November 12, 2019, 3:39 pm
Mike Conley’s addition was supposed to thrust the Jazz from Really Good to Potentially Great, but so far the team, and Conley, has yet to start firing on all cylinders.
On paper it’s an excellent fit, as Conley gives the Jazz more balance on the offensive end given his ability to toggle between scoring and facilitating mode. In a system that asks its point guard to shoot threes from above the break, Conley, a career .375 shooter from distant, is an immense upgrade over Ricky Rubio (career .323), who is always looking to distribute rather than take open jumpers.
The early results have been less than spectacular, with Conley openly talking about nerves after a dreadful start to the season in which he shot 4-of-27 from the field over his first two contests. Averages of 14.4 points (.365 shooting), 2.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.2 threes and 2.8 turnovers leave a lot to be desired, with the scoring in particular standing out. If that were to keep up all year (which it won’t) it would mark Conley’s lowest scoring output since his third year in the league.
While it’s been a tough start, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. One of the league’s most underrated guards moving from a defense-first organization to a defense-first organization doesn’t necessarily sound like something that will result in a major adjustment, but that ignores the specifics of Utah’s roster.
When you look at the teams that Conley ran in Memphis, you might not be able to find a more different collection of personnel than the 2019-20 Jazz.
At the center position, the Grizzlies leaned heavily on Marc Gasol. Like Conley’s current center Rudy Gobert, Gasol was a Defensive Player of the Year and an elite presence in the middle. That might be where the comparisons end, however.
Gasol relied on his smarts and savvy on both ends of the floor and eventually became an effective floor-spacer and outstanding playmaker, serving as an offensive hub to complement Conley’s driving abilities. Most importantly, Gasol was hardly a lob threat. The ground-bound big man was more liable to swing a pass to an open shooter than he was to thunder down the lane for an alley-oop.
Gobert, meanwhile, is almost the polar opposite. There’s not even a real post game to rely on, as Gobert’s offensive utility is limited to good screens and sprints to the rim, where his ridiculous length allows him to sky for lobs. That’s a major adjustment for a guard whose primary roll man used to function as equal parts scoring threat and release valve.
Last season Gobert took 124 shots off of lobs, good for 1.53 per game. This season, he has taken 12 such shots through nine games, a minor decrease to 1.33 per game. Some of that’s chalked up to Gobert simply seeing fewer touches (he’s receiving about three fewer passes per game so far this season), but he’s only shooting .421 off passes (2.1 attempts, 9.3 passes per game) from Conley this year as opposed to .532 from Rubio a season ago (2.3 attempts, 9.7 passes). There’s some small sample fishiness at play, yes, but it speaks to the idea that Conley hasn’t quite found the sweet spot with one of his most important new teammates.
If there is a starker difference in Conley’s teammates than the center spot, it might come at shooting guard, where Conley is now playing with a potential superstar in Donovan Mitchell. Beyond the need for Conley to adapt to more of an off-ball role, the stylistic shift is massive. Conley’s Memphis career saw him play alongside shooting guards like OJ Mayo, Tony Allen, Courtney Lee, Garrett Temple, Dillon Brooks and late-career Vince Carter – players who fit in the Grizzlies’ build but never anyone who could command the ball or take over a game like Mitchell.
At small forward it’s a similar story, as the Jazz have a tremendous pair of wings in Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles. After spending his Memphis days playing alongside prime Rudy Gay, Chandler Parsons, Tayshaun Prince and Matt Barnes, among others, he’s finally sharing the floor with a pair of knockdown 3-point shooters and a capable secondary playmaker in Ingles.
While Gay offered more scoring punch than either, he also went about his business in an extremely different fashion. Conley’s never had the luxury of a real spot-up threat that can change the geometry of the floor, let alone two. If we could figure out time travel, either Bogdanovic or Ingles would’ve been a fantastic fit with those Memphis teams.
The Grit and Grind Grizzlies lined up Zach Randolph at the power forward spot, and his plodding, bully-ball brand of game is no longer in fashion. After Randolph’s decline began, Memphis turned to pre-3-point-shooting JaMychal Green. The changes in Gasol’s game allowed them to trot out a heavier group, but that’s not the case in Utah. The Jazz can run super small with Bogdanovic or Ingles at the four in certain lineups but have otherwise deployed Royce O’Neale and Jeff Green at the four. Though Conley does have experience playing with Green briefly, in Utah that spot isn’t looked to for methodical scoring so much as it is defensive versatility and spacing.
Mix in all the off-court factors that come with uprooting your life and leaving a city where you’ve spent the last 12 years and it’s understandable that Conley would scuffle out of the gates.
Already, he’s starting to get back in the swing of things with 15-plus points in three straight. And even though his personal have stats suffered, Conley is rolling along with a sterling 99.0 defensive rating and a plus-5.8 net rating.
It’s never wise to overreact to poor starts from players of Conley’s quality, but the beginning of his Jazz tenure should serve as a cautionary reminder that talented players don’t just figure it out from the jump. Things take time to coalesce.
Conley should end up as advertised for a Jazz outfit with title aspirations, but the early struggles probably shouldn’t have snuck up on the hoops community as much as they did.