Referring to LeBron after Cleveland’s Game 2 win over Chicago, Charles Barkley said, “God said, ‘I’m going to make a perfect basketball player and I’m going to give him everything except a full head of hair.'”
Well, no one can be great at everything. However, those that are really, really good at everything tend to get overlooked, and it’s precisely why Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley has been bequeathed the complicated title of “most underrated player in the game.”
Think about individual elements of Conley’s game, and he outshines each of his peers at something:
On a team level, thanks to a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2013, Conley has been deeper into the playoffs than many of his brethren, Chris Paul included. That’s not a fair barometer, but one would think the same crowd that knocks Paul or others for their lack of postseason success would view Conley as their ideal, a throwback representing for the old-school set-the-table type of point guard.
Conley’s style brings up fascinating questions about the grand scheme of basketball, especially in light of his marvelous Game 2 performance, in which he scored early, shut the door late and defended well in-between. He rarely takes over a game (he has scored 30+ points in his career just five times, two of which went to overtime), but is capable of presiding over a game like few of his contemporaries can. Can being the one who controls the flow be as valuable as the ones who cannot be controlled? Can the mental impact of the clamps put on scorers like Curry and Klay Thompson in the series by Conley and Tony Allen be as psychologically affecting as the pace created by speed demons like Rose, Wall and Westbrook?
Other than their trademark toughness and resilience, the most impressive characteristic of these Grizzlies is that they will not hand you the game. They’re the sports embodiment of the “one does not simply” meme, and of their players, Conley is perhaps the best exemplification of that. Despite the lack of perimeter weapons alongside the Conley/Allen/Randolph/Gasol nucleus, Conley has never had an eight-turnover performance. Ever. Nine players had multiple such games just this season. And while he may not be a threat to score 50 like Curry or Irving, he’s extremely efficient. In his career, he has scored 20 points on 113 occasions, yet he has only attempted 20 shots a dozen times. Only one of those 113 times did he tally more shots than points. (20 points on 21 shots in Game 3 of their 2013 Western Conference Finals sweep at the hands of San Antonio.)
To beat these mighty Warriors, the Grizzlies need that type of scoring from him. Without him in Game 1 against Golden State, they were handily outclassed. No wonder, considering Nick Calathes is a non-threatening shooter and hasn’t scored on a single drive to the basket in the postseason, per NBA.com, while their big additions of the offseason (Vince Carter) and the trade deadline (Jeff Green) have provided little support. Just a shade below Blake Griffin and James Harden, Conley is at the top of the playoff PER standings. While that’s obviously aided by going against Lillard and the shadow of a once-proud Blazers squad, he showed in Game 2 against the Warriors that his range and driving ability are dangerous against all foes and a game-changer for the Grizzlies’ offense.
Greatness is a term reserved for very few, and Conley isn’t in Curry or Paul’s league. He has yet to sniff an All-NBA selection and is still waiting to make an All-Star team, the sole reason being that the Western Conference has an armada of star point guards. On his own, Conley must settle for being very, very good, but his presence has the capability to make his team great, and isn’t that, in its own way, a form of greatness?