Resilient and determined are two great words to describe the mission Mike Conley is on this season in leading the Memphis Grizzlies.
Conley’s Grizzlies have been one of the biggest surprises during an early season full of them around the NBA.
That’s why two other words are perhaps more appropriate descriptors for the veteran point guard. The words “all” and “star” carry a certain cachet when they are hyphenated and accompany the name of a NBA player.
Conley has been on the cusp of All-Star status before, but has never reached that level for whatever reason.
This could (and should) be the season that changes. The Grizzlies are thriving with their new-look "Grit-and-Grind" routine, and it’s due in large part to the work of their gritty and underrated point guard.
Conley, of course, has more pressing matters to tend to. The Grizzlies are in Oakland tonight for a dinner date (10:30 ET, NBA TV) with the reigning two-time NBA champion Golden State Warriors, who boast one of the finest point guards in NBA history (Stephen Curry).
Conley’s up for the challenge, averaging 20.4 points and 6.5 assists per game in 29 games one season after being limited to just 12 games due to a heel injury.
The Grizzlies are as well, with a Southwest Division-leading 16-13 record compiled in the face of the sort of drama (see last week’s trade craziness) that would sack most teams. But not with Conley, Marc Gasol and Garrett Temple leading the way.
Conley spoke with NBA.com's Sekou Smith about becoming a true “Memphian,” the Grizzlies’ "Grit-and-Grind" reboot and much more.
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Sekou Smith: You guys have shocked a lot of people this season, playing the way you have. What’s shocked you about the start you all have had to this season?
Mike Conley: I think the thing that’s shocked me is how good defensively we’ve become and how much further we can go, I think. I knew we’d be good defensively. But I didn’t think ... we have so many guys that I didn’t know defended as well as they did, like Kyle Anderson is a great defender. Garrett Temple is a great defender, Shelvin Mack, everybody that we added this offseason really fit the mold and has taken our team back into that one of the best defensive teams in the league conversation, as we go forward.
SS: It’s so tough to go from where you were during the "Grit-and-Grind" era to reconstitute yourself with a different coach and different players and step right back into that profile. How strange has it been to see your team morph from one thing just a few months ago back into "Grit-and-Grind" mode?
MC: Yeah, it’s an adjustment. And it’s something that’s not necessarily popular in today’s league, with the game and the way it’s being played. I told the guys jokingly before the season, “Are y’all sure you want to play this way?” It requires a lot, you know. You’ve got to be in great shape to defend the way we do and then still be effective on the other end. It’s hard, it’s hard work. So I think it hit everybody hard early in the season. Luckily, we got off to a good start and we started to see the results of what our defense can do and what it means to the game. And people buy-in. With all that going on, it’s easy for me and Marc to just bring it back to that stage where we were three or four years ago when we were doing the same thing: Be the best defensive team in the league night in and night out.
SS: You’re wearing a completely different hat now compared to then. You’re being asked to score much more and looking at the value the game places on point guards who can score, distribute and defend, guys that can do it all, I’m thinking Mike Conley has to make the All-Star team this year.
MC: Right, right, I know where you are going (laughing).
SS: That said, I know you always preach team first. You’ve been that way since Lawrence North (High School in Indianapolis, where Conley teamed with former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden to win multiple state championships) to Ohio State (where he and Oden led the Buckeyes to the NCAA title game as freshmen) to your time with the Grizzlies. So how do you reconcile your desire to see this team reach its full potential with the underlying pursuit of making that All-Star team for the first time?
MC: It’s always been, especially here in Memphis, more about our team and if we can win and be effective and put our team on the map, our individual things will follow. For me, I just seem to be the Lone Ranger in the fact that even though we’re winning, everybody around me seems to have gotten that notice or that kind of attention and I have yet to kind of crack through to that All-Star bid. It’s not changed the way I feel about the game and my approach to the game is always team first. I hope with me coming back this season and playing the way I have and my team playing the way we have that it will turn a few heads, or at least a few more heads, and hopefully I’ll get that opportunity this year to experience All-Star Weekend on that stage.
Obviously, it was hard thinking about the future at that time, you know, what direction are we going? I don’t know, there’s so much uncertainty and doubt at a time like that because of how the season played out, you just didn’t know what was going to happen going forward. It was just a weird season honestly, but ultimately it seems to have worked itself out."
SS: When you bounce back the way you have this season, I’d imagine it makes it extremely tough to look back at the 2017-18 season the Grizzlies endured and see things go off track the way they did, knowing you couldn’t do anything about it on the court?
