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The Perpetually Overshadowed Life of Mike Conley

The Memphis point guard has played second fiddle his entire career, from AAU up through the pros. Heading into the Grizzlies’ Game 6 matchup against the Spurs, it’s time to recognize him for what he is: one of the best players in the NBA.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The Grizzlies beat the Spurs 110–108 in overtime last Saturday to even their first-round series at two games apiece. Knee-jerk reactions claimed it was the game of the NBA season, and even after having a few days to let my emotions settle, I still don’t think I’d argue otherwise. Kawhi Leonard was otherworldly for the Spurs, finishing with 43 points (including his team’s final 16 points of regulation), eight rebounds, and six steals in what was probably the performance of his career. Meanwhile, Mike Conley set a Grizzlies postseason franchise record with 35 points while also putting up nine boards and eight assists. The game was forced into overtime when Leonard hit a fadeaway jumper with 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter and Conley answered with an off-hand floater eight seconds later. In the end, Marc Gasol played the hero, as his runner with less than a second remaining gave the Grizzlies the win.

This was Gasol’s postgame interview on ABC’s broadcast.

There are a lot of things to notice in that 48-second clip, like the bear hug Conley gave Gasol before they walked off the court, another submission in their case as the NBA’s best bromance. But here’s what stood out to me: That interview was a perfect microcosm of Conley’s entire existence. So much so, in fact, that it felt like a joke that was a little too on the nose.

The man had just finished the game of his life in which he single-handedly carried a bunch of D-League nobodies, the corpses of Vince Carter and Zach Randolph, and Gasol’s eight turnovers to a massive win to tie the series with the Spurs — a team that swept the Grizzlies the past two times they met in the playoffs and that boasts at least four future Hall of Famers, arguably the greatest coach of all time, and one of the league’s four MVP candidates playing at a godlike level. Under any other circumstances, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer who just delivered a historic effort to save his team’s season would have gotten at least a modicum of respect in ABC’s postgame interview. But since Gasol, who finished with 16 points on 5-of-12 shooting, hit the game winner, Conley was an afterthought, forced to stand there like a doofus as his teammate was showered with praise.

In the interest of maintaining journalistic credibility, I should pause here to disclose that I have been friends with Conley for almost half of my life, as we were AAU teammates from 2002 to 2005 and were both on Ohio State’s roster during Conley’s lone college season in 2006–07. So, yes, I will admit that I’m hyper-aware of any instances in which Conley gets disrespected even the slightest bit. And I don’t mean to suggest that Gasol shouldn’t have been in the postgame interview, or that his game winner wasn’t worthy of praise. It’s just that Conley put forth a transcendent playoff performance and the universe still found a way to make sure that he got overshadowed because, well, he always gets overshadowed. If I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t like that. I don’t like it one goddamn bit.

The trend of Conley being overshadowed started when his father, Mike Conley Sr., won the 1992 Olympic gold medal in the triple jump. For most of Mike Jr.’s youth, that was his identity — son of an Olympic gold medalist. By the time his family moved from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Indianapolis as he was preparing to enter junior high, though, the younger Conley had established a reputation as one of the best players in America for his age. But that was quickly cast aside when a goofy giant in Rec-Specs named Greg Oden blossomed into a generational prep talent. Oden was Conley’s teammate both in AAU ball and at Lawrence North High School, and he monopolized all of the fan and media attention.

When Conley graduated from Lawrence North in 2006, he did so as a McDonald’s All American, a consensus five-star recruit, and the driving force behind one of the greatest AAU teams of all time. He led Lawrence North to three straight state championships in the top division of Indiana high school basketball, something that had previously happened only twice. In short, he had one of the greatest prep careers in the history of organized basketball. And yet, because of Oden, at no point was he ever recognized as the best player on his own team.

