Mike Conley has spent the majority of his 12-year career on the fringes of the NBA’s upper crust, with the numbers of an All-Star but no All-Star appearances to show for all of his gritting and grinding. So it’s fitting, in a certain way, for the Memphis Grizzlies’ old head to now find himself as not the most coveted trade target heading into the offseason, but among the most obvious for any team in need of a substantial upgrade without the juice to land Anthony Davis.
Conley’s exit from Memphis was written on the wall long before the Grit and Grind revival tour was canceled last season, leading to Marc Gasol’s being shipped off to Toronto and all sorts of scuttlebutt being bandied about on Conley’s future ahead of this year’s trade deadline. But it may have reached when-not-if status during this Tuesday’s draft lottery, after the Grizz jumped all the way from no. 8 to no. 2. One day later, ESPN reported that the Grizzlies have made it clear at Chicago’s draft combine that, should the New Orleans Pelicans indeed select Zion Williamson, they “intend” to draft Murray State point guard Ja Morant.
Memphis pulled Conley off the market in February in part to provide some mentorship to Jaren Jackson Jr., the no. 4 pick in last year’s draft—or at least that’s how they sold the decision, after days of reported interest from the likes of Detroit and Utah. If developmental day care is indeed a priority, keeping the best point guard in franchise history to foster the growth of the point guard of the future seems like a natural move.
But dealing Conley this summer has far more check marks in the “pros” column. It allows Morant a clear path to playing time and for a less complicated concession of power from the last vestige of the team’s most successful and beloved era. It also gives Memphis the best chance at being as bad as possible next season and thus the best odds of landing in the top six in the 2020 draft, which would mean keeping its first-round pick out of the hands of the Boston Celtics for one more year. (The pick will become completely unprotected in 2021.) And the return price could hit a high point after all these teams with cap space realize there aren’t enough max players to go around.
Conley’s age (32 in October), injury history (121 missed games the past four seasons), and contract ($32.5 million next season, plus a $34.5 million early-termination option for the season after) aren’t an ideal combination for a lot of teams, including some of the most talent-thirsty out there. But he’s still an intriguing addition for any team looking to make a go of it over the next two seasons. Here’s a read on some of the most logical destinations, as well as some dark-horse teams that could, and maybe even should, get in the mix for Conley’s services.
The Anthony Davis Runners-up
Los Angeles Lakers: Before the lottery, I compared the Lakers’ ability to luck into draft picks and a certain superstar free agent despite years of gross mismanagement to pretending an air ball is a pass. Well, GM Rob Pelinka threw a helluva hit-ahead in the ping-pong ball room Tuesday night: The Lakers, who entered the proceedings with a 9.4 percent chance at landing a pick in the top four, leaped seven spots—the biggest jump in the draft—to no. 4 overall, giving the franchise another young player to add to its yarn ball of prospects.
The problem with Marie Kondoing your roster to the bare essentials, though, is you no longer have any expendable salaries to match in trades. So the only players currently on the Lakers’ books making more than $3 million next season are LeBron James ($37.4 million), Lonzo Ball ($8.7M), and Brandon Ingram ($7.3M)—none of whom would be worth sacrificing for Conley. You’d still want to sign a max free agent (… if you can get one), so an unbalanced trade is out. And the more teams that get involved in a deal, the more complicated it gets—just ask Memphis’s Brookses. Unless it’s Davis or a player of his caliber, a trade doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the Lakers. Slowly but surely, L.A.’s master plan is starting to look more like a prison of its own making.
New York Knicks: The Knicks are in a similar situation as the Lakers, only with less money committed and more options. If the dream scenario plays out and both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving come aboard, Conley could still fit in as something of a shrunken Chris Bosh. But while it’s always helpful to have creators, doubling up at point guard at the expense of depth elsewhere might not be the most prudent investment, especially with the best opponents now able to zero in on size disadvantages in a playoff series. If Irving stays put or prefers a different borough, the Knicks can turn their attention to the second tier of free agents, and the likes of Bronx native Kemba Walker—a point guard more easily roughed up on defense but one who is three years younger than Conley, has a more explosive offensive arsenal to compensate, and, most importantly, wouldn’t cost the Knicks anything other than James Dolan’s money. And if it’s only KD or no KD at all, the Knicks are probably best off sitting on their Scrooge McDuck vault of assets and hoping Durant doesn’t follow in LeBron’s footsteps when it comes to late-career recruiting success.
