“Can anyone guard Mike Conley? So far, no.”
That’s a line from ESPN’s Zach Lowe’s analysis of the last time Mike Conley was in a playoff series, written after Game 4 of the Western Conference playoff’s first round matchup between the 2-seeded San Antonio Spurs and the 7-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in 2017. Conley and the grit and grind Grizz had had just surprised the favored Spurs by just winning two games at home to even the series, led by Conley’s exploits.
How Conley did it is a window into the kind of impact he figures to bring to the Jazz, after the team acquired him in a blockbuster trade earlier this week. In a playoff scenario, against the league’s best defense that year, Conley just beguiled the San Antonio opposition for point after point. It’s dangerous to evaluate a player by his best moments, but we’ll use this video to introduce what Conley’s capable of, then look at the numbers to figure out how often he can do it.
Video 1: Conley attacks pick and roll, finds open jumper
The play: Conley fakes going left, then uses the right screen, set by Zach Randolph. It’s well defended at first, but then Conley takes advantage of the split-second Tony Parker is detached from him for the open 12-footer.
How it will impact the Jazz: Conley has been one of the league’s best pick and roll players for a solid decade now, and it’s because of this kind of feel. This table from The Ringer tells the story of his PnR prowess:
He’s just excellent at finding whatever scoring opportunity is open by poking and prodding the defense, waiting until it shows a weakness, and then attacking. His very solid mid-range game is on display here, too: Conley shot 48.3% from 5-9 feet, 42.8% from 10-14 feet, and 43.8% from 15-19 feet.
Video 2: Conley attacks mismatch, gets to floater
The play: Conley catches the ball, fakes right to keep Patty Mills off balance, then uses a screen by Marc Gasol. Since Mills is out of the play, Pau Gasol has to step up to help. Conley steps back to the 3, but quickly drives by with a step left, then gets to the middle for a right-hand floater.
How it will impact the Jazz: Conley’s ability to attack mismatches and get a preferred shot is just not something that the Jazz have had in a playoff series over the last two years. Gasol’s particularly vulnerable against this, yes, but he also showed an ability to do it this year against Clint Capela, one of the better switch defenders and a particular Jazz nemesis.
But I also selected this clip to show you his floater. Conley’s a left-handed jump shooter, but also has a right-handed floater, which seems to keep defenses off-balance. He’s really good at it, too: the man was 49.2% on all different types of floaters last season, of which he attempted nearly four per game. As defenses back off in the paint to prevent Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors from getting dunks, Conley should have this shot open frequently.
Video 3: Conley throws lob to JaMychal Green in transition
The play: A 3-on-2 in transition, Conley throws the lob with his right hand to JaMychal Green, who finishes it.
How it will impact the Jazz: Well, lobs to Gobert and Favors, obviously. Maybe Donovan Mitchell, too.
Interestingly, Conley was not at all a lob thrower last year. By NBA.com numbers, he threw just one to Jaren Jackson Jr. last year, an explosive rolling big man who should catch lots of those. His more ground-bound center options, Marc Gasol and Jonas Valanciunas, caught zero from Conley. He will need to adapt quickly on this Jazz team, and there could well be a period of adjustment as he learns how to throw them reliably.
But this clip provides hope: he throws that lob with his right hand, in a similar manner as to how he finishes the floater above. If he can hide his intention between shooting and passing effectively, it’s going to be very dangerous.
Video 4: Conley hits an open three
The play: The Spurs blow a switch, Conley hits an open three.
How it will impact the Jazz: Easy enough, right? But the Jazz were horrendous at this during the playoffs this year. They had 22 wide-open threes per game, according to NBA tracking data, and made just 5, or 23%.
Conley hit 43% of his wide-open threes last year. If you want to use Synergy stats instead, he had an eFG of 76% on unguarded catch-and-shoot shots. That’s excellent, and something the Jazz desperately need.
Video 5: Conley shakes and bakes for an easy layup
The play: This is a mixtape. Conley sets up the pick and roll with a quick spin right, then uses the screen, then once Mills thinks he’s recovered, hits him with a crossover and drives all the way to the rim for two.
How it will impact the Jazz: Where Mitchell has this craft as he drives, he doesn’t regularly use it to set up pick and roll plays. Conley, the veteran, has that in spades, and may be able to teach Mitchell some of those moves.
For what it’s worth, Conley is only a decent rim finisher, making just 55% of his shots at the rim last year. He’s not very vertically athletic, and to be honest, misses some easy ones too, kind of like Rubio. He’s far more willing to attack the rim than Rubio is, but mid-range and the three-ball are more reliable weapons for Conley in the last three seasons.
