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What The Memphis Grizzlies Should Do About Mike Conley’s Upcoming Free Agency

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Why the Memphis Grizzlies should NOT give Mike Conley a max contract this summer.

When the Memphis Grizzlies signed Marc Gasol to a max contract last summer, it was done under the impression that it would sign Mike Conley to one this forthcoming summer. Conley was Gasol’s biggest recruiter, even going so far as to agree to stay in Memphis if Gasol did too.

While there is much basketball left to be played in the 2016 campaign, it’s pretty safe to say that, if the Grizzlies make the playoffs, they will not make it past the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs (and that’s being a bit generous). Since the trade deadline has come and gone, there will not be another time for Memphis to make itself good enough to compete with the upper echelon in the West until this summer’s free agency.

Memphis will make re-signing Conley its number-one priority, and it has reason to. Conley is the franchise’s all-time leader in games and minutes played, the leader in assists by nearly 1,500 dimes, the leader in steals by over 300 takeaways, second only to Mike Miller in three-pointers made, and second in total points, having surpassed Rudy Gay for second within the last week. He led the entire league in steals in 2012/13, and was voted to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team that season.

And if that weren’t enough, he’s been the floor general for the most inspiring and successful team in the franchise’s 15-year history in the Bluff City. He’s led the team to five straight playoff appearances, including a Western Conference Finals berth, the only such in the team’s history. He was there when the team won its first ever playoff game in San Antonio and went on to upset the Spurs as an eight-seed. He heroically manufactured one of the most legendary performances in Grizzlies history in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals last year against the Warriors. He endured the harsh criticism of fans and media alike while he slowly matured from green rookie—backup to then-starter Kyle Lowry—into veteran almost-All-Star.

Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

But loyalty, from either the front office or a player, does not factor as much into teams’ decision making anymore. Nowadays, it’s a sentiment of “what have you done for me lately,” or even more apt, “what will you do for me in the future?” For both Conley and the Grizzlies organization, the answer to the latter question is dubious.

Conley, at 28 years old, stands in the height of his prime. If the Grizzlies were to sign him to a full max, they would be giving him five years at an estimated $25 million per year—more years and, therefore, more money than any other team can offer him. By the end of that contract, they’d be shilling out $25 mil to a 33-year-old, a prospect that is not ideal.

But let’s at least give Conley the benefit of the doubt—maybe he’ll be like Jason Kidd, who played efficient basketball until his mid-late 30s. These graphs from NBA Miner seem to indicate that guards either have a longer prime, a delayed onset of their primes, or both.Image titleThe X-axis is age, the Y-axis is an efficiency score based on a mathematical model created by the author of the article. The red dotted line represents the average efficiency of a player. The highest few years of efficiency correlate to a player’s prime.

Image title

For reference, no other position (guard-forward, forward, forward-center, center) has such a flat curve. Only centers have a higher total efficiency, but their curve is much more parabolic, meaning that, at their peaks, centers are the league’s most efficient players, but at the fringes of their careers, they are more inefficient than the league average. This is why giving Gasol a five-year max was chancy.

So, according to these graphs, guards are more likely to have success into their 30s than any other position. This bodes well for Conley. However, Conley has a long injury history that counteracts, to a degree, what those graphs say. Just last year, after the playoffs ended for Memphis, Conley disclosed his full list of injuries.

He also sprained both of his ankles last season, and this year, he’s in a walking boot when not playing, thanks to those ankles. He’s missed six games this season, 12 last year (not including playoffs), and nine the year prior and has only played a full NBA season one time in his nine-year career (although, to be fair, he’s been within two games of an Iron Man season three times).

OK, despite his worrisome injury history, let’s continue giving Conley the benefit of the doubt. Say he remains healthy the rest of his career, never again beset by any injury or malignancy. What would his production be like over the life of this proposed max contract?

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog created a career projection machine called CARMELO, which does exactly what it sounds like (not chuck long twos and play suspect defense). Essentially, it predicts what a players’ wins above replacement will be over his next seven seasons and gives historical comparisons to other players who fared similarly at the same age. It’s a very fascinating system, and if you’d like to know more, you can check out the thinking behind it here.

One caveat: CARMELO was created before the beginning of this season, so its accuracy has never been tested. It will likely take two or three seasons for it to gather enough data and become a truly reliable model. However, although CARMELO is unproven, it can still point us in the right direction for further research. See the player comparisons below for that further research.

Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Conley, according to CARMELO, is having his worst season of WAR in his last three seasons. He’s projected for a slight uptick in 2016, but his WAR descends slowly after that. For the five seasons he would be under contract, his projected WAR, which spans the middle 80% of likely WAR possibilities, are 6.2, 4.8, 4.4, 3.2, and 2.2. For reference, Stephen Curry‘s WAR over the next five years dips below 10 only once.

To further complicate things, Conley’s top three comps, Isiah Thomas, Chauncey Billups, and Jason Terry, all began their career descent at age 28. These three player comparisons are especially significant because they post similarity scores of 60 or above with Conley. Similarity scores above 50, according to Silver, are rare, and “similarity scores above 60 are even rarer.” So rare that Silver characterized players with similarity scores from 60-99 as “separated at birth.”

via NBA.com

Thomas won his second championship with the Detroit Pistons at age 28 in 1990. He posted a win shares per 48 of .107, already the second-worst mark of his career to that point. Every year following 1990, according to Basketball-Reference, Thomas’ WS/48, net rating, box plus/minus, and value over replacement player fell until his retirement in 1994. That’s not to say that Thomas wasn’t a good player in those five years—he went to four All-Star games in that span. But his production suffered every year in the process.

Billups is a bit of different spin on the same story. In 2005, the year after HIS Pistons won the Finals, Billups posted a then-career high net rating, BPM, and VORP while netting a near career high in WS/48. The following three seasons were the best of his career, with three All-Star appearances, the final three of six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances, and another Finals appearance, and he set a number of career-best marks. Basically, he did what 29- to 31-year-old guards are supposed to do.

But after 2008, what would be his fourth season since the end of his age 28 campaign, Billups’ numbers took a huge hit. His WS/48 dropped from a career-high .257 to .174, and his BPM dropped from a career-high 6.1 to 2.5. His age 33 year saw a marginal increase in efficiency, but nowhere near what it had been two years prior. And—same old song and dance—after his age 33 season, his numbers slipped across the board for the rest of his career.

Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Terry’s case is a bit more straightforward. In 2006, Terry posted a WS/48 of .165, a net rating of +10, a BPM of 2.9, and a VORP of 3.5. The next year, he posted career numbers in all of these categories, but the year after (and every year since), those stats have trickled downward. It should be noted that at age 33, he did win a championship with the Dallas Mavericks. However, he recorded some of the worst advanced numbers up to that point in his career.

Before Gasol’s injury, Conley was posting the worst WS/48 in the last six seasons. Now that Gasol is gone, Conley’s role has increased immensely, and therefore, his WS/48 has increased. Yet, he’s still posting a .144 WS/48, a number worse than any he’s produced the last three seasons. His BPM is 1.9, a low he hasn’t hit since 2012, and his VORP is 1.5, his worst in six years. Additionally, he’s shooting the worst field-goal percentage of his entire career and the second worst three-point percentage since his rookie year.

via uproxx.com

If Memphis could sign Conley to a max contract for three years as opposed to the full five, that would give Memphis much more flexibility down the line. Flexibility it forewent in signing Gasol to the full max. Or, if Conley is willing, Memphis could offer him less over a longer period. One suspects that not only would the front office pursue this tactic, but Conley would also receive it poorly, hurting Memphis’ rock steady chance of re-signing him. 

The Grizz could also try to front-load the deal, giving Conley more money in the first few years and less in the final ones. The other option Memphis has is to let him walk, opening up much more room to sign a marquee free agent this summer or next (highly unlikely) or to begin a rebuild.

The Grizz front office should not take the Conley decision as a given. It should take into account how a max contract will hamstring the franchise in the long term. As beloved as Conley is in Memphis, the fact of the matter is that his production will falter at some point over the life of the expected contract, and to not acknowledge that outcome would simply be bad business by the Grizzlies brass. 

Mike Conley is a great player—one of the greatest in Memphis Grizzlies history—but that sentiment needs to be put aside, and a forward thinking attitude needs to be present when it comes time to negotiate his new contract.

Edited by Jazmyn Brown, Ben Moore.

SQuiz
Mike Conley Jr.'s dad was a gold medal Olympian in what sport?
Created 2/28/16
  1. 100 m. Hurdles
  2. Pole Vault
  3. 5,000 m.
  4. Triple Jump

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