KFC Finger Lickin' Good Deal
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

MikeCheck on Grizzlies: Conley steadily heals, yet hurting from helplessness as Grizz fight to end slide

By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – During his time off the court the past month, Mike Conley has fashioned himself as the mediator for the Memphis Grizzles.

By day, Conley aggressively rehabs a left Achilles injury that forced him out of action in mid-November after he tried to play through the discomfort for nearly a month. And by night, Conley does everything he can to encourage teammates and support an embattled coaching staff through a devastating losing streak that’s reached 11 in a row entering Monday’s visit from the Timberwolves.

Since Conley last played in a Nov. 13 loss in Milwaukee, Memphis has endured its longest losing streak since 2009, parted with coach David Fizdale 19 games into his second season amid an acrimonious relationship with All-Star Marc Gasol and juggled a slew of injuries that threaten to derail the season.

Try reconciling all of that as the Grizzlies’ self-appointed mediator.

“That’s my second job, man,” Conley said as the calendar flipped from a winless-at-home November to a healing-and-hopeful December. “I am the mediator for everybody. Part-time psychologist. I definitely was in the middle of trying to help steer things in the right direction.”

Still, there’s only so much Conley could accomplish without a basketball in his hands right now. That is expected to change soon, with the franchise catalyst on the verge of approaching the most extensive aspects of his latest rehab with hopes of a mid-December return to help rescue the Grizzlies’ season.

Since that 5-1 start that featured a win over Golden State and two over Houston, the Grizzlies have dipped well below .500 and out of position for one of the West’s eight playoff spots. But with four months remaining in the regular season, including two before the mid-February trade deadline, Memphis is optimistic Conley’s return will potentially restore postseason aspirations.

No one has bigger expectations for that than Conley.

“Very eager,” Conley said. “And I know that we’re not this team that we’ve been, this team that we’ve shown over the last (month). I know when I get back we’ll be a completely different team, and we’re capable of being who we were at the beginning of the year. I know the team is anxious for it, but we have to do as much as we can while I’m out. When I come back, hopefully get this thing back on track.”

That process starts with Conley’s return to relative health.

By the time he’s back in the lineup, Conley will have returned from his longest injury absence since he was shut down for the final 20 games of the 2015-16 season with left Achilles tendinitis. Conley entered December having made promising progress in his recovery. Simply spending time on the court in practice gear shooting free throws with teammates last week was a significant step.

There are still hurdles ahead to clear, such as a gradual return to basketball-related activities and conditioning. But just getting to this point hasn’t been taken for granted. Already, Conley has felt a night-and-day difference. He shot a career-worst 38.1 percent from the field and 31.2 percent on threes as he struggled through 12 games before he was sidelined to undergo extensive treatment.

Now that he’s at some level of patience and peace with the process, Conley shared the extent of pain he dealt with when his heel would flare up after games earlier in the season.

I know that we’re not this team that we’ve been, this team that we’ve shown over the last (month). I know when I get back we’ll be a completely different team, and we’re capable of being who we were at the beginning of the year... When I come back, hopefully get this thing back on track.
-- Mike Conley

“It’s almost impossible to walk when it’s really flared up, and it’s hard to get onto your toes to jump or to do anything athletic, let alone doing the basic things – walking and trying to go up the steps or anything,” Conley revealed. “It’s tough because it’s not something I’m used to having to deal with. I play a certain way. I play hard and I play fast. That kind of sometimes can flare it up.”

After multiple medical tests, alternative treatment and consultations, Conley said there is no structural damage and that his “Achilles itself is intact and doing great” after extended time off to recover. Conley also dismissed fears of causing any additional damage or a tear once he returns to action.

“Never is that something that crosses my mind,” he insisted. “After this last bit, they told me it can heal fully. I just have to give it time to heal.”

The time away has also given Conley time to reflect on his past approach to managing his health and dealing with the bumps and bruises that come during an 82-game season. In the past, Conley has pushed to return ahead of schedule from injuries that range from the fractured vertebrae in his back last year to the fractured orbital bone he suffered three seasons ago during the playoffs.

The Achilles, however, has been a different challenge altogether because it directly impacts his mobility.

“As we know, I rush things a lot and when I come back I (wouldn’t) say anything about it,” Conley said of his past approach. “And I might be feeling it all year and withhold that from trainers, just to try to get on the court. I’ve done that over the years. But now, I’m trying to do the smart thing, which is frustrating at the same time. But I knew I wasn’t helping the team with the way I was playing because of this.”

In recent weeks, Conley has tried to help his team in other ways.

He’s extended leadership and advice to Mario Chalmers, Tyreke Evans and Andrew Harrison in their attempt to take over the point guard duties. He’s worked with rookies Dillon Brooks and Kobi Simmons on dealing with the speed of the game and mental toughness as they adjust to the NBA.

And he even tried to intervene to mend fences between Fizdale and Gasol on their philosophical differences. Conley said he had hoped the Grizzlies could turn things around during his absence, but that it only made matters more difficult on several fronts. Seeing the tension come to a head during a Nov. 26 loss to Nets was the toughest part for Conley.

Fizdale benched Gasol for the entire fourth quarter of a close game, and the veteran center voiced his displeasure to reporters after the 98-88 demoralizing loss. Fizdale was dismissed a day later with a 50-51 record and a disturbing trend of disappointing home losses and personnel conflicts.

“There’s going to be players that fit the coach better and vice versa,” Conley said of the issues with Fizdale and Gasol. “It just so happens that their relationship wasn’t at its best at the time when we needed it to be, especially when the microscope was on us in the sense that I was out and we were losing games and we were expected to do a lot more.”

The peak of Conley’s frustration at the time was that he couldn’t do much at all.

“It’s been all literally out of my hands,” Conley said of his thoughts at the time. “I can’t control anything. I can’t be on the court to help. I can’t, you know, be there to console guys. Half the time, I’m not on the road trips because I’m here trying to do rehab and trying to get better. So it’s very hard to sit and watch because I know that we wouldn’t be in this position if I was playing. That’s why I feel some form of accountability for this whole thing. So it’s definitely hard on me. I just really can’t wait to get back.”

And the Grizzlies can’t wait to have him back. Although the losing streak has trudged along, Memphis has shown some spark and improved play in recent losses to the Spurs and Cavaliers.

Memphis’ seven consecutive postseason appearances represents the third-longest streak in the league behind Atlanta and San Antonio. With Conley back to restore stability, interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff believes a relatively healthy Grizzlies squad is capable of a playoff run.

There’s plenty of ground to make up in order to extend that streak this time.

Maybe the Grizzlies can regain their stride.

Soon, Conley will return to set the pace.

Expect much less mediating.

And far more playmaking.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special