Video 6: Conley four point play
The play: Conley attacks in transition, gets a screen, and notices the dangling arm of Danny Green to get the foul. He makes the shot, but that’s just some extra craziness.
How it will impact the Jazz: Conley is excellent at getting to the free-throw line. Last year, Conley ranked 18th in free-throw attempts per game, but third among NBA point guards, behind only Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. He also knocks them down there, making 84.5% last year.
Video 7: Conley pull-up three
The play: At the end of the shot clock, Conley shakes an excellent perimeter defender in Danny Green and makes the open three.
How it will impact the Jazz: Conley can hit the pull-up three. Taking about 3.3 per game, Conley makes 1.1 of them, for about a 33.8% rate of success. Those numbers are very similar to Mitchell’s, but much better than Rubio, who shot just 27% on just one pull-up three per game. If teams go under, Conley can make them pay.
Because of his quick release, Conley also found some success shooting at the point of switches last year, including against the Rockets.
Video 8: Conley scoop layup
The play: Conley attacks a Green closeout, then finishes around the help defense.
How it will impact the Jazz: Essentially, if teams leave Conley open, he’ll reliably make them pay, either with the 3-ball or by attacking the rim inside. He’s a crafty finisher, if not a high-percentage one.
Video 9: Conley floater
The play: Conley looks for all the world like he’s going to scoop it to the wing for a transition three, drawing two players to that man. He then takes advantage with a signature floater.
How it will impact the Jazz: Remember how the Jazz have traditionally been one of the trickiest teams in the league, using misdirection to create open shots out of nothing? Rubio was excellent at that, but Conley is pretty good at it too — and might be more deadly when the trickery forces a mistake by the point guard defender.
Video 10: Conley pocket-pass deflection to no-look pass
The play: Conley gets his hands on a Spurs pocket pass, which ends up forcing the miss. In transition, he no looks Troy Daniels all the way down the court, then feeds him for a quick three.
How it will impact the Jazz: This isn’t the cleanest example of this, but it is the one from this game. After watching a lot of film, Conley has two favorite kinds of steals. One of them is this kind, anticipating a pocket pass to a big man after a screen, which he intercepts regularly.
The other is in the post, when faced with a mismatch or help situation, Conley’s quick hands frequently let him get to the ball. He’s not one of the best thieves in the game, but he is an above-average one at the point guard position, per Cleaning the Glass.
Again, he’s sneaky with his passes.
Video 11: Conley’s strong, no-foul defense, then hesitation layup
The play: An end-to-end masterclass. Conley stays strong on the perimeter and then in the post, keeping one hand completely vertical to force the miss. Getting the rebound and pushing in transition, he uses his body to stay in front of LaMarcus Aldridge, then explodes to the rim for the layup he created.
How it will impact the Jazz: Rubio also had this talent, staying strong inside without fouling, but Conley has it too. But Conley’s ability to shut down Aldridge, again fool the Spurs’ defense, and explode inside for an easy transition layup shows off his smarts.
Video 12: Conley’s game-saving floater
The play: After Kawhi Leonard hits a go-ahead three, Conley hits a tough shot in a game-saving situation in a playoff game.
How it will help the Jazz: Conley found himself in a lot of close games last season, and took a lot of shots. Among NBA players, Conley took the 9th most shots in the last five minutes of a close game, and made 43.9% of them, a very good rate for those situations. (Mitchell made 35.7%, to compare)
Now, I’m not a huge believer in the year-to-year reliability of clutch numbers: the sample sizes are too small. But Conley has been given the Captain Clutch nickname by Memphians, and a #ClutchConley hashtag was reliably used. He figures to help there, in the very least.
The Grizzlies went on to win this game, behind Conley’s 35 points, eight assists, and nine rebounds, to tie the series at 2-2. The Spurs, behind Leonard’s star power and overall greater talent level, won the next two games, but Conley was the second-best player in the series.
Watching video of this year, Conley hasn’t lost much since 2017. He’s perhaps less dangerous inside, but seems to have countered it by taking and making more 3-point shots.
With the Jazz, he fills nearly every need. He has the ability to run pick-and-roll while avoiding turnovers — Conley just finished his 9th season with a below-average turnover rate, and his 4th with a downright stellar one in the 89th percentile among point guards. He can shoot and make open shots, either catch-and-shoot or ones he creates for himself off the dribble. He’s a smart defender, especially inside, and gets a good number of steals. And when you need a basket, he can go get one.
Conley is paid at near-max levels, but if he was on the open market today, there’s no question he’d get a max deal: he’s just a stellar player, one that figures to vastly improve the Jazz over the next couple of years.