Is this the end?
The end for MC Hamstring?
Or just the beginning?
Can’t touch this.
Was Mike Conley’s appearance in Game 5, when he hurt his hammy against the Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs, the last time he’ll suit up for the Jazz?
Can’t touch this.
Did he finish his active career in Utah with a limp?
Can’t touch this.
OK, we’ll stop, but …
It’s still Hamstring Time.
Conley certainly has had enough of the muscle injury in his right leg. It’s been hampering him for, in his view, far too long, causing him to miss the latter part of the regular season, and now the second round of the playoffs.
“It’s very, very frustrating,” he said recently, pausing to add one more very to the mix. “Very frustrating.”
Amid all the uncertainty, there is one sure thing: The man wants to play.
He has every reason to want to play, and thought he would be able to do exactly that before Game 3 of the Clippers series before suffering a setback that delayed his return longer.
He’s been sitting and receiving treatment as he waits for his chance to get back on the court, never knowing with any exactness when that breakthrough will come, all as the Jazz have slogged their way through the postseason. Conley said he gets up every morning wondering how the durn thing will feel in the light of a new day.
Many believe he might have been the difference-maker for the Jazz in their series against L.A. — for three reasons: 1) he’s a talented player, an All-Star this season; 2) he’s the team’s quarterback, an initiator of the offense who could settle the Jazz as they became jumpy against the Clippers’ pressure defense; and 3) he could take some of the burden off of Donovan Mitchell, who’s been playing with his own bum wheel, but attempting to power through, often finding himself bundled up by double teams, a bundling that Conley could have attacked and alleviated.
At this writing the Jazz were down in the series, three games to two, heading back to Los Angeles, wishing for their point guard to rejoin them.
That frustration Conley expressed is felt all around the franchise, considering this season had the potential at least to be something extraordinary, what with the Jazz finishing with the best record in the league, and thinking title contention.
That’s the short haul.
The long haul is … complicated.
You’ve got to wonder how the Jazz will handle Conley over that long haul, and by long haul, we mean into the offseason when the veteran’s current contract expires.
That deal paid him $34.5 million this past season. He was by far the highest-paid Jazz player in 2020-21. Nobody expects him to get anywhere near that amount this time around, if he wants to return and if the Jazz want him.
Makes sense that both ends of that equation would be yes.
Would be. Could be.
After the Jazz acquired him in a trade before the 2019-20 season, it took Conley longer than anyone expected to get acclimated to playing for the Jazz, forming and re-forming himself to his new role. As the months went by, he did. Not only did he do that, he formed a tight bond with his new teammates, guys who love the dude — the way he plays, the way he acts, the way he is. Not sure if everyone wants to be like Mike, but everybody definitely adores Mike.
Quin Snyder loves him. Dennis Lindsey and Justin Zanik love him.
How much do they love him? Let us count the ways — in dollars and cents.
Conley is now 33 years old. His talents obviously have not eroded, but his durability has. This past season, he bettered his career average in scoring (16.2 points versus 14.9), assists (6.0 versus 5.7), field goal percentage (44 percent versus 43 percent), and 3-point shooting (41 percent versus 37 percent). He played in 51 out of a possible 72 games in a shortened season.
Those last numbers are troubling, that 51 games, even adjusted for a season in which 10 fewer games were played, is one of the lowest number of availabilities by Conley in a 14-year career. There was 2017-18, when he played in only 12 games due to an Achilles injury and subsequent surgery on his heal. In last year’s COVID-afflicted season, Conley played in 47 games, having been sidelined for various ailments. Earlier in his career, the guard mostly played in 70 to 82 games per. But over the past six seasons, he made appearances in 70 games just once. In one other year, he played in 69 games. The other numbers over that span have been considerably lower, including the two seasons with the Jazz.
He may not do everything he once could do, but his brains make up for whatever’s been lost. He’s cerebral and skilled.
That availability has been limited in a way his abilities have not. The man’s only human, but in the wicked world of sports, if a gifted player can’t be depended on to play, what’s his real value?
As is their way, no Jazz managers are willing to give out any specific information as to what they’ll be willing to offer Conley as he approaches free agency. But it makes sense for them to hold onto the point guard for the right price. Exactly what that price is, from the Jazz’s perspective and from Conley’s, nobody on the outside knows at present.
On account of the importance of the position, and its overall effect on the team, it’s a critical decision.
That importance has been evident on the occasions this season and postseason when Conley couldn’t go. The Jazz were nowhere near as good, the attack did not function at the same level.
Conley has a way of not just setting his teammates up, but also settling them down when adversity strikes on the court. Accomplishing that in a compromised way from a seat on the bench is … difficult.
The Jazz are fully aware, as is Conley.
With the newly inflated long-term contracts of Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, the Jazz have money decisions to make on other accounts, conversely, though, Gobert needs someone to feed him the ball and Mitchell needs help carrying the load. Other than Mitchell, only Conley and Jordan Clarkson have shown the ability as playmakers to break down certain problematic defenses that the blender doesn’t always solve.
What do the Jazz do? What does Conley do?
Maybe this isn’t the best time to ask, all things considered. But it will have to be asked — and answered — soon enough.
An addendum: MC Hammer will never again be quoted in this space. That’s a promise.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.