Mike Conley and Lionel Hollins don't want to hear it (Getty Images)
It's true that there was a stigma surrounding Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley when he entered the NBA in 2007. Point guards drafted fourth overall are usually expected to become a star of sorts, and Conley's ascension has come in gradual stages, while other young wonders at the position (your Roses, Westbrooks, Irvings and Lillards, even) have shot straight to the top.
That loping rate reached its crisis point when the Grizzlies extended Conley's contract just before an early season deadline back in November of 2010. Mike was coming off of a third season in which he didn't really distinguish himself, and the five-year, $40 million terms seemed a bit much when you took into account the Grizzlies had all the wonders of restricted free agency on their side should they have decided to let Conley seek out his market value the next summer. Even after the improved 2010-11 season Conley gave the Grizz, those terms probably wouldn't have been matched by many during the lockout-addled 2011 offseason.
All this, plus Conley's frustrations in going up against Los Angeles Clippers rookie Eric Bledsoe in last year's postseason, add to the mix. Conley's good, damn good, but to hear Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins tell it there are still some out there who don't understand just what he does for the West-leading Grizzlies. Mike's recent bout with a flu, a poor performance from backup hybrid guard Jerryd Bayless, and a close win over a Cleveland Cavalier team still lacking "your Irvings" took care of all that -- and Hollins wants all you cretins to know and love what you were missing on Monday night. From the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
"I've got to give a shoutout to Mike Conley and all the haters of Mike Conley," Hollins said. "He's one of the most valuable players we have on this team. He's not a flashy guy, not a big scorer, not a big name, but he helps makes us go and we missed him big time. Jerryd did an admirable job. … (But) you limit what you can do when you don't have a guy that knows all of the nuances of what you're trying to do."
It's true that Bayless "did an admirable job." Turning from a bench energizer (or, more specifically, scorer) into a lead offensive distributor and play-caller is not easy, especially when Conley's flu was a late-day addition to the game plan. It's an accurate and kind way to put it.
Out of rhythm, though, Bayless really struggled. He missed 8 of 11 shots, managed six assists to three turnovers, and most importantly ran an offense that, according to Grizzlies blog 3 Shades of Blue, featured "several plays resulting in players actually bumping into one another on offense." Bayless' ball-domination came in handy when he hit a late jumper to seal the game, but not after a performance that left the usually potent Grizzlies nearly falling to a rebuilding team working without its best player.
The "haters" comment, though?
As was bandied about on Twitter following Monday's Grizzlies win, there aren't many prominent critics of Mike Conley Jr. floating around out there right now. The last batches of concern I and most others had was over his contract extension in 2010, and that was only because it was proof of yet another team refusing to use the payroll-easing aid of restricted free agency in the months before an expected lockout, more so than criticism of Conley's worth as a player. And, sure, he had his issues with Eric Bledsoe last May — but trust me, a whole lot of NBA players are going to have issues with Eric Bledsoe for a long, long time.
Then again, just as much as it's time for grown-ass men to stop using the word "hater," maybe it's time for the incestuous circle of blogosphere and mainstream media coverage to understand that the coach might be speaking to those who we don't count amongst our must-follows on Twitter.
Hollins could be talking to sports radio call-in guests, fans whose thoughts we're not privy to outside of Memphis. He could be talking to other members of the Grizzlies' franchise, off-record types that we're unaware of. Other NBA players. Possible grumbly Grizzlies teammates. That dude with the camera in the back.
All should be on board, though. Conley is averaging a career-high 14.8 points in just 33.7 minutes, and most importantly shooting the heck out of the ball — 39 percent from long range and 49 percent overall, great numbers for a point guard. In spite of Memphis' disturbing 84-point turn against Cleveland, the team still ranks fourth overall in offensive efficiency just because Conley sets things up so darn well. And, because of the team's commitment to him, he's been allowed to grow and develop as a player while establishing continuity and chemistry with his Memphis teammates along the way. For a point guard, familiarity rarely breeds contempt.
There are no "haters" left, Lionel. Now help your point guard finish his bottle of Pepto-Bismol, and get him back out on the court.
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