Conley’s college recruitment was overshadowed by Oden, too. Thanks to their familiarity on and off the court, most assumed the two were a package deal hell-bent on remaining teammates at the next level. And since Oden was the biggest can’t-miss high school prospect since LeBron James, many coaches figured the easiest way to land the duo was to go all-in on Oden and count on Conley falling in line. The truth, however, was that they weren’t attached at the hip, as Oden was seriously interested in Michigan State and Indiana, while Conley’s admiration of Chris Paul left his sights set on Wake Forest. To this day, both Oden and Conley insist that they ended up at Ohio State because it made the most sense for each of them individually, not because they conspired to spend their only college season together. The Buckeyes had one of the few staffs in the country that treated them as separate people during the recruiting process.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

While Oden continued his dominance at Ohio State, earning AP first-team All-American honors and a national defensive player of the year award, Conley emerged as Ohio State’s best player through most of the Buckeyes’ 2007 NCAA tournament run that culminated with a loss to Florida in the national championship. He went 7-of-15 for 21 points in a win over Xavier in the second round, including scoring 11 points in overtime; he dropped 17 points, seven rebounds, and six assists on Tennessee in an 85–84 victory in the Sweet 16; and he capped off his college career with a 20-point, six-assist, three-rebound, four-steal showing against Florida. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who remembers a defining Conley play from that tourney, as the most memorable Ohio State moments from that run were Ron Lewis’s shot to send the Xavier game to overtime and Oden’s 25-point, 12-rebound, four-block performance against a frontcourt of Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer in the title game.

Conley was so great throughout the 2007 NCAA tournament that he was left with basically no choice but to leave Ohio State after one season and declare for the NBA draft. A little over 12 weeks after losing to Florida, he was taken by the Grizzlies with the fourth overall pick — three spots behind his friend and longtime teammate, Oden. That much wasn’t a surprise, as Oden had been billed as an eventual top draft pick for years. But if Conley thought his separation from Oden meant the end of being overshadowed, he was in for a rude awakening, because with the 48th selection in that same draft, the Los Angeles Lakers picked …

… wait for it …

Marc Gasol.

Ten years into his pro career, Conley is still with the team that drafted him, making him one of just six active NBA players (the others: Dirk Nowitzki, Udonis Haslem, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Nick Collison) to have 10-plus years of experience playing exclusively for one team. Conley is the Grizzlies’ all-time leader in games (706), minutes (22,985), points (10,050), assists (4,011), steals (1,055), and made 3s (907). He ranks among the top five of a slew of other statistical categories. He’s started at point guard in every playoff game the franchise has ever won. Add it all up and it’d seem clear that Conley has a case for being the greatest Grizzlies player ever.

But here’s where the "Conley is destined to be perpetually overshadowed" theory shifts into overdrive. Gasol, whose draft rights were traded from the Lakers to Memphis in L.A.’s 2008 deal to acquire his brother, Pau, has also played his entire career with the Grizzlies. And while Conley is Memphis’s all-time leader in many metrics, Gasol is in the top five of virtually every meaningful stat and is the franchise’s all-time leader in win shares (69.5) and VORP (value over replacement player, at 31.2). Gasol has made three All-Star teams to Conley’s zero, has made two All-NBA teams to Conley’s none, and was named the 2013 defensive player of the year. Shoot, even if Conley wanted to pander to Memphians in his campaign to be the face of the franchise by pretending that he’s somewhat of a local since he was born and raised in nearby Arkansas, Gasol has him beat there, too: He graduated from Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis — where he was nicknamed "The Big Burrito" — in 2003 while Pau was playing for the Grizzlies.

The bizarre reality is this is Conley’s first season since he was in seventh grade that the now 29-year-old has clearly been the best player on his own team. And even that stance is more controversial than it should be, since Gasol was named to the 2017 All-Star team while what should have been Conley’s spot went to Klay Thompson. I know Thompson is an incredible 3-point shooter. He’s also the Warriors’ fourth-best player, has roughly the same scoring (22.3 points to Conley’s 20.5), shooting (41.4 percent from 3 to Conley’s 40.7), and rebounding (3.7 boards to Conley’s 3.5) averages as Conley this season despite playing at a much faster pace, and doesn’t do a million other things (initiate the offense, control tempo, create shots for teammates, etc.) that Conley does with regularity. Yet since Thompson plays for the best and most popular team in basketball and Conley is on a small-market team, it seems like Conley was hardly even considered.

