July 9, 2020, 6:33 pm
This article is the latest in a series that covers players who’ve either overperformed or underperformed in the 2019-20 season so far. This time around we take a look at Utah Jazz point guard Mike Conley, who put up one of his worst seasons since 2011-12 and figure out what went wrong.
After an early exit in the 2018-19 playoffs, losing 4-1 to the Houston Rockets in the first round, the Utah Jazz knew that they needed some help if they wanted to be more competitive in an ultra-tough Western Conference. Over the summer, they managed to land one of the more highly coveted impending free agents on the market. The Jazz sent Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver and Jae Crowder, plus draft compensation in exchange for Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) June 19, 2019
Overall, the reception to the move was largely positive with Conley being seen as a missing piece that could take the Jazz over the top and become a serious title contender, replacing Ricky Rubio, who signed with the Suns.
In 2018-19, Conley played 70 games for the Grizzlies and finished the season averages of 21.1 PPG, 2.2 3PG, 3.4 RPG, 6.4 APG, 1.3 SPG and just 1.9 TO, on .438 shooting from the field and .845 shooting from the line. This allowed the 6-foot-1 point guard to finish in fantasy’s top-30 in both 8- and 9-cat formats.
2018-19 Rankings: 8/9-cat Per Game 27/27, 8/9-cat Totals 35/27
2019-20 Rankings: 8/9-cat Per Game 166/186, 8/9-cat Totals 216/232
Yahoo ADP: 43.6, ESPN ADP: 88.6
2019-20 Stats: 41 Games, 28.6 MPG, 13.8 PPG, 2.0 3PG, 3.2 RPG, 4.3 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.1 BPG, 1.9 TO, .405 FG%, .796%
Unfortunately, and much to the surprise of many, Conley wound up being a flop in 2019-20, his worst season by per-game averages since 2011-12. The drop was steep and the fall quite painful, stinging many a fantasy owner who committed their early-middle round pick for Conley’s services. This now begs the question, “What went wrong?”
The Jazz kicked off the actually kicked off the 2019-20 season strong, winning four of their first five games in the month of October, which sadly was not due to any significant impact from Conley. On the contrary, he got off to one of his worst starts in quite a while — literally; he went 1-for-16 from the field on opening night. Over his first five games, a sluggish Conley averaged 12.0 points, 4.4 assists, 1.6 triples and 2.6 turnovers per game. He shot a combined 20-for-62 (32.3 percent) from the field over that span, which included an awful one-point scoring outing where he went 0-for-7 vs. the Suns.
The hot October start eventually cooled off and the Jazz started to lose games. There was a clear disconnect between Conley and his new team. Yes, you could probably chalk up the initial bumpy ride to an adjustment period, where Conley clearly struggled. He was not in-sync with the team and had difficulty adapting to his new role and to the new system he had to play in. The poor play also affected his confidence. Now playing in an offense where he was out of step, Conley was attempting four fewer shots per game from the field, finishing 2019-20 to-date at 11.9 FGA, compared to 16.0 FGA in 2018-19. Also, despite being noted as a relatively solid defender, Conley’s steals per game dropped to 0.8, down from his 1.3 clip in 2018-19, showing that the slide in production was happening on both ends of the court.
Adding injury to insult, Conley’s acclimation period was further delayed after he became sidelined with a hamstring injury. At the end of the day, the biggest piece of evidence that the Conley-Jazz pairing was an issue was the fact that the Jazz started to win games and actually play better as a unit when Conley was left on the sidelines with his injury.
One of the biggest eye-opening issues at hand was Conley’s inability to jell with backcourt partner Donovan Mitchell. Back in Memphis, Conley managed the offense almost exclusively, dictating the pace of play. In 2018-19, Conley saw a career-high usage rate of 27.9 and a solid PER of 21.46. Come 2019-20, that usage rate dropped to 23.4 which was the same as his 2014-15 rate, but the biggest drop was in his PER, which plummeted to 13.78, his second-worst season of his career, with 12.58 being his worst – his rookie campaign in 2007-08. Yes, 2019-20 was that much of a hot mess from a statistical point of view.
To be fair, the season wasn’t just a downhill slope for Conley. There were peaks and valleys and he did manage to find games where he was able to make an impact and be productive for the Jazz, like in this February 5 game vs. the Nuggets, where Conley shined for his team with 21 points and eight rebounds.
By early March, Conley himself admitted to feeling frustrated with his poor play.
“Nobody is more frustrated than me,” Conley said of his first season with the Jazz, per Tony Jones of The Athletic. “Not the fans, not the media, not my teammates. I’m not a guy who runs from looking in the mirror. But, at this point, I have to control what I can control. I have to stay locked in. I have to focus on what I can handle. I know what’s being said. But in a big way, it’s not in my control what people may think.”
To Conley’s credit, he soldiered on and slowly but surely found ways to become more productive playing with his new teammates. Towards the end of the season, just before the league went on hiatus due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Conley began to turn a corner. His averages in March were far more encouraging and honestly quite reminiscent of the Grizzlies Mike Conley of old. In the five games he played that month, the once-struggling guard was now averaging 16.4 PPG, 3.0 3PG, 5.6 APG, 1.4 SPG on .475 shooting from the field. Now that’s far closer to what the Jazz was hoping to get out of the 32-year-old veteran when they traded for him. “Better late than never,” as they say.
So, to put things in context and sum things up, what went wrong for Mike Conley in 2019-20 was a slow, laborious and difficult adjustment period to his new team. Thankfully, it was something that he appeared to eventually overcome and rise above, but because it took him a long time to find his place and his groove, Conley’s 2019-20 basic and advanced stats will be an ugly blemish on his career stats page. The point is that the season was not an absolute bomb and that there’s still hope for the Conley-Jazz dynamic to finally find a harmonious melody.