Anybody around here not think originally that adding Mike Conley to the Jazz would make them considerably better?
That’s a different question than this one: Anybody around here not think that Mike Conley would be worth the $30-plus million the Jazz are paying him?
On that day in June when the Jazz traded for Conley, I answered yes, he would, to both questions.
A lot has happened since then. They made those other moves, too, signing Bojan Bogdanovic, Jeff Green (and then dumping him), Ed Davis and Emmanuel Mudiay. They’ve won, they’ve lost, they’ve won again, and now, they’ve lurched.
Conley was the absolute centerpiece of the offseason, the masterstroke, the maestro, the seasoned veteran who was going to give the Jazz what they hadn’t had since the days of John Stockton and Deron Williams in his prime — a premier point guard who could run an offense, score points, play defense, lead a team, make a difference.
It was reasonable, based on his track record, to have high expectations for him. The man once scored 35 points in a playoff game.
He was going to push the Jazz, alongside Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, toward a lofty goal that had been building through previous seasons of qualifying for the playoffs and getting quickly eliminated. It made perfect sense. He wasn’t everything, but he was going to be enough to advance the Jazz toward real contention in the West.
Now. Um. Upon further review, can we get back to you on all that?
Deep into the regular season, those aren’t the only questions being asked. There are a whole lot of them remaining.
Such as, should Conley even be starting for this team?
That was one being tossed around by team leadership as late/as recently as Wednesday, when it became known that the Jazz would replace Conley with Royce O’Neale in the first-unit lineup. And next thing, within an hour or so, that decision was changed. Conley would stay a starter and Joe Ingles would hit the bench in favor of O’Neale.
Confusion — and who knows, maybe contention — like that is a fitting illustration of what Conley has brought to the Jazz, more than any of the aforementioned more expected things. All the Jazz’s struggles cannot and should not be dumped solely on him, but nobody’s quite sure what to make of or do with him. Nobody’s sure what his role is, what positive effect he is bringing, what positive effect he will bring, if the Jazz don’t slide completely out of position for the postseason.
Instead, he’s informed he has been removed from the starting lineup just before his pregame nap on the day of a home game against the Boston Celtics, and then, when he awakes, he is told that, no, he will be starting.
What exactly transpired while Conley was catching those zzzzz’s is anybody’s guess. Nobody on the outside knows with any exactness what took place. Were there phone calls made? Was there a complaint lodged, a threat issued? Was there interference run? Were there politics played? Was there disagreement among decision-makers as much as indecision? Or was there just a change of mind by coach Quin Snyder?
There are two schools of thought on Conley at this point.
The first is, you have to play him. No matter how jangled and disjointed his performance has been, he must be on the floor to work through all the adjustments he’s having to make out of his rutted habits from his years with the Grizzlies. Those adjustments have taken far longer than anyone thought. Still, for the Jazz to reach their full potential this season, Conley must transform from whatever it is that he’s been so far into the real Mike Conley. The only way he can do that is by bumping and skidding through time on the floor.
An alternative consideration: You have to keep his value at a reasonably high level so the team after the season can offload him and his heavy, expiring contract for something of value in return.
The second is, you can’t play him as much because you have to concentrate on winning — not in the playoffs, rather tonight. Now. You have to come up with some continuity on offense, but especially on defense, where too much of the Jazz’s play of late has been utterly substandard. And Conley has been a noticeable part of that problem. He looks hesitant, a mix of uncertain and uncomfortable, out of sorts on attack, and opposing ball-handlers have blown by him, as he’s been unable to stay between whoever he’s guarding and the basket.
Conley is a nice man, a great teammate, a good citizen, and once was a terrific player. He was fairly solid in Friday night’s game against the Wizards, when he scored 16 points on 5-of-11 shooting, with six assists.
In the days after he was traded to Utah, Conley explained why he’s such a good fit for the Jazz:
“I just want to win. I’ll do and sacrifice and play whatever role I have to do to do that. Everything that goes into that is who I am. Being unselfish on both ends of the [floor], understanding the pace of play, understanding how to get to spots, getting the ball to people where they can be most effective, being a student of the game, making high IQ plays, just being alert at all times is who I am.”
Another question: Is it still who he can be?
As for the effect he could have on the Jazz, especially in the postseason and in the positioning for it, he said:
“A lot of the guys have had some experience in the playoffs in big moments, I’ve had a lot of experience in those moments. … I’m very hard on myself. I demand a lot of myself and also out of my teammates. They’ll know the kind of vibe I bring to a team — that’s a winning mentality. Hopefully that rubs off on every single person on the team and affects us in a way that allows us to be contending or competing at the highest level come playoff time.”
That’s what Conley said then. We’re still waiting, and waiting, and waiting to see what he does next, what he does now. How he himself answers the significant questions that remain.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.