Again, I know I’m hyper-aware of this stuff, but my God — once you notice how Conley has consistently come reeeeeealllly close to getting his due only to have someone or something intercede in the last second, it’s hard to stop noticing it. Perhaps the best example was the formation of last summer’s Olympic basketball team. Paul, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and John Wall all withdrew their names from consideration, opening the door for Conley — a pass-first, defensive-minded point guard who would have been absolutely perfect for a Team USA roster loaded with talent — to FINALLY get his moment in the sun. Instead, the point guard spots were filled by Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry. And yeah, both of those guys had convincing cases to make the team, too. But isn’t it the damndest thing how whenever there are a handful of equally deserving candidates but not enough spots for all of them, Conley always ends up the odd man out?

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Look, I know how this must come across, as if anyone in their right mind should feel sorry for my multimillionaire friend who gets to play basketball for a living. I guess I just feel obligated to get angry on Conley’s behalf since, judging from the fact that he has two more Sportsmanship Awards than technical fouls in his career, he’s way too polite to do it himself. So forgive me if it’s petty to say that I’m sick of seeing Conley play second fiddle. Or that I’m sick of this idea that he will always fall behind Westbrook, Harden, Curry, Paul, and Damian Lillard in the Western Conference point guard pecking order, as though it’s super-obvious that Lillard is superior to him or that those other guys don’t have to keep earning their ranking every year. Or that I’m sick of seeing Conley’s status docked by those who love eye-popping stats because he has played for one of the slowest teams in the league his entire career and has a comparatively low usage rate. Or worst of all, that I’m sick of virtually every mention of his name having the words "underrated" or "contract" in the same sentence.

Screw that. Calling Conley "underrated" stopped being a compliment at least three years ago, so spare me the inevitable "How are you going to say he’s disrespected when EVERYONE mentions how underrated he is?" responses. I’ll tell you how: Being labeled the most underrated player in the league is like winning the Grammy for Best New Artist. Sure, it technically recognizes greatness, but its main purpose is to signify potential. If John Legend kept being named Best New Artist after 2006, he’d probably get pissed at a certain point that people were ignoring his track record and continuing to treat him like an up-and-comer. The same is true for Conley. So can we stop calling him underrated and begin to properly rate him?

While we’re at it, all of the debate about Conley proving that he deserves the five-year, $153 million contract he signed in July is bullshit, too. Of course he deserves the contract! He’s a franchise legend and one of the best 20 to 25 players in the NBA! I get that it was odd to see Conley briefly become the league’s highest-paid player, from the time he signed his extension in July until LeBron signed one with the Cavaliers six weeks later. But anyone who has half a brain knows that only happened because the timing of Conley’s re-signing coincided with a new collective bargaining agreement, and that Conley’s salary won’t seem ridiculous even two years down the road. So why does every great Conley performance prompt talking heads to argue over whether a player in his prime who will one day have his jersey retired by his current team deserves a max contract? Does this kind of thing happen with any other player who fits that criteria?

Conley isn’t just good "for a guy who doesn’t get a ton of publicity." He’s not just one of the best players to have never made an All-Star team, the most underrated player in the league, or a nice guy who plays the game the right way. Those qualifiers stopped being necessary years ago, and they’re even more unnecessary now. Conley is one of the best players in the NBA. He proved it throughout the entire season and has gone above and beyond in proving it in these playoffs against the Spurs, averaging 24.4 points and 7.4 assists on 50.6 percent shooting as the Grizzlies head into Thursday night’s Game 6 facing a 3–2 series deficit.

Should San Antonio close out Memphis, the Grizzlies will have made it to the second round of the playoffs in just three of Conley’s 10 seasons, and the smart money says that the franchise will never construct a serious title contender before Conley’s career comes to an end. It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that Conley will retire with no meaningful individual accolades or team success of which to speak. No All-Star Games, no All-NBA selections, no Olympic medals, no trips to the NBA Finals, and no shot at the Hall of Fame. Just a boatload of cash, the love of a small-market fan base, and a bunch of talk about how underrated he is. And I guess that’s a fine career in its own right. But Conley deserves to have his time in the spotlight that has always been just outside his reach, taunting him at every step as he’s tried to make his mark as an old-school point guard in a league built for scoring and style. Maybe someday, Conley will finally step out of the shadows that have eclipsed his success for far too long.

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