Every championship contender needs a Mike Conley

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Mike Conley points after making a basket during game against the San Antonio Spurs, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, in Minneapolis. The former Utah Jazz guard is providing valued leadership for the Timberwolves this season.

For much of his career, Mike Conley has been a player that has been considered a leader. He is calm, focused, meticulous in his work and, most of all, he is trusted.

He’s able to have honest and open conversations with a head coach and have just as honest and open conversations with his teammates. He can deliver tough criticism and overwhelming praise and both will be received with an understanding that it’s coming from a genuine place.

“The guys trust me, both players and coaches. I’ve got all those guys’ best interest at heart and I think I put myself aside for the betterment of the team and they know that. So anything I say or do or have a message to speak on, they know it’s coming from a good place and that I don’t have any other agendas behind it.”

Minnesota guard Mike Conley

Conley is a more than solid basketball player, which gives him credibility in a locker room. He’s a steadying leader. He’s not loud, he’s not domineering, he’s not confrontational and he’s not overly boisterous. So when he talks, people listen and they take notice of what he says because he does not waste his words.

“The guys trust me, both players and coaches,” Conley said. “I’ve got all those guys’ best interest at heart and I think I put myself aside for the betterment of the team and they know that. So anything I say or do or have a message to speak on, they know it’s coming from a good place and that I don’t have any other agendas behind it.”

It didn’t take Minnesota Timberwolves coach Chris Finch long to realize how valuable Conley is in that sense. Conley has been with the Wolves for just one year and he is already the player that Finch turns to when he wants an honest read on the mood and vibe of the locker room. Conley is also the player he turns to when he needs a message to sink in.

“Coach really appreciates just having that voice to second something that he might be wanting to tell a guy and they might not want it,” Conley said. “They might tune a coach out but they won’t tune the player out. You’re in the battle with them, so to speak. I’m just that medium that can can handle both sides.”

It’s something that Finch doesn’t feel like the Timberwolves had prior to acquiring Conley. They were piecing together all the things that were going to make them a good team, but there was a missing piece, not just with X’s and O’s. The internal leadership structure of the team was missing a player like Conley that could make them great.

There is credit deserved by many for the Wolves’ success this season — currently third in the Western Conference, just a game behind the Nuggets and Thunder who sit atop the Western standings. Anthony Edwards deserves credit along with Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and a number of the team’s role players. But there is a feeling that Conley has added a new element that is necessary if they want to compete for a title.

“He’s an adult in the room with his experience and also with his manner and everything he does,” Finch said. “He’s not afraid to have a tough or real conversation but he does it in a nonthreatening way. His teammates love him, they respect him, they look up to him and then it’s all backed by the fact that he can still go out and play at a super high level ... it’s definitely something that we didn’t have before he joined us.”

Teams with championship aspirations need this type of player. There are examples all throughout NBA history of needing to have an honest leader in a locker room in order to reach the highest of highs — holding the Larry O’Brien trophy.

From Bill Russell to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. From Tim Duncan to Nikola Jokic. It’s hard to think about a title-wining team that didn’t have a player that commanded respect and delivered honesty.

Just last year, along the Denver Nuggets’ title run, there was a moment in the playoffs when Jokic made a postgame speech to his teammates. Because of how selfless and competitive Jokic is and because he doesn’t often make any type of scene, it was a monumental moment to his teammates.

“When Nikola says something, everybody’s awareness is heightened,” DeAndre Jordan said. “I always compare him to a guy like Tim Duncan. He’s never really super boisterous, but when he does speak, it speaks volumes.”

Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy talks a lot about players using their voices and what different types of leadership can look like. He has worked for the last two seasons on getting Lauri Markkanen to realize his power as a leader and how he can lead by example and action, but also how important his voice can be. He’s starting to do the same with young players like Keyonte George.

“A team has to be able to have those conversations in a very honest way, and sometimes that’s uncomfortable,” Hardy said. “Having a player who can sort of lead that, I think is very important, and that’s part of what we’re trying to develop on our team.”

The Jazz were fortunate to have Conley on their roster when they rose to the top of the Western Conference. Conley still believes that, if not for a couple of injuries — namely to him and Donovan Mitchell — the Jazz could have been a legitimate title contender in 2021.

So what type of message is Conley giving to this Timberwolves team? What is it that their sage leader is trying to get them to understand?

He wants them to realize that they are well positioned and despite some injuries this season (Towns is currently sidelined after a surgery to repair a torn meniscus, but he is expected to return during the postseason), they have a chance to compete for a title, and those chances are fleeting. This is now the third team that Conley has been on that he felt had a real shot at a title and he knows how hard it is to get to that place.

That is the message that Conley has been preaching since the Timberwolves’ first meeting of the 2023-24 preseason.

“I told them that I’ve been a part of some really, really good teams and it’s not until you’re done with those teams that you realize how close you were,” Conley said. “So take advantage of it now, strike while it’s hot and be grateful for these opportunities because you never know if you’re gonna make it back to the playoffs again, or let alone have a chance to have a team that can go further than that.”

It’s the kind of message that can only come from experience and humility and one that can only be delivered by a player like Mike Conley — the type of player that every championship team needs.

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Mike Conley (10) talks with referee Ed Malloy (14) as the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves play at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 16, 2024. Minnesota won 119-100.