Mike Conley will almost always be an underrated player, that kind of thing happens in the NBA when you are so good at the intangible aspects of basketball. He isn’t Kyrie Irving or Russell Westbrook in the way that he will fill it up with 20, 30, or 40 points, but if I’m the Memphis Grizzlies’ GM that is quite alright with me. Conley controls the Memphis offense like a good game-managing quarterback. On defense, he quietly could be the best at his position.
There is one thing that that pops out of the TV screen when I watch Mike Conley play versus almost any point guard in the league, and that is how he gets his steals. See, Conley isn’t a guy who is all over the place going for steals by trying to jump each and every pass. A player such as this compromises the team’s defense, and that certainly wouldn’t fly in the always stingy Memphis defense, if he chose to do so. In a league where point guards are getting better and better, it isn’t like Conley is going to pry the ball from the guy opposite of him on a consistent basis.
So how does Conley do it? He’s second in the league in steals and that doesn’t happen by accident. Well, I’ve noticed throughout the year that Mike is extraordinary at help defense against opposing teams big men. Only an eye calculation, so this isn’t an exact percentage, but it seems Conley gets almost half of his steals in this manner. Let’s break down how he does so.
The first way Conley finds a way to strip opponent’s big man is all about the hands. In this upcoming clip you see the ball get fed to Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs. Mike’s man (Tony Parker) is cutting around Duncan for spacing reasons, which sometimes can also lead to an easy hoop, if there was a time where Conley gets lazy.
This, however, is an opportunistic time for the Grizzlies point guard, as he finds himself stripping a lot of people, just like he does so here to the future Hall of Famer. The key in this type of steal with Conley is the timing of the swipe and the quick hands. If he attempts to go for the steal too early, he will find Duncan being able to protect the ball. If he’s too late, it results in an easy dump to Tony Parker for a layup.
Conley takes advantage of spacing, timing, and overall awareness of the situation very well. Sometimes it just comes down to being in the right place at the right time for him, but that wouldn’t matter without his great awareness.
Here, Chris Kaman is receiving the pass probably looking to score, but unfortunately is receiving the pass right next to Mike. The Ohio State guard isn’t really doing anything genius or amazing here, but he is reacting perfectly to a big man being placed right in front of him with the ball. If you are not properly spaced in Memphis, their starting point guard will punish you for it like he does here.
Lastly and most importantly, Conley is incredible at the hardest of all the help defense driven steals. This is the most impressive, as he finds a way to intelligently space himself between his man and the guy with the ball. He is like the follower in a ball room dance. What he does is decided for him, it just comes down to reacting in the right manner. If the player with the ball puts his head up and fires the pass to the point guard, Mike is ready to run back to defend the man. If he puts his head down, Conley is ready to strip the man for a big defensive play. This is evident in this photo, Conley is in the middle:
Conley’s balance is perfect and that is the most poetic part of this defense, while at the same time being the most important part. He’s in a relaxed position, yet is still capable to strike akin to a Trap Door Spider or Venus Flytrap. The gap between him and his defender at this point in time is vast enough to be considered an open shot, but the fact Conley isn’t sprinting allows him to recover the space between him and Lillard in case a pass happens.
Mike is following LaMarcus’ lead in the dance the whole time, and seeing the power forward’s head down at this moment means he’s ready to attempt to take the ball. The fact he inches in the entire time, verses sprinting in headlong, allows him to get within striking distance of Aldridge before the pass is thrown.
The knack at which Conley does this is amazing. Defensive basketball can be hard to describe, but Mike’s paintings are masterpieces. It’s the little things that matter with Conley, and this is just another case of him taking advantage of these little things.