 possessions better with Conley on the floor.

That added muscle is certainly a factor in Conley's small increase in paint attempts and bigger increase in free-throw rate — you could see it in the way he was able to take contact from the bigger Danny Green and still get his shot off on the game-winner against San Antonio. But it also seems to have increased Conley's stamina this season.

Last year, Conley's offensive performance plummeted in the fourth quarters, his shooting percentage falling from the mid-40s to 29% in the final period. This season, by contrast, his performance has held up, his 44% fourth-quarter shooting matching his overall number, and this with an increase in attempts per minute and usage rate in the final period.

Trending Up

All of these factors that have fed Conley's mini-breakout have been on the rise since late-January's Rudy Gay trade, which freed Conley up for more touches, more shots, and more fourth-quarter responsibilities.

Conley's brilliant November was partially the result of improved shot selection, but was also propped up in part by unsustainably good shooting — 53% from the floor and 47% from the three-point line. By contrast, Conley's huge March — 18 points and 7 assists per game — was built on a much more normal shooting performance (45/35). Along the way, Conley's usage rate in March continued to trend up (23.5) while his assist-turnover rate was his best of the season. Adding to the sense of Conley's increased strength and stamina bearing fruit, March was also Conley's best month in terms of rebound rate and points in the paint.

The Conley-Bayless Backcourt

In addition to getting stronger and improving his shot selection, another element that's helped drive Conley's season is another I wrote about in the season preview piece — the pairing with Jerryd Bayless.

The Grizzlies spent a lot of time experimenting with a Conley-Bayless backcourt in training camp and preseason, with both Conley and Lionel Hollins suggesting the look could make the Grizzlies more dynamic in their backcourt, save wear-and-tear on Conley, and free him up to be more of an off-ball scoring threat.

But then the season started and Hollins rarely used it. Through the first two months of the season, Bayless and Conley spent a total of 41 minutes on the floor together in 14 games. The team was terrible defensively in those lineups without much of an offensive boost to balance it out. It was a small sample size, but Hollins seemed to have seen enough, explaining before one early home game that he didn't like the look defensively.

Reduced to playing primarily as a back-up point guard, Bayless grew tentative and fell into a slump. But Hollins started using the combination more in January (122 minutes), with better results: The defensive performance improved from the atrocious to merely bad and the offense picked up enough that using Conley and Bayless together had essentially a neutral impact.

It was after the Gay trade that the Bayless-Conley combo really took off, both in terms of usage and effectiveness. Since then, Conley and Bayless have played 391 minutes together and the team is +16.3 per 48 minutes, the best plus/minus of any two-man combination since the Gay trade.

In that time period, the Grizzlies have been more than 10 points better per 100 possessions offensively with Bayless and Conley on the floor together and have been much more dynamic, with more three-pointers, more free throws, and fewer turnovers with those lineups. More surprisingly, the Grizzlies haven't lost anything defensively with that combination.

Some of this success has to be credited to Hollins' judicious deployment — which includes often playing offense/defense with Bayless and Tony Allen down the stretch of close games. And getting more time on the floor together has certainly helped Bayless and Conley hone their chemistry. But subtracting Gay's ball-dominating tendencies also seems to have helped, with the combination of Bayless and Tayshaun Prince offering much better ball-handling and shooting along with more willing passing alongside Conley.

This mix has made the Grizzlies better, with more ball movement, more solid shooting, and more playmaking options surrounding the team's post game. But it's also made Conley better, fulfilling the early season promise of allowing Conley to play off the ball more, stay fresher, and better exploit his shooting ability.

Suddenly, that “least dynamic guard rotation” that marked the Grizzlies as a contention longshot is looking much stronger. And Conley has broken through to a new level among the league's lead guards.

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