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With new contract, Conley ready for Memphis makeover

POSTED: Jul 18, 2016 12:25 PM ET
UPDATED: Jul 19, 2016 5:54 PM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst

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Mike Conley's new $153 million deal is currently the largest contract in NBA history.

How many slabs with slaw can you get down at Central BBQ for $153 million? Asking for a friend.

(Okay, asking for me.)

Even in the Monopoly money world of the modern NBA, a $153 million contract gets everyone's attention. It certainly got Mike Conley's, and he was the fortunate recipient.

"When I first got that number, I didn't understand how it got that high," he said Sunday. "For me, I'm still used to the old salary cap, like a lot of people are. Where a $100 million contract, $90 million contract, that's the top. That's what you're going to get. And that's where my mind had always been, just right around that number, $90 to $100 million or something. That would be great. And to hear something like 153? That doesn't make any sense. But I saw how, with the way the salary cap is bumped up, and with the Bird rights and everything else going along with it, it was really good timing. It was unbelievable."

But Conley was in the right place at the right time -- an unrestricted free agent whose Memphis Grizzlies had full Larry Bird rights on him, and could thus give him a five-year deal starting at 30 percent of the salary cap, the maximum for a player who's played between seven and nine seasons in the league. Conley just completed his ninth, all with Memphis since the Grizzlies made him the fourth pick of the 2007 Draft. (A year from now, Conley would have been eligible for 35 percent of the cap as a player with 10 years in the league.)

The huge spike in next season's cap, which rose from $70 million this past season to $94.1 million for 2016-17, as a large chunk of the money from the new national television deals with ABC/ESPN and Turner (which runs this website) came pouring in, meant Conley could get a first-year salary in excess of $28 million. And the Grizzlies didn't hesitate a moment in giving it to him.

It is, for now, the biggest contract in terms of total value in league history, surpassing the five-year, $145 million extension the Pelicans gave Anthony Davis last summer.

But no one criticized New Orleans for paying up to keep Davis off the market. He's a three-time All-Star already, considered one of the top one or two young big men in the game, and an Olympian to boot (though he won't be on this year's team going to Rio next month). By contrast, the 28-year-old Conley has never made an All-Star team, or Olympic team, though he is on most people's short list as one of the league's top point guards.

Fizdale On Mike Conley

David Fizdale talks about the importance of Mike Conley to the team.

He was the top target for new Grizzlies coach David Fizdale, who indeed stalked him from the moment he took over for Dave Joerger.

"I want to develop him as a real leader, as a guy who really takes leadership to another level," Fizdale said Monday. "Which doesn't take the leadership off of those other guys, because I'm going to expect a lot from them as well. But Mike has to be the catalyst, now where he's at in his career."

And, for a Memphis team that has struggled to be a destination for free agents over the years, keeping Conley was a big reason why the Grizzlies were able to sign ex-Mavericks forward Chandler Parsons to a four-year, $94 million deal.

As ever in free agency, there were dominoes that affected other moves. The Mavericks came hard after Conley, and hoped to team him with Miami free agent center Hassan Whiteside to form a new point guard-center combo that could compete for the next several years alongside Dirk Nowitzki and Wesley Matthews. But Dallas' pursuit of those two players meant the Mavs were abandoning Parsons, who they'd signed with great fanfare away from Houston in 2014.

But after meeting with the Mavericks on July 1, Whiteside decided to stay in Miami. And Parsons was interested in Memphis.

"Chandler was the one who reached out to me first, before I even got any word from anybody with the Grizzlies that they were interested in him," Conley said. "It was kind of backwards, almost. He reached out and was wondering what I thought of Memphis and what I was going to do and what my plans were and what teams I was meeting with. As soon as I realized that, I was like, If I don't go somewhere, I've got to get this guy to come to Memphis somehow. It began like a week before free agency. We started talking. And as soon as free agency started, we were texting back and forth that day, before his meetings started, seeing how things went. Once he told me he loved it and he was down to come, especially if I'm going to be there, I was like, if you're going to be there, you already know I think we can win a championship with the pieces we're putting into place. I said let's do it."

Fizdale wants Conley to embrace the expectations that will be on him with his contract.

"That's what pushes us, what drives us, what raises our level," Fizdale said. "What's wrong with expectations? Don't run from it. Who cares? That's the beauty of being a man and growing and going through challenges in your life, is that you fight for these moments. You thrive in it. You want this...I want to help him take that on, full head of steam."

