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Whatever other issues have roiled around the Memphis Grizzlies over the last several seasons — the structural issues and self-imposed ceiling that comes with a defense-first, shooting-deficient roster, the aging of talismen Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, three different head coaches and approaches since 2012 — the franchise could always rest one on truism. If Mike Conley and Marc Gasol were healthy, they’d be good. Maybe not great, and maybe not a top-tier contender, but better than most, and good enough to beat the other guys more often than not.
When they’re not healthy, though — like the spring of 2016, when Gasol broke his bone in his right foot and Conley missed time with Achilles issues — things can get rough in a hurry. That could be where Memphis is headed now, after the Grizzlies announced Friday that they’re putting the 30-year-old Conley on the shelf indefinitely to try to fix what’s wrong with his ailing left wheel:
Conley will undergo therapy and treatment to help promote healing and alleviate soreness in his left heel and Achilles following consultations with physicians and the Grizzlies’ medical staff. There is no timetable for his return at this time. Further updates will be provided in approximately two weeks.
As Kevin Lipe of the Memphis Flyer noted, there’s nothing surprising in the Grizzlies’ announcement if you’ve been watching Conley play through the season’s first month.
Conley has been playing his least productive ball in years, shooting a career-worst 38.1 percent from the floor and 31.2 percent from 3-point range while assisting on a career-low share of his teammates’ baskets during his time on the floor. He’s still posting a Player Efficiency Rating (16.4) north of league average (15) — as it turns out, even a gimpy Conley’s a pretty solid player, especially when he’s turning the ball over on a microscopic 8.4 percent of his possessions — but the effect’s been plain as day.
For the first time in nine years, Memphis has been better thus far with him off the court than on it. Conley doesn’t have the burst, explosion or lateral quickness to make the kinds of plays that have become routine for him, and of course he doesn’t; Achilles tendinitis really, really hurts, and doesn’t get better when you’re running up and down a basketball court for 30-plus minutes a night!
What looked clear to the naked eye received confirmation on Wednesday, when Conley sat out of Memphis’ loss to the Indiana Pacers. Now, the conductor of a Grizzlies squad that ranks 15th in the NBA in points scored per possession and ninth in points allowed per possession will stay on the sideline for at least eight games — and perhaps more.
“It’s a frustrating, tough process — more for him than anybody else,” Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale told Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal on Thursday. “And, obviously, I think I’m second in that. Because with Mike not being right, it hurts so much of our game from the standpoint of leadership. Because when he’s not feeling right, it’s hard for him to step up and lead and do certain things, so we suffer in a lot of other areas when he’s not right. We’ve got to figure this out, get our hands around this pain and try to get him back as soon as possible.”
Making matters worse: the Grizzlies’ updating slate is awfully tough. Memphis welcomes the rampaging and West-leading Houston Rockets to the Grindhouse on Saturday, and will take on the Portland Trail Blazers (owners of the NBA’s No. 3 defense), the Nikola Jokic-and-Paul Millsap-led Denver Nuggets, Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs (twice), and LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers before Conley’s set to be re-evaluated.
Should he need more time off to get the heel and Achilles right, the Grizzlies could also be forced to face a handful more good opponents — the rising Minnesota Timberwolves, Kristaps Porzingis and the New York Knicks, a tough Toronto Raptors team, the star-heavy and jelling Oklahoma City Thunder, John Wall and the Washington Wizards — without their captain. Not ideal for a team that’s already sitting at .500, at 7-7, in a brutal Western Conference.
The silver lining surrounding this dark cloud: unlike previous years’ models, this current crop of Grizzlies might stand a chance of weathering the storm.
Mario Chalmers can be a trick-or-treat player, one who might get into a fight with an opposing star and almost single-handedly lose you a game down the stretch, but he’s got plenty of experience starting at the point, and performed ably enough in Conley’s stead in a close loss to Indiana on Wednesday. He’ll be joined on the ball by Tyreke Evans, who has been sensational as a playmaking wing leading the Grizzlies’ second unit.
The former Memphis Tigers star and Rookie of the Year-turned-journeyman has shot the hell out of the ball early in the season, knocking down 42.9 percent of his 3-pointers on his way to 18.5 points, five rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.1 steals in 28.1 minutes per game. Whether he can maintain that level of efficiency and effectiveness in a more featured role with higher expectations remains to be seen, but the potential exists, at least, for “Evans at the steering wheel looks more than a little bit like James Harden in Houston: a big, score-first guard who is nearly impossible to stop from getting to the rim but can also deliver the ball to the open man,” as Chris Herrington of the Memphis Commercial Appeal put it.
Gasol, already Memphis’ leading scorer and back-line defensive captain, will be tasked with initiating more offense from his office at the elbows. This would also be a really nice time to get something more closely approximating the version of Chandler Parsons the Grizzlies paid handsomely to import two summers ago.
That might be too much to ask as he continues to work his way back to full healthy. But quiet as it’s kept, Parsons has steadily ticked upward since the boos that attended his season-opening struggles following a lost first year on Beale Street, averaging a shade under eight points, three rebounds and two assists in 19 minutes per game while shooting 51.5 percent from the field and 51.2 percent from 3-point land. (Against the Pacers, Parsons logged more than 25 minutes of floor time — his highest total since coming to Memphis — and scored 13 points on 5-for-7 shooting. Keep hope alive!)
There’s no such thing as a good time to lose the starting point guard around whom you’ve built your entire offensive and defensive scheme, but the good news for the Grizzlies is that they’re not the only Western Conference playoff contender dealing with issues. The Utah Jazz won’t have Rudy Gobert back for weeks. The Thunder’s new big three have gotten off to a slow start. The Nuggets are still integrating Millsap and trying to figure out who their point guard is. The Pelicans are searching for consistent wing production. The Clippers are trying to stay afloat amid injuries to Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic. Even a down few weeks probably wouldn’t be enough to put Memphis squarely behind the 8-ball in the lower reaches of the Western bracket.
Even so, it’d be great if the Grizzlies could hold their own in Conley’s absence, even better if they could get him back at the career-best level he performed at last season, and better still if they could get that quickly, please and thank you. Luckily, Conley’s got an impressive track record on this sort of thing:
Mike Conley is a beast. What other occupation do you fracture your face in multiple places and go back to work within a week
— KG (@kenny_gurney) May 10, 2015
We are just short of a 1 year anniversary of Conley suffering a back fracture that was slated to keep him out 6-8 weeks; he returned in 17 days. So you know how it goes with Mike. Tough dude.
— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) November 17, 2017
A Memphis team with designs on an eighth straight postseason appearance knows it needs Conley in form to have any hope of making noise come spring and summer. If being patient now increases their chances of having him at 100 percent later, the Grizzlies will recognize that discretion is the better part of valor and wait until Conley’s barking dog calms down. Don’t be surprised, though, if there’s some anxious fidgeting and foot-tapping as they try to sit tight and survive without their perennially underrated point guard.
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