‘Captain Clutch’: Mike Conley earned his reputation in Memphis, built upon it in Utah
Longtime Grizzlies guard now doing his thing in Salt Lake City as his legacy continues to evolve
Mike Conley never thought that this is how things would turn out.
He never envisioned playing anywhere other than Memphis, never thought he would walk into the FedExForum with a team name other than Grizzlies across his chest. He never thought he would be an enemy in the Grindhouse, the arena where he had become a legend.
“I would have never thought I’d be on the other side, coming into FedEx Forum as an opponent in a playoff atmosphere,” Conley said. “That was never a thought in my mind. Just saying that — it would be weird and it would be awesome.”
Two days after giving himself chills with just the thought of possibly playing against the Grizzlies in the postseason, his former team eliminated the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Play-In Tournament, setting up a first-round series against his new team, the No. 1 seed Utah Jazz.
“Something must be happening the way things are lining up,” Conley said with a smile. “It’s a new chapter for me. It’ll be fun to compete in the city that was home for me for so long.”
For 12 years Mike Conley was more than just a player on the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Grit and Grind era
Drafted fourth overall by the Grizzlies in 2007, Conley slowly worked his way into regular playing time, becoming a permanent starter in 2009. In the 2009-10 season, Conley, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Tony Allen became the Core Four of the Grit and Grind Grizzlies, named so because as the NBA moved toward a faster-paced and perimeter-focused game, the Grizzlies resembled the NBA teams of the past, playing slow and deliberately through their post players and with physical, bullying defense, grinding out wins.
Conley was the maestro of the Grizzlies’ gritty symphony and helped lead the team to seven consecutive playoff appearances. Conley earned the moniker “Captain Clutch,” known throughout the league as one of the greatest floor generals and one of the most dominant ballhandlers who made timely plays that could swing a game, eventually earning the unofficial title of the best player to never make an All-Star team.
On the court, Conley was the cool and collected silent killer that orchestrated action around the exuberant Randolph and Allen, while perfecting a pick-and-pop game with Gasol.
“When he was in Memphis with the Grit and Grind team of Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Tony Allen and all those guys, it was a tough team to play against,” Jazz center Derrick Favors remembered. “Every time you played against them you knew you was in for a dogfight.”
Off the court, Conley made Memphis his home and became a major figure in the community. The Mike and Mary Conley Comprehensive Sickle Cell Clinic at Methodist University Hospital in Memphis is named so because of Conley’s charitable contributions. Conley immersed himself in finding ways to reach out to those in need in Memphis and took it upon himself to help educate people about racial injustices, partnering with the National Civil Rights Museum and giving students tours of the museum, located at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Conley became synonymous with Memphis and even as he aged and the Grit and Grind era of Grizzlies basketball started to yield fewer successful results, you would have been hard-pressed to find many who thought Conley would finish his career elsewhere. He remains the franchise leader in points, assists, steals, 3-pointers made and games played.
In 2019, rumors started swirling about Conley being on the trading block and the Jazz being a frontrunner. The Grizzlies would be taking Ja Morant second overall in the draft, signaling the beginning of something new in Memphis and it became clear that a rebuild was on the horizon. Conley knew his time with the Grizzlies was coming to an end.
The Utah Jazz trade
The Jazz dealt Grayson Allen, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, the draft rights to Darius Bazley and a protected first-round pick to the Grizzlies in exchange for Conley.
The haul that the Jazz were willing to give up meant they believed, even at 31 years old, the veteran point guard would be a boon for the team.
Conley had thrived as the facilitator and main ballhandler on the Grit and Grind Grizzlies, but in Utah he would be asked to take on a much different role. He’d be getting less touches, on a team with multiple ballhandlers and a rim-running lob threat in Rudy Gobert, rather than a pick-and-pop partner like Gasol.
The Jazz knew it would be a process for Conley to become acclimated to playing in a completely different system after more than a decade in Memphis. But Conley’s struggles through the 2019-20 season lasted longer than many had anticipated.
“That’s hard for a guy who is in the latter stages of his career,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said.
Conley has been open about his struggles. He’s admitted that his first season in Utah was the most difficult of his career. It included an emotional return to Memphis where he was face-to-face with a team that had moved on and felt like they could get more out of a younger cast. He was overhelping on defense, he was forcing things on offense and he didn’t feel like he was contributing in a way that was meaningful.