Boston Celtics: If Irving leaves and Terry Rozier gets rewarded by another team for his brave sacrifice, the Celtics will suddenly be in desperate need of ball handlers. But if that scenario plays out and a one-year gamble for Davis becomes too risky, the young players tagged as trade fodder for a superstar long ago suddenly seem integral to the next phase of the roster. Jayson Tatum would become more of an offensive focal point again. Jaylen Brown would reboot his trajectory as the next great 3-and-D prospect. Could you afford to trade even Marcus Smart at that point for someone like Conley? Would you want to? Other than stuffing Memphis’s pockets with draft picks, the only reasonable option would be Gordon Hayward.
Hayward’s contract goes for as long as Conley’s, at only a negligible markup, meaning you could simply swap one team’s problem for another’s. The big unknown is obviously Hayward’s health; he played in 72 games, with an average of 26 minutes a night, but his shot looked flat most of the time, he played timid, and his physique looked too swole to move fluidly. But it’s not like Conley hasn’t spent his share of time in the training room—he played only 11 more games than Hayward in 2017-18 because of a left heel injury—and Hayward has three fewer seasons and 7,600 fewer minutes on his surgically repaired lower extremity. It’d be selling low on Hayward, a player once as important to Boston’s master plan as Irving, but it may be better for both parties to start fresh, especially if Brad Stevens wants to rid himself of any suggestions that he’s still playing favorites.
The Trade-Deadline Repeats
All three teams reportedly went down the road with Memphis at the trade deadline, and all three could revive discussions after a few months of self-reflection—or, in the case of Utah, maybe rewatching some of Dante Exum’s predraft tape to a rainy-day playlist. No one from this trio had any ping-pong balls in the mixer this week, so offers would presumably center on similar packages to ones discussed in February. The big differences are that Memphis’s acquisition of Jonas Valanciunas from Toronto at this year’s deadline probably snuffs out a Conley-for–Andre Drummond Hail Mary; and Exum, whom the Jazz reportedly balked at including in a Conley deal centered on draft picks, had season-ending surgery in March.
Maybe Indiana, with Victor Oladipo now four months into his recovery from a ruptured quad, would be willing to part with either Domantas Sabonis (eligible for an extension this summer) or Myles Turner (four-year, $72 million extension starts next season) after getting a long, hard look at the two bigs playing together in the regular season (3.1 net rating in 429 minutes, with untenable offensive numbers) and in the playoffs (minus-28.6 in 32 minutes)? And maybe Utah, after losing in five games to Houston despite practically using a baseball shift to defend James Harden, will be more open to dipping deeper into its draft coffers to avoid a similar fate in the 2020 postseason?
The Dark Horses
Orlando Magic: I don’t know how we got here, but it’s true nonetheless: The Magic might be too good to tank. Orlando crept into the final playoff spot in the East this season, breaking its six-year streak in the lottery in the process, and took a game from Toronto, in Toronto, before bowing out in five games. I wouldn’t say the Magic are necessarily good now—they ranked just 14th in net rating this regular season, with an expected record one win higher than what they ended up at (42-40)—but they are scrappier under Steve Clifford, who once again got a less-talented team to at least defend (eighth) and take care of the ball (fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio). If they re-sign Nikola Vucevic as expected, it’s hard to see the Magic bottoming out in the near future. (And if this year’s lottery taught us anything, it’s that a team on the playoff fringes doesn’t really need to take the extreme approach to reap draft benefits.) The question is how much they want to tip the scales the other way.
