One of the most talked about aspects of the Utah Jazz this season has to be offseason acquisition Mike Conley. Traded for in exchange for Grayson Allen, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Darius Bazley and a 2020 protected 1st, Conley was supposed to bring a value that couldn’t be matched by the sum of parts the Jazz moved to acquire him.
Conley, a then 12-year veteran of the league and arguably its most underrated point guard, had several things going for him that had Utah’s front office drooling over him. Firstly, he had a scoring touch that the Jazz had previously almost entirely lacked outside of Donovan Mitchell. From 2014 to 2019, he averaged 18.1 points per game on a 50.7 effective field goal percentage.
Not only would Conley bring a much-needed scoring compliment to its young star guard, he has a career-long reputation for being a hounding defender and has an All-Defensive Team selection to his credit. All of that added up to a dream fit for Utah’s prospective championship roster: a third start to put the Jazz over the top of being a perpetual fifth seed and be a legitimate contender for the franchise’s first NBA championship.
Fast forward to now, nearly 60 games into the current season, and that fit and star value has yet to be truly seen. Let’s spare the details and statistics we all know and go straight into the speculation.
One possibility that’s been tossed around is the concept of lack system fit under head coach Quin Snyder. A consistent narrative when players haven’t gelled in Utah is that Snyder’s system is rather complex when compared to his league counterparts. But such a narrative somewhat falls apart for Conley when you see guys like Donovan Mitchell, a pretty similar player in terms of archetype, stepped into the system as a rookie and dominated. That same year, Royce O’Neale, as an undrafted rookie, also quickly found a place on the team and started in the second round of the playoffs. Bojan Bogdanovic also hit the ground running in Snyder’s “hard to learn” system.
All of that is not to say Conley doesn’t fit with the system, but blaming it on the complexity of the system doesn’t work as much when there is plenty of precedent for players to at least have decent success at minimum.
To say Snyder’s system is unfriendly to guards is also folly. There’s the already mentioned Mitchell and O’Neale. Then there’s George Hill who had his best statistical offensive season (albeit in a sub-50 game season) ever and Ricky Rubio had his best shooting season while wearing a Jazz jersey. Even backups like Shelvin Mack, Raul Neto and Emmanuel Mudiay have showed plenty of positives in Utah despite their own collective flaws.
The question of fit could very well lie in his pairing with Mitchell in the backcourt. In his 12 seasons, Conley pretty much never had a ball-dominant guard to play next to in Memphis. He generally shared the backcourt with the likes of defensive specialists like Courtney Lee and Tony Allen. His scoring help came from bigs, such as Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, who complimented Conley’s perimeter play with interior dominance.
With Mitchell, and even Joe Ingles when used as a ball handler, Conley’s dominance of the ball is being challenged perhaps more than ever in his career. He’s had to adjust to being an off-ball player more than perhaps he is used to doing, causing a much longer than usual adjustment period.
Is a move to the bench for Conley in the team’s best interest? Well, if it is the Jazz don’t seem to be on board as they appeared to flip-flop on that very decision by reportedly saying initially that Conley would move to the bench prior to the game against the Boston Celtics with O’Neale moving into the starting lineup before reneging and taking out Joe Ingles instead.
Plus, with Jordan Clarkson now dominating bench scoring to a sixth-man-of-the-year degree, is that kind of move really going to bring out that much more in Conley? And what about closing lineups? Conley’s talents were supposed to help in fourth-quarter and playoff situations. If Conley can only fit with the bench, how is he going to help during those crucial, season-defining moments?
There’s one other question to ask. It isn’t a fun one but may be the only other possibility next to Conley not being a fit. That being the possibility that Conley is “washed up” so to speak.
Being multiple years on the wrong side of 30, it does need to be brought up. It was to some degree when Conley was brought in and when he went though his awful initial struggles. There’s not much we can do with such an assertion other than wait and see, but it stands as a possibility.
What the Jazz front office decides to do with Conley in the future could easily determine if this team can win a title with its current core. Gobert is in his prime and Mitchell is closing in on his so the time is now for the right moves to be made.
Conley at his best, even with a 32-year old’s body, is the kind of ceiling-breaker Utah needs to take on the best in the West (and the East in the Finals). But the current version of Conley may not be compatible with the Jazz. It’s a conundrum that will define the franchise moving forward.