If you asked most people, they would assume Mike Conley has a luxury in returning to the court. Not only is his team rolling without him, but opposite in the backcourt is on a roll. The starting lineup without him is the best in the league. The bench has been reinforced. Conley’s return would appear to the outside observer to be like a Marvel movie by Disney. There’s no way it’s not going to make money. But those reasons are precisely why Mike Conley is in a tough spot when he returns. While he gets all the luxuries of a team on a roll, he has to make sure not to disrupt the Jazz’s groove and be the odd shaped cog in the Jazz’s winning machine.
When healthy Mike Conley is one of the best guards in the league. He’s an amazing playmaker, scorer, and leader. He is the type of player that most teams would love to be leading from the top guard spot. While in Utah Mike hasn’t hit that top end gear. He was playing at an above average level before the initial injury, but Memphis Mike hasn’t had that definitive performance quite yet in a Jazz uniform. And when Conley hasn’t been healthy in Utah, another guard has risen to the occasion and fit the same player profile as an amazing playmaker, scorer, and leader. He even does the profile better due to exceptional length and athleticism. That player is Donovan Mitchell. He was supposed to be Conley’s running mate in the backcourt, but Donovan Mitchell appears to have answered a question that Utah was not looking to ask this season: Can Donovan Mitchell be Utah’s point guard of the future?
The answer to that question can cloud the role is available to Mike Conley this season and may complicate Mike’s calculus when weighing his player option or playing his odds in the 2020’s shallow NBA Free Agency pool. But for Utah, that type of hypothesizing does little good in the present. The Jazz are firing on all cylinders and have the ability to add nitros to the engine if they install Mike Conley correctly into the offense again.
The question of whether he should continue to come off the bench for the rest of the season or at some point return to the starting lineup may be fun and salacious a headline to write, but it would go against a lot of precedent. Few NBA guards have made the transition from All-Star caliber guard to off the bench sixth man so early in their late careers. So few that John Starks, Danny Ainge, and Byron Scott make up the entire list. That’s it. That’s the list. Starks made the transition at 31, Ainge at 31, and Scott at 32. Starks was supplanted by Chris Childs, Danny Ainge was traded and played behind Terry Porter, and Byron Scott signed with Indiana and played behind Pooh Richardson.
If Mike Conley was replaced in the starting lineup permanently, it would be the NBA guard version of Tom Brady replacing Drew Bledsoe. It doesn’t happen that often and if it resulted in a generational star, it only happens once. To be frank, even if the Conley off the bench transition—as he gets up to speed—is a smashing success, I don’t see the Jazz ruffling the feathers of Mike Conley and his agent to keep it going.
So when Conley is ready to return to the starting lineup, how does that play out? Luckily for Utah, they have played this scenario out but in the frontcourt with Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert. With those two players they had two players whose best position was the center position. While Favors was capable of playing both Power Forward and Center, his added value was more impactful at the 5. They staggered their minutes so Derrick Favors was always a quick pull from 1st and 3rd quarter so he could provide rest to Rudy Gobert. Then in some scenarios, Quin Snyder had the luxury of going with the hot hand.
The same scenario can be played out with Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell. Donovan Mitchell in this scenario is playing the Derrick Favors role except there’s a bit of an overall talent reversal here. Donovan Mitchell while he is capable of playing and guarding both the 1 (PG) and 2 (SG) spot, he is the more talented of the two. Quin Snyder also has the luxury that a lot of lineups that feature both Mitchell and Conley are impactful and not getting outscored. Snyder has more luxury with Conley and Mitchell than he did with Favors and Gobert. The result? Snyder can play with Conley and Mitchell’s rotations as the matchup dictates.
Now what is important with the flexibility is it does not mean every single game Quin Snyder is going to adjusting his lineups on the fly using the quick thinking strategy of a Jenga player. But this luxury—if Conley can return back to Memphis Mike performance levels—allows Utah to adjust in a seven game series. If Utah is at a big size advantage in the backcourt, Quin can quick sub Conley out quick at the beginning of the game and run him against bench guards and run up the score. If the opposing team is the Clippers, Snyder can do the opposite and stagger Mitchell’s minutes to mirror Lou Williams to bother the perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate with size and force him to pick up fouls or get out of the way on Mitchell’s drives. Most importantly, during the regular season, if one of those two guards is ROLLING, Snyder has the luxury (not the choice because he can always play them together) to sneak in some late game minutes of rest while either Conley or Mitchell lights it up and runs the offense like a buzzsaw.
Mike Conley returning to the Jazz lineup adds versatility. But like any versatility, the availability of options can increase the number of bad choices. Those bad choices come with the number of lineup combinations Utah has to play around with. Over this stretch without Mike Conley, Snyder most likely has found the lineups that work for certain scenarios and purposes. There are now more options, but more does not equal better nor necessary.
This is why Mike Conley’s return to being part of the rotation in full is difficult. If the team takes a downturn, struggles, or doesn’t reach the same heights, he could—rightly or wrongly—be the seen as the scapegoat to the problem. How Mike Conley takes an already top tier team and raises its contender status could be Conley’s most difficult challenge yet. Here’s to hoping he aces it.