When the Utah Jazz originally signed Mike Conley in 2019, there were already plenty of people who were wondering how he would fit alongside Donovan Mitchell.
Mitchell had already proven himself to be a dynamic scorer and adept at playing with the ball in his hands, even next to Ricky Rubio, so there were many who questioned whether the Jazz needed a traditional point guard like Conley when they could just give the ball to Mitchell.
“Our experience in the bubble I think definitely helped. … We didn’t really have that throughout the season because Mike was obviously hurt, but we got that in the bubble. Then we found ways to continue to play off each other that’s helping us so far.” — Donovan Mitchell on playing alongside Mike Conley
The beginning of the 2019-20 season did nothing to quell concerns about the two guards playing with one another as the Jazz struggled to start the season and then surged when Conley was injured.
A year later it seems as if the perfect balance has been struck between the two, and I think there are two main reasons for this. One, shaking off the idea of traditional positional roles has allowed both players to open up their game; and two, time.
In an era of nearly positionless basketball, it can still be difficult to shake the idea that one player, and one player only, is responsible for initiating the offense. The Jazz haven’t been that kind of team in a long time.
At any point during the game it could be Conley, Mitchell, Joe Ingles or even Jordan Clarkson bringing the ball up the floor, and it’s on the other players to make the most of their time and skills off the ball.
That was a difficult transition for Conley. He admitted to forcing too much and trying to create a role rather than just find himself within the flow of the offense.
“I think it’s taken us some time to kind of work through it,” Conley said after Monday night’s preseason win over the Phoenix Suns. “You know me and Don would find ourselves kind of fighting for the outlet sometimes, trying to figure out who’s bringing the ball up.”
The Jazz’s third-quarter surge on Monday was boosted by Conley playing off the ball and included a dime from Mitchell for a 3-pointer.
Playing off the ball next to Mitchell is no longer something that Conley is trying to get used to; it’s something that he embraces and is finding success in.
“I like it a lot,” he said. “I think we’re much better at that to start this season. When he gets it I just run to the corner and he’s just looking to make plays. He’s so unselfish, man. .. When you get those kind of passes, it’s so easy for me to come off the screen and if I’m open I’m going to shoot it. If not I’ll make a play, and vice versa with me handling it and Don coming off screens or Joe or Bojan (Bogdanovic). It’s just the mindset that we all have as guards.”
The shift to seeing players for their skills rather than their title or position is evidenced in Conley referencing guards and including Ingles and Bogdanovic’s names.
There’s not really any benefit to holding players to these weird restraints that comes with positions like point guard or shooting guard, and with more and more players like Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dallas’ Luka Doncic, it’s harder to define players in that sense.
Instead it makes more sense to say wing players or playmakers. Or even better, you can say that Mitchell and Conley both are capable and willing to take the ball up the floor and initiate the offense or work off-ball with one another. It’s really that simple, and the reason that it’s so simple to see it like that is because they’ve had time together.
“Our experience in the bubble I think definitely helped,” Mitchell said. “Just because it allowed us to see where we like the ball in different situations. Instead of us both running to the ball, we just go on pushing, and being able to find each other in transition and find other guys. … We didn’t really have that throughout the season because Mike was obviously hurt, but we got that in the bubble. Then we found ways to continue to play off each other that’s helping us so far.”
If the 2019-20 season had been canceled outright, it’s possible that Conley and Mitchell would still be having some growing pains. That time spent together in Orlando was hugely beneficial for the playing relationship between Conley and Mitchell — the two lead wing players on the Utah Jazz.