The number one priority for the Memphis Grizzlies this summer was to re-sign point guard Mike Conley. They did just that.
Conley agreed to a 5-year, 153 million dollar contract on July 2.
It was the third max contract the Grizzlies handed out in the last two offseasons. First to Marc Gasol last year, and then to Chandler Parsons on the first day of this offseason.
The Chandler Parsons deal has been hailed by some as the biggest in franchise history. It was the first time that a major free agent chose Memphis to be their new basketball home. But in all likelihood, Parsons wouldn’t have even come close to signing if Mike Conley wasn’t part of the team moving forward.
For several reasons, the max that Conley signed means much more than the previous two. Not only was it the biggest contract in NBA history, it was the most important contract in Memphis history.
The immediate reaction to the news of Conley’s new deal was shock among NBA fans. Hearing that a player who has never made the all-star team became the highest paid player in the league was surprising. (Lebron James has since claimed highest salary in the NBA.) Conley answered those critics in the article he wrote for The Player’s Tribune.
“It’s all good. I’ll just be here building an All-Star team in Memphis,” Conley wrote.
Conley’s career in Memphis hasn’t always been a smooth road, though. Conley started out his career backing up both Damon Stoudemire and Kyle Lowry. Lowry was sent to Houston in a 2009 trade, but Conley was nearly traded too.
In 2008, Conley was in his second season playing for the Grizzlies. He had been selected fourth overall in 2007, but Memphis was nearly ready to move on.
Marc Gasol saved the day.
Gasol had heard talks that Conley was about to be sent to the Milwaukee Bucks. So Gasol took matters into his own hands. He contacted a Memphis Grizzlies beat writer and scheduled an interview. Gasol recalling the story for Ian Thomsen of NBA.com said, “Write this down: We cannot trade Mike Conley. He is the one guy who actually cares about the team, that actually is trying to play the right way".
Gasol was a rookie at this point, a second round draft pick thought to be a “throw-in” in the Lakers trade for Pau Gasol.
In the same Thomsen piece, Grizzlies General Manager said that the Grizzlies several times almost parted ways with the point guard.
“There were times we came close to trading Mike because his development was so slow, and thank goodness we didn’t,” Wallace said.
Gasol went on to say, “I felt like I had to protect the one guy who I felt actually cared about winning and losing - because a lot of people say, ‘I want to win.’ But are you going to do the right things it takes to win? Do you want to win on your own terms, or do you want to win on the team’s terms?”.
In the eight seasons since, Conley has continued to be a player that wants to win on the team’s terms. That’s why not making an All-Star team doesn’t seem to phase him that much. Instead, he’ll take being the leader on the most successful run in franchise history.
Memphis had made the playoffs the last six seasons, good for the third-longest consecutive streak in the NBA behind the Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs. But casually NBA fans wouldn’t know that. And Conley knows this too.
“If you’re not a Grizz fan, you might not even know what we’re up to until playoffs come around. We get forgotten and sometimes slighted,” Conley wrote in his Player’s Tribune article.
What the Grizzlies have been up to is three 50 win seasons in the past six seasons, including a 56-26 record in 2012-13, capped off by a run to the Western Conference Finals. Yes, Memphis has only won four playoff series in Conley’s tenure. But considering that they hadn’t won a single playoff game, and just 22 games the year before Conley was drafted, they’ve come a long way with Conley at the helm.
While the shock of 153 million dollars was still lingering among fans, New York Knicks point guard Brandon Jennings gave a simple argument to why Conley was well deserving of his money.
In the 2015 playoffs, Conley’s face was on the receiving end of an inadvertent CJ McCollum elbow. Memphis seemed primed to make a deep playoff run, but with Conley hunched over on the court, that idea quickly went away.
The diagnosis was three facial fractures: one under his eye, one on the side of the eyebrow, and one near his jaw. Not only that, doctors said that he likely had a broken nose and almost a fractured jaw. Best case scenario, Conley would be out three months.
Conley played nine days later. He scored 22 points to lead the Grizzlies to a 97-90 victory over the Golden State Warriors.
Memphis went on to went game 3 in that series as well. While they haven't won a playoff game since (0-7), the Grizzlies look to change that in the 2017 season.
Conley's career stat line of 13.6 points and 5.6 assists a game won't jump off the page. It's his leadership in the community and in the gym that does. He is a two-time recipient of the NBA Sportsmanship Award.
For the past seven years, Conley has raised money for sickle cell research with a charity bowling event. The first thing Conley did with his money? He donated a million of it to the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation, which helps youth in Memphis prepare for college and careers.
That's Mike Conley. He puts others around him before himself, on and off the court. So while he's never made an All-Star team, you can bet he's just as happy that Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph have.
Conley will be the second highest paid player in the NBA during the 2016-17 season. To many, he is overpaid. But to the Grizzlies and the Memphis community, Conley is well worth 153 million dollars.