Did you live the Mike Conley experience on Wednesday? The Utah Jazz point guard began the day as the team’s starting point guard, was then reportedly moved to the bench, and a couple hours afterwards the Jazz had a change of mind, leaving him in the starting five while subbing out Joe Ingles for Royce O’Neale. That was something.
At the end of the day, while Conley always made sense for head coach Quin Snyder’s rotation, his arrival was never going to take the Jazz to the next level.
The Jazz acquired the point guard in an offseason trade with the Memphis Grizzlies where they gave up Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen, a 2019 first-round pick, and a future first-round pick.
The general perception was that Conley’s arrival in Salt Lake City would give the Jazz a boost. Joining the likes of Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Joe Ingles, it seemed Conley would seamlessly fit into Utah’s rotation — which he has.
The veteran point guard is a well-rounded player. He’s a steady ball handler, a reliable outside shooter, is willing to attack the rack, is a savvy passer, and a respectable defender. In his final season with the Grizzlies, Mike Conley averaged a career-high 21.1 points per game.
Conley has run Snyder’s offense well. He’s finding his teammates in the right spots and is playing well defensively. At the same time, his stat line is underwhelming; Conley is averaging just 13.4 points, a career-low 4.1 assists and 0.7 steals, and 3.3 rebounds per game while shooting below his career averages from the field and beyond the arc.
Now, his production hasn’t hindered Utah’s standing in the Western Conference, as they’re 36-22, which is good for the sixth seed. Plus, given how deep the West is all you have to do is get in the playoffs and duke it out from there.
The problem? Conley doesn’t change what the Jazz have been over the last three years: a halfcourt team that likes to slow the game down.
Conley is a halfcourt point guard. He’s not slow per se, but Conley isn’t a high flyer or someone you’re ideally leaning on to put forth 20 points a game. He’s going to slow the game down, run designed plays, and run down the shot clock; he’s not going to wreak havoc in transition.
However, the aforementioned skill sets perfectly fit Utah’s tendencies. Albeit Mitchell is an elite, well-versed player, his big plays tend to come in halfcourt sets; the ball often finds Gobert inside; Bojan Bogdanovic is a versatile scorer; Ingles and O’Neale stretch the floor; Jordan Clarkson is an offensive spark plug off the bench.
As a result of these offensive philosophies, Utah is in the bottom half of the NBA in scoring, as they went into Thursday 17th in the NBA in points per game (111.0).
What Snyder’s unit has going for them is they’re extremely efficient, as they went into Thursday first in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage (38.2 percent) and fifth in field goal percentage (47.3 percent). They’re also among the more potent and well-respected defensive teams in the league.
The two seasons prior to the 2019-20 campaign Ricky Rubio was Utah’s starting point guard. He was adept at finding slashers and the open man, in general, and playing tight on-ball defense. Sound familiar? Mike Conley is a mere upgrade from Rubio when taking into account the way the two have been utilized in Snyder’s system.
There’s nothing wrong with being different; distinction can work in a team’s favor. With that said, you need to have some tricks up your sleeve in the playoffs because halfcourt teams like the Jazz can become predictable. Having a preeminent or dynamic scoring guard alongside Mitchell would put the Jazz in the NBA title conversation.
For example, D’Angelo Russell or Kemba Walker, who were free agents last summer and are two of the best scoring point guards in the NBA, would’ve propelled Utah’s offense and made them a near-flawless team.
The big story going into last offseason was the Golden State Warriors. With Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson suffering injuries that would sideline them for the 2019-20 season — and Durant eventually leaving the Warriors for the Brooklyn Nets in free agency — contenders out West made big moves in hopes of pouncing on the Warriors being undermanned.
The Los Angeles Clippers added Kawhi Leonard and Paul George; the Los Angeles Lakers traded for Anthony Davis; the Houston Rockets traded for Russell Westbrook; the Jazz, of course, traded for Conley while inking Bogdanovic to a four-year, $73 million deal.
Acquiring Conley was Utah enhancing its product with a lead guard who fits their job description. It improved their team, but it hasn’t, nor was it going to lift them to new heights. The trade also didn’t clearly put them ahead of their conference foes.
The Utah Jazz are a great team with continuity that grinds out wins and is never out of games, but they’re no different than years past; Mike Conley is just a different face running the offense.