Conley has been the starter at the point in Memphis pretty much since he came to town. He's as much a part of the Grizzlies' 'Grit-n-Grind' persona as Tony Allen or Zach Randolph, a defensive pest and offensive talent whose courage playing just days after suffering a "blowout" fracture of the bones surrounding his left eye during a 2015 playoff series against Portland endeared him to teammates and to the city of Memphis.

That love cuts both ways. Already immersed in the city, raising money both for the city's iconic St. Jude Children's Research Hospital -- the hospital treats kids with life-threatening diseases and conditions, at no cost to their families -- and for Sickle Cell Anemia research, Conley took it a step further last week after getting his big payday. He announced he'd be donating $1 million to the Grizzlies' Foundation, which funds mentoring and training programs throughout Memphis with a collection of local civic associations. Grizzlies owner Robert Pera matched Conley's donation.

The foundation seeks to partner mentors with some of Memphis's estimated 80,000 children that live below, at or slightly above the poverty line.

"Not saying that's the end all, be all," Conley said of his donation. "But it would be a good start to help as much as I can at this moment, make sure it's a significant amount of money, and hopefully challenge people to match that. Thankfully, we got Robert Pera on board, and a couple of other people that are unnamed at this time that have matched that donation."

Conley also took time from his press conference last week to speak up publicly about the wrenching unrest that plagues the country, centered on the killings of African-American citizens in Louisiana and Minnesota, followed by the fatal attacks on police officers in Dallas. (His remarks came before Sunday's murder of three Baton Rouge police officers -- the same city where Alton Sterling, an African-American man, was killed earlier this month).

"This last few weeks is supposed to be the most exciting time for me, getting a new contract, getting to be come back home to Memphis," he said at the presser. "But I haven't celebrated. I haven't celebrated not one day, in light of all the events that are going on in this world, and in America. For me, it's hard for me to wake up knowing that this injustice is still going on. The violence against police officers and the violence against innocent citizens has to stop. We have to make a change, and however hard that is, how uncomfortable it is -- it's not comfortable for me to sit here up here and talk to you about it, to be honest. I'm a quiet guy; you all know that. I'm very reserved. But at the same time, as much as I like to lead by example, I know when it's time to speak up. Now is that time."

Memphis has had its own, less reported upon, roiling tragedy to deal with. It has been almost exactly a year since a 19-year-old unarmed African American, Darrius Stewart, was shot and killed by a Memphis police officer. A grand jury refused to indict the officer, and Stewart's family announced last week it was filing a $17 million federal lawsuit against the city.

More than 1,000 protestors shut down the Mississippi River Bridge in town earlier this month for four hours after a Black Lives Matter rally in the city.

Conley said Sunday he was only verbalizing what many people are feeling these days.

"I'm normally reserved in most times and most situations," he said. "But at this juncture, there was no room for me to be quiet about this issue that we have going on right now that's affecting so many people. Especially with my situation, and given the stage that I was on, and that I'm on now, I wanted to get my voice and hopefully try to, not just by giving to the foundation and help toward a better community, but letting people know that we feel the same as they do, as athletes, and as citizens, just like them. And we can't stand for it any more."

The violence against police officers and the violence against innocent citizens has to stop. We have to make a change ... I know when it's time to speak up. Now is that time.

– Mike Conley

There are, it seems, stirrings of a new consciousness among NBA players to speak up, no matter whether their words cause offense. At last week's ESPY awards show, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade opened the evening with a frank appeal to both police and retaliators against them to stop violent acts. They also challenged professional athletes who have a public platform to speak out more about issues affecting their communities.

"The system is broken," Anthony said. "The problems are not new. The violence is not new. And the racial divide is definitely not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high."

Said Paul: "We stand here tonight accepting our role in uniting our communities, to be the change we need to see. We stand before you as fathers, sons, husbands, brothers, uncles -- and in my case, as an African-American man and the nephew of a police officer, one of the hundreds of thousands of great officers serving this country. But: Travon Martin. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Laquon McDonald. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. This is also our reality."

Their words served as a jarring juxtaposition to what was, almost certainly, the greatest financial fortnight for athletes -- and, predominately, African-American athletes -- in history. The salary cap expert Albert Nahmad estimated Friday that in the first two weeks of July, NBA teams made financial commitments going forward of $3.4 billion to 120 free agents, including more than $1 billion for next season.

There are always people who think anyone making the money that Conley and others are making means they should be quiet. And that isn't just referring to fans. Corporate sponsors and endorsers don't like their spokespeople alienating anyone who could buy their product.

Conley acknowledges it's hard to speak out -- not just because of the money, but just because it's hard.

