There are some nights when Mike Conley goes home and feels like a fish out of water.
For 12 seasons in Memphis, he was asked to play basketball in a certain way. The most stark difference might come at the defensive end, where the schemes for the Jazz and the Grizzlies could not be more different. In Memphis, protecting the paint is a five-man job. In Utah, it’s a one-man job for Rudy Gobert, and the other four players are out on the perimeter with a primary goal of preventing the 3-point shot.
“I’m so used to not letting anybody in the paint. If they drive, I help with it at the “nail” — at the free throw line — and I get back out to my man,” Conley explained. “Here, we have Rudy. We’re taught to drift away and let Rudy [Gobert] handle all that. I get caught diving in to help when I shouldn’t, so I mess up the next guy because they’re having to help on my guy.”
His postgame text messages from home with assistant coach Lamar Skeeter and others are proof of the dialogue. “I’ll be like, are you sure I’m not supposed to help here? I’ll pause [the film], and there’s literally nobody else to help. And they’re like ‘No, you’re not supposed to help.’”
It’s that kind of dissonance that has contributed most to Conley’s rough first season in Utah. There’s no doubt his year has been disappointing: he hasn’t played this little since his rookie season in Memphis, and he’s still shooting less than 40% from the field. The hamstring and knee injuries which have cost Conley 23 games haven’t helped. The Jazz have been better on a per-possession basis with him off the floor, though perhaps by less than many will have you believe — about 2.9 points per 100 possessions.
JAZZ AT CAVALIERS
When • Monday, 5 p.m. MST
TV • ATTSN
It’s not that Conley’s been awful in his play, but he hasn’t brought the brilliance that was expected. In the summer, experts wrote about the Jazz as legitimate contenders. They have not been. The $32.5 million contract for this season — Conley has a $34M player option for next season — also raises the level of expectations, as does the bounty the Jazz traded for him: two first-round picks, Grayson Allen, Jae Crowder, and Kyle Korver.
None of this is Conley’s fault. But Jazz fans feel duped anyway, and many have taken it out on him. There are tweets calling him a fraud. There are comments in articles describing him as washed up. There are radio-show call-ins asking for Emmanuel Mudiay, of all people, to play every single minute Conley receives. And Conley hears it all.
“I know what everybody said, whether I read it directly or not,” Conley said. “I’ve got a lot of people who follow people and tell me everything, so it’s kind of hard to escape it.”
Last Wednesday’s “will he or won’t he start” fiasco didn’t exactly help. Before that night’s game against the Boston Celtics, Conley was told by head coach Quin Snyder that he’d be moved to the bench. But sometime between morning shootaround and the game itself, the decision was reversed: Conley would stay in the starting lineup, while Joe Ingles would move to the bench.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened the way it did, with the perception that kind of puts on me,” Conley said. “But ... at the end of the day, I’m grown. I got kids to worry about, I’m worried about other things.”
CONLEY VS. CONLEY
Mike Conley’s 2018-19 stats in Memphis, and his 2019-20 stats in Utah so far this season:
Memphis, 2018-19 • 70 G, 21.1 PPG, 6.4 APG, 3.4 RPG — 43.8 FG% / 36.4 3P% / 84.5 FT%
Utah, 2019-20 • 36 G, 13.5 PPG, 4.2 APG, 3.3 RPG — 39.5 FG% / 36.1 3P% / 79.2 FT%
Despite that momentary drama, Conley says that it might be the minutes with the second unit in which he feels more comfortable right now. It’s once again the distance from his role in Memphis that gives Conley the most trouble: as a Grizzly, he was used to the ball in his hands, playing pick-and-roll with longtime teammate Marc Gasol with “refined subtlety,” as ESPN’s Zach Lowe once called it. With the starting lineup, he splits ball-handling duties with Donovan Mitchell; without Mitchell, Conley can get back to what he knows best.
“Just understanding when I’ll have the ball and not have the ball has been kind of a learning curve,” Conley said. “But when I get subbed in and out with different lineups, I kind of get that switch turned on, to start having a ball in my hands and getting pick and rolls and making plays to find guys.”
Regardless of what’s working and not working now, Snyder and Conley’s primary goal is to get the team at peak condition for the playoffs. Even though those starting minutes aren’t working right now — Utah’s 1-4 homestand is definite proof of that — Snyder believes that the team’s highest potential would come if and when Conley is able to feel comfortable next to Mitchell and Gobert, a very different pick and roll big than Gasol.
Both coach and player know that it’s ugly right now, but they’re hoping the lumps they’re taking now will be worth a cohesive payoff in the end. Yes, the 36 games Conley has played so far have been disappointing, but both he and the Jazz legitimately believe that the cost now could be an investment in the future.
“Excited” is still a word Conley uses frequently when describing his time with the Jazz. Even in the hours he thought he was moved to the bench, he told reporters that “I’m just excited about continually developing and getting better and better for the team." He wants badly to succeed, to prove the skeptics wrong and his believers right.
But for now, all he can do is continue to acclimate in his new environment in the 23 games remaining. “I think the more we’ll just continue to build and continue to play and the more I play with the guys, it’ll just become more comfortable,” Conley said.
Despite how it sometimes feels, Conley’s not a fish out of water. He’s just in a different pond.