I've never really liked Mike Conley. Part of that stems from an overall dislike of Ohio State, but part of it was that the guy never really impressed me. He seemed like a guy who was in the right place (feeding the ball to Greg Oden) at the right time (the one year Oden was actually on a basketball court for an extended period), and capitalized. I never thought he was very good. And I thought it was hilarious when the Memphis Grizzlies gave him that ridiculous contract. But nowadays I don't like Mike Conley because he's a constant reminder of how wrong I was about him. I mean, the guy has developed into a no-questions starter, and a player who would probably be regarded as All-Star candidate if he played in a larger market. And I was completely wrong about him. Completely misdiagnosed his potential for growth. And now he just goes around playing basketball like a jerky jerk who reminds me of my mistake.
Even though I carry this dislike for Conley, I really like the Grizzlies. And all jokes aside, I like what Conley has developed into. It's nice to be reminded that players can exceed expectations, and can buck normal growth trends. But liking the Grizzlies makes it harder to accept their fate. The Grizzlies, as currently constructed, are pretty much doomed to consistently land somewhere between the 6th and the 8th spot in the West for the next several years. In and of itself, that's not terrible. But it is frustrating. The team smartly opened the checkbook to maintain its core rotation of players. The team locked up Marc Gasol, the aforementioned Conley, Zach Randolph, and Rudy Gay. That's a really solid core, and the Grizzlies should be celebrated for spending to keep that group together when everyone expected them not to.
It's frustrating because Memphis has a good fan base, and it would be nice to see the team able to take the leap beyond an early playoff exit. But unless someone takes a major leap, or unless the Grizzlies strike gold in the draft, I'm struggling to see where the improvement comes from. The Grizzlies need to improve their bench, but have a lot of salary tied up in the top four. Despite the seemingly inevitable playoff positioning, Memphis is always dangerous in the playoffs and will never be considered an easy out. It would just be nice if the Grizzlies could, for once, not face the most difficult path to success.
The team's best hope for a breakout is Rudy Gay. Oddly enough, it's nothing to do with his offense that needs improvement, but his defense. Gay should be a superb defender, but he seems content to coast along. The Grizzlies have other good defenders. Tony Allen is arguably the best wing defenders in the league. Personally I think it's a debate between him and Andre Igoudala, and nobody else is even close. Gasol and Randolph (or Speights, as it may be) can hold the front line. Conley is a good defender as well, and racks up plenty of steals. If Rudy Gay would commit to defense, the Grizzlies could be one of the most effective defensive starting fives in the league.
On a final note, a hearty congratulations to fans of the Memphis Grizzlies. Robert Heisley agreed to sell the team to Robert Pera, who in turn entered into an agreement to keep the Grizzlies in Memphis for at least another 15 years. So far everything seems to be moving forward as expected, and there's no indication the deal will fall through. It's great news for a great fan base who, like all small market fan bases, had been worried that their team might be targeted by Seattle or other suitors. No fan base deserves to endure prolonged uncertainty, and it's fantastic to see Memphis get a new owner who appears committed to long term success in Memphis.