2019-20 Previews: Utah Jazz

Losses: Ricky Rubio, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, Thabo Sefolosha, Ekpe Udoh, Raul Neto, Grayson Allen.

Additions: Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Ed Davis, Jeff Green, Emmanuel Mudiay, Nigel Williams-Goss, Miye Oni.

Likely Starters
Guard: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell
Wing: Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic
Big: Rudy Gobert

Predicted Record: 55–27 | 4th in NBA | 3rd in West

Today is Mike Conley’s 32nd birthday. He’s had a really interesting career. He arrived in our basketball consciousness as Greg Oden’s Friend, accompanying the big guy the Ohio State. That year, as a freshman point guard who couldn’t really shoot from outside, Conley was the guiding principle that carried Ohio State to the championship game (they lost to the Joakim Noah/Al Horford Florida Gators).

Memphis drafted Conley 4th overall, and there were a few years during which that pick felt like a reach. He slowly improved, and in 2010—coming off a season in which he averaged 12 points and five assists per game with a PER below the league average—the Grizzlies extended him to an extension worth $45 million over five years. He slowly improved. Get used to reading that sentence. He slowly improved. He slowly improved.

It’s hard to imagine this now, but people questioned that contract. It seemed like a lot to give a mediocre point guard. It ended up being the central force in the last decade of the Grizzlies’ franchise. With Conley locked in at a bargain rate (he slowly improved), it was possible to maintain a good core around him. Even better, he slowly improved, and as he did, so did Marc Gasol, and the two of them turned into a ferocious, severely competent pair on both ends of the floor.

Eventually, a couple years ago, Gasol started looking old. The end of the Grit and Grind Grizzlies loomed. You can guess what happened with Mike Conley: he slowly improved. Last season, lugging around a garbage roster, Conley—at age 31—implausibly averaged a career high in points and field goal attempts. He did what he could to try keeping a sinking ship afloat. And now, for the first time in his NBA career, Mike Conley’s on a different team.

Conley’s whole game just begs to be underrated. He’s a pure point guard in the classic sense—a game-manager who is willing to be a killer when things get desperate. He knows where his guys want the ball; he knows how to get it to them. He’s rock-solid on defense. One thing I love about Conley is that early in his career he always hovered around the league-lead in steals, and then suddenly, right around the middle of his career, his steal-rate plummeted. My theory is that he realized something like: steals are risky, and I’ve got Tony Allen with me and Marc Gasol behind me—let’s just grind the other team until they fuck up.

Famously, Conley has never been an All-Star. He’s played in the West during the dominance of the West—during the era of Paul and Westbrook and Harden and Curry and Lillard and on and on. When someone becomes great slowly, you barely notice it. It’s like the fable of the boiling frog. Conley, today, on his 32nd birthday, might still be improving, because that’s what Mike Conley does. Again and again, he gets better. Who is a better basketball player: Mike Conley or Kyrie Irving? Mike Conley or Russell Westbrook? Who would you rather have on your team? Who is more likely to help you win?

This Utah Jazz team presents a new situation. The starting lineup heading into this season has a kind of offensive potential that goes beyond anything Conley has ever played with before. Rudy Gobert will be rumbling down the middle, Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic will be spreading the floor and bullying switches, and Donovan Mitchell is a downright fireball. Conley’s a chameleon, and I’ve never seen him in this environment. In what glorious complexion will he dress himself?

This team is deep, and beyond the 1-5 combination of Conley and Gobert, everybody is multi-positional and versatile. This roster has an answer for everything. There’s a reason the sportsbooks currently have them right around the top of the West. Gobert and Mitchell are the eye-catching stars here, just as Greg Oden was the star on that Ohio State team back in 2007. Nevertheless, we know who is driving the car. It’s Conley, incrementally approaching his destination, a little better all the time, doing what he does.