MC: It was hard just to watch your brothers fight every night and scratch and claw for everything they could get out of every game and just not have enough to win games. And knowing that you and your absence was a big reason why things were unraveling the way they did. It was hard to watch. It was hard to be away from the team, obviously when I had surgery, and for weeks at a time as you are trying to heal up and get right. Obviously, it was hard thinking about the future at that time, you know, what direction are we going? I don’t know, there’s so much uncertainty and doubt at a time like that because of how the season played out, you just didn’t know what was going to happen going forward. It was just a weird season honestly, but ultimately it seems to have worked itself out.
SS: I know you guys had a preexisting relationship with J.B. [Bickerstaff] before he assumed the duties as coach and then took over that job on a permanent basis, but what is different about him than perhaps what you initially realized? What’s been the marked difference in him as a head coach and what has he done to connect with this team that wasn’t done before?
MC: I think everybody loved J.B. before he was our permanent head coach because he’s so honest with everybody. He’s so up front with you. He tells you how he feels and what he needs out of each individual guy. And guys really respect that about him. Guys also respect the fact that knows he doesn’t really know it all and he’s willing to admit that. He doesn’t always approach each situation claiming he has the answer. He’s willing to listen. He’s willing to adjust, you know, he’s that kind of guy. And us vets on the team, we really took to him really easily because of that, he allows the space for guys to lead. And the young guys really have soaked up everything that he’s tried to establish in terms of a foundation and culture for the team and organization and how we’re going to operate, especially on the defensive side of the ball and getting that mentality back that we’d have over the years.
SS: You’ve been in Memphis long enough to know just how passionate and how attached that city becomes to its basketball stars. Do you feel fully engrossed in that culture now after all this time living and experiencing it, the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and everything in between?
I’m in this position now, when I’m looking around the locker room and looking for an older guy ... and there’s, literally nobody there like that. And it’s because myself, Marc and Garrett Temple, we’re the guys that all the younger players are looking up to ..."
MC: Oh yeah man, I know what this game means to the people of Memphis, to this region. And yeah, I’m a Memphian. Thankfully, I’ve been able to play my whole career here and to see the growth and the fans have been there behind us since the beginning. And I think more so than anything, they feel a connection to our players, the guys we bring in, because of the style, the mind set and the blue-collar grind and attitude we all bring to the game every single day and seem to embody. And that’s because it’s very much similar to the way Memphis is made up.
The people of Memphis go about their business every day with that blue-collar attitude. They work hard, work their tails off, they never complain and you have plenty of things to complain about but you don’t hear it. And in that way the Grizzlies are the same way. We come in and do our jobs and don’t try to get caught up in anything else but our work and getting the job done. I think that’s what they love the most about us and what we love and respect the most about them. It’s that Memphis pride.
SS: You mentioned spending your whole career in Memphis. Do you every stop and think about where you were when you first came into the league and where you are now, and just quickly it seems it’s all gone down?
MC: Oh man [laughing], definitely. I’ve sat there multiple times the past couple of years and said to myself, ‘What happened?’ or better yet ‘How did this happen?’ because it’s hard to wrap your head around how I’m in this position now, when I’m looking around the locker room and looking for an older guy or somebody I can ask a question to and there’s, literally nobody there like that. And it’s because myself, Marc and Garrett Temple, we’re the guys that all the younger players are looking up to and looking at to figure all of this stuff out. It really is strange how quickly it happened. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to play as long as I have, but man these  years have gone by so fast.
SS: You, perhaps better than most, can look back over the years at all of the guys whose paths you’ve crossed in basketball and can appreciate how hard it is to do this at a high level for so long. Does that also remind you of the importance for guys such as yourself, true veterans, how important it is to come back year after year with a new piece added to your game if you want to stay relevant and to keep climbing?
MC: Yeah, it’s a constant battle each summer, especially with the way the game changed over the last few years. When I first came into the league there was getting in shape and all these things you have going on, and I’m younger so I’m able to do all of those things. Then you get a little older and you have to work double time to do those same things you used to do much easier. Now I feel like you have to work triple time to be in the NBA shape of today, the way people move up and down the floor is a lot faster and guys are playing a lot quicker and everybody is handling the ball, so it just became like the older you get the more and more you have to put into your game to stay afloat and to keep up with all these young guys.
I mean, I’ve got a rookie in Jaren [Jackson Jr.] who personifies exactly what I’m talking about. He comes in here as a teenager, right around 7-feet tall with all the length and bounce you want in a young guy and he’s shooting 3-pointers and blocking shots and playing all over the floor and doing a little bit of everything. That’s where we are right now in this league and I’d be lying if I told you that the future doesn’t get me going. This is a fascinating time to be in this position in this league because the future is so bright, here in Memphis and throughout the league.
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