The Magic’s books are gunked up next season by nearly $34 million owed to Timofey Mozgov and Evan Fournier. And even when those deals expire—next year for Mozgov; Fournier has a player option for 2020-21—the lure of no state taxes and close proximity to Epcot hasn’t charmed many free agents in recent history. As ridiculous as it might sound, the Magic may have a small window here to try to make some ground in the East, especially if any of Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Kyrie Irving flee to the West Coast. You could send out the salaries of Mozgov and D.J. Augustin, with Mo Bamba as the sweetener, for Conley and all of a sudden have a feisty little core of Conley, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, and Vucevic. Giving up on Bamba, last year’s no. 6 overall pick, this early would be tough, but at some point your roster has to progress past the theoretical phase, and Bamba is realistically fourth on the depth chart for minutes at the 5 behind Vooch, Isaac, and Khem Birch.
Minnesota Timberwolves: The last max free agent the Grizzlies signed has spent more time in exile than he has on the court. So while clearing the next two seasons of Conley’s contract would help create financial flexibility—particularly in 2020-21, when Memphis’s books are a dewy meadow of open cap space—it’s unlikely that it could put those dollars to work on the open market. It might make more sense to target young veterans who can grow alongside a Morant-Jackson core, much like it did when it got Valanciunas (27) and Delon Wright (27) from the Raptors in exchange for Gasol.
Enter Andrew Wiggins. As disappointing as the former no. 1 overall pick has been in his first … oh, God, it’s been five seasons already? Yeesh. OK, well, still: There’s a hyperathletic 3-and-D wing somewhere hiding behind the 41 percent shooting, the listless play, the contract, the expectations, and the bad habits formed as a result of trying to live up to the expectations. And it doesn’t seem to benefit the Timberwolves franchise or Karl-Anthony Towns, who can and should be a fixture in the MVP conversation by now, to keep hoping and praying for that outcome. In trading Wiggins for Conley, straight up, the Grizzlies would take on the burden of Wiggins’s four more years at his maximum in the hopes of rounding out their young core with a player who could be, in theory, an ideal fit on the wing. The Wolves, meanwhile, would have to wrestle with deploying diminutive dual-PG lineups featuring Conley (6-foot-1) and Jeff Teague (6-foot-2), unless they want to stretch the $19 million owed next season to Teague or attach a pick or two to dump his deal entirely. But it may still be worth it for the extra two years of cap space and the hope that Conley’s steady hand can guide the franchise toward the success it thought it was going to have when it won the KAT lottery four years ago.
Phoenix Suns: The Suns probably make the most sense among this group of long shots, because they already acquired a combo guard at the trade deadline in the hopes of molding Devin Booker into some sort of Southwestern Harden. The problem is that combo guard is Tyler Johnson, and Tyler Johnson isn’t very good: Following his trade to Phoenix, the snaggletoothed 27-year-old shot a putrid 37 percent from the floor with a minus-7.7 net rating, albeit in only 13 games. Conley, though, would quickly supplant Johnson and become the Suns’ Chris Paul facsimile—he could provide some stretch and secondary playmaking next to Booker, and then pivot back to ballhandling duties when Booker is off the court. All Phoenix would need from there is Trevor Ariza … again.
The tricky part is the return. If the Grizzlies’ asking price remains high, it would probably need one of the Suns’ young wings coming back the other way. Mikal Bridges is probably too valuable, Josh Jackson might not be valuable enough, and Kelly Oubre Jr.’s new deal this summer might be more expensive than it’s worth. I would still be willing to take a flyer on Jackson. A recent arrest for making several unauthorized attempts to enter a VIP area at a music festival won’t quell any concerns over his headiness, but Jackson is only 22 and two years removed from being drafted no. 4 overall, right ahead of De’Aaron Fox, Isaac, and Lauri Markkanen. If he can keep making progress on his shot (36 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s last season, up from 28 percent as a rookie), he’s a perfect second-draft target. Johnson’s expiring contract (once he opts in for the final year) and Jackson could do the trick, with Milwaukee’s top-seven-protected 2020 first enough to push a deal over the goal line if need be.