To top it all off, he was in and out of the lineup with nagging hamstring issues. When the NBA season shut down in March 2020, Conley felt like he was just starting to carve out a role with the Jazz, and was starting to understand his position a little bit more. So, he spent the hiatus at his offseason home in Ohio, watching film and studying. Something clicked.
In the Orlando bubble Conley shined and the game seemed to have simplified for him. Still, the Jazz were without Bojan Bogdanovic and fizzled out, blowing a 3-1 series lead against the Denver Nuggets in the first round.
But this season, Conley’s 14th year in the league, things were different.
The 2020-21 season marked an even greater change for the Jazz. The high-paced, perimeter-focused offense is about as far as you can get from the Grit and Grind Grizzlies, but Conley’s talents fit that mold perfectly.
“The teams he played with in Memphis, for the majority of his career, were very different than the way that our team is constructed,” Snyder said. “I feel like his talents and his ability to create, to shoot, to playmake — he’s finding opportunities to do that. And when he has those opportunities, he’s just so efficient.”
Efficient might be putting it mildly. Conley, now 33, just finished the best season of his career. He averaged 16.2 points, 6.0 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game while shooting and making more 3-pointers than he ever has, hitting at a career-best 41.2% on 6.6 3-point attempts per game. His regular-season total plus-minus of 548 was second in the league only to Gobert. Conley finally shed himself of being the best player to never make an All-Star team, making his All-Star debut alongside Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.
Facing the next generation
The 2020-21 season culminated with the Jazz becoming the No. 1 team in the league and Conley facing his former team in the opening round of the playoffs.
The changing of the guard in Memphis was complete. Morant had led the Grizzlies to their first postseason berth since Conley’s departure. It seemed only natural that the newly dubbed Next Generation Grizzlies would have to go up against Conley, the player who had defined the previous era of Grizzlies basketball.
“I remember his first game back here, mentally he was all over the place, and rightfully so. It was an emotional moment for him,” Mitchell said. “But to be back here competing against Ja, who’s like — you got the OG and then you got the young guy. I think that’s pretty dope. It’s a dope story.”
The Jazz beat the Grizzlies 4-1. Conley wasn’t nearly as emotional as he was on his first return to the Grindhouse. This time he was comfortable and happy. He was calm.
Conley was the best player in that series and in Games 3 and 4 in Memphis. His performance was both reminiscent of the cool and silent killer that he’d been while with the Grizzlies, and proved that he had more to give to the game, that he could still be as effective on the defensive end while lighting it up on the other side. He went 54.8% from deep and silenced the crowd that for more than a decade had cheered him on.
“Sometimes you live long enough to become the villain,” Conley said. “I’ve become that for the Memphis Grizzlies now. Just got to take that in stride, continue to do what I do and have fun with that, have fun with the game.”
Throughout the Grizzlies series there was plenty of trash talk and physical taunting between Conley and Dillion Brooks, who was a rookie under Conley in Memphis. While many fans saw the antics of Brooks as mean-spirited, everything was born of love.
Brooks has Conley’s old locker at the FedExForum and when Conley was in Memphis, Brooks looked up to him, and still does.
“He showed me composure, he showed me just mental toughness,” Brooks said. “I can’t wait to see Mike. I know he’s happy for us, but at the same time, he’s ready to play against us.”
Conley has taken on a similar role with the Jazz, helping to teach that tough and composed nature to Mitchell.
“It helps me tremendously being able to have that calm and cooling presence, regardless if we’re up or down, whatever it is,” Mitchell said. “And you’ll never see Mike have a bad day either, which definitely keeps the mood light. He’s a great teammate and a great person and I’m thankful to have him. I think we all are. But for me personally I think it’s big for my growth, my mindset and my development in many different ways.”
It’s not often at the tail end of an NBA player’s career that they are able to take on a new role and thrive in the way that Conley has. He’s rejuvenated his career after many thought he would fade away following his departure from Memphis.
Conley will become a free agent at the end of the season, but his time in Utah has been one of new beginnings and if he’s able to give the Jazz anything like he did over the past year, there’s no doubt that they’ll want to keep him around to see what else he can do.
“There’s a lot more gas in the tank,” Snyder said.