"It's hard on us because one, I think we really don't understand the power we have, the influence we have in the community, especially being an African-American basketball player," he said. "There's a lot of African Americans that look up to you, a lot of people that follow your career. You have to be a good role model. For us to speak on such a sensitive subject can be very tough. You know how you feel and you know what you want to say, but when you get a camera in front of you, you never know how it's going to come out, or how it's going to come across to people. You don't want to offend anybody on such a touchy subject. And that can be the thin line that you're walking...I think it includes fans, it includes people who aren't fans of the game, just people in general. It includes the team, the organization, the league. You have to watch what you say these days, because you're under a microscope, especially with social media being a big part of that."

Conley is ready for more responsibilities across the board. Fizdale sees him running a much faster tempo attack than the Grizzlies have run. Memphis tried playing faster last season, benching Randolph and Tony Allen, with disastrous results. But the Grizzlies were also wrecked by injuries. Gasol broke his foot in February and missed the rest of the season, and Conley missed the end of the regular season and playoffs with an Achilles' injury.

Fizdale remains committed to getting up and down the floor, with Conley as the team's conductor. (That's not hyperbole; the Grizzlies made a recruitment video to woo Conley featuring Justin Timberlake, a minority owner of the team, an orchestra and the team's drum line called "Our Conductor.")

The Grizzlies also brought in 13-year vet and 1998 All-Star guard Nick Van Exel, who's been on the bench as an assistant in Atlanta and Milwaukee, and as head coach of the D-League's Texas Legends last year, to work with Conley.

"I think it really clicked with him," Fizdale said. "I think it was really already how he had envisioned himself. I think it was easier to explain to somebody who was already kind of seeing themselves that way, seeing the system and a culture that he would want to be a part of. I don't think he ever really wanted to leave Memphis. I don't think it was something he was in a hurry to do. He needed to see, like most guys, you need to see the reasons why. I think I gave him enough reasons why. I definitely bugged him enough."

Fizdale also came correct to Conley's dad and agent, Mike Conley, Sr., a gold medal winner in the triple jump at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 and silver medalist at the '84 Games in Los Angeles.

"I tried to also speak to his dad in a way outside of being his agent, he's also his dad—what would his father want for him?," Fizdale said. "I tried to speak to him on that level, with the respect of him being a (former) world class athlete, a world class coach, an expert in athletics and how the body functions. I wasn't talking to average-minded people here."

Said Conley: "Just hearing those kind of comforting words, knowing that he cares about this team and winning a championship, knowing that he cares about me as a person, knowing it's almost like he's felt like I've felt for my nine seasons going under the radar, knowing that I wasn't necessarily in the fastest system or the system that would be run and gun or do all these things to help me individually, he knew all that and felt that, and knew that we're going to try to make sure you have the best options to help you succeed and help the team succeed."

Fizdale's notion is a team-wide adjustment in how to score. He wants them to play faster, and with better spacing, but doesn't think they have to go to small ball to do it. There should be, if everyone does what they're supposed to defensively, ample opportunities for Conley to get out in transition off of stops, with Parsons spotting up and Allen cutting to the basket. But that also means Gasol and Randolph have to get into the attack fast as well, to be available either in quick screen and rolls or as trailers.

"I look at Zach and Marc as guys that can consistently extend their range, if they know where their shots are coming from," Fizdale said. "It's not like I'm dealing with guys that can't shoot the basketball. These guys have already shot a few threes in their careers, and shot the 20-footer as well as anyone. Coming from a place like Miami where we developed Chris Bosh's three, and the utilization of a big man shooting the three, I really think that we can do that with those guys. But I think our initial attack, our initial spacing, will give Mike more opportunities to attack early in the offense."

It will require the cooperation of Gasol and Randolph, who've gotten used to having the ball in their hands in the more plodding attack Memphis has featured in recent seasons.

"It's no secret—we've done what we've done because of them over the years, and made our names because of them," Conley said. "At the same time, we can't just continue trying to do the same thing every year, because we haven't gotten over the hump yet. So we need to try something a little different. I know Marc and ZBo and those guys are all on board with Fiz and what his vision is, and how he's going to use those guys within the system. I know Marc is more than capable of doing it. I know Zach is more than capable of doing it. It's just a matter of getting comfortable with it early and believing in the system."

With Durant going to Golden State, everybody else in the west is, on paper at least, playing for second. With much of the conference in transition, a top four spot is possible for the Grizzlies—and a few other teams—if everything goes right. At the least, Conley won't be Exhibit A for the debate about the league's financial largesse more than a year or so.

"Like I told a lot of people, I'll be the guy that the casual fan doesn't understand why so and so is making this much," he said. "In two years, they'll be talking about somebody else making $200 million."

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Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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