Welcome to the Greatest Moment series at Last Word On Pro Basketball, where we’ll present to you each NBA team’s greatest moment of the 21st century. From draft lottery luck, to a franchise-changing trade, to the sweet taste of a championship, every NBA team has had its own special moment to look back on.
Greatest Memphis Grizzlies Moment of the 21st Century: Mike Conley‘s All–Star Caliber Year
Worth Every Penny
In the summer of 2016, Mike Conley signed the biggest contract in the league, a five-year, $153 million deal with the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies are the only team that Conley has known since they drafted him fourth overall in 2007. Many critics disagreed with the hefty payday, while some felt it was well deserved. Conley had a lot to prove, and not just because of the check. Before he decided where he would spend the next phase of his career, Conley worked on his brand, body, and game.
Conley has always been a meek guy. But the 2016-17 season was going to be different. “Underrated” was a term often used to describe the guard. Conley had a plan to execute with goals and aspirations to fill. He was eager to show his progress as a great player. On opening night 2016, the Grizzlies took on the Minnesota Timberwolves at FedEx Forum. It was a soldout affair, as 8ball & MJG rocked the Grindhouse. Conley made his presence known and the league soon noticed. Memphis’s floor general stole the show. Conley dropped 24 points and four assists, shooting four-of-five from downtown and four-of-five on free throws in 29 minutes. The Grizzlies won 102-98, shooting a scorching 45.8 percent from three-point territory. It was the first time in quite awhile that they made 11 three-pointers in one game.
Reclaiming His Vertebrae
Before the pain, there was a steady up climb for Conley. The elite guard continued to prove his value. In the following game against the Washington Wizards, he racked up 24 points and 11 assists. On Nov. 4 against the Philadelphia 76ers, Conley put up 30 points and 10 assists. When Memphis battled its old rival, the Los Angeles Clippers, on Nov. 16, Conley notched 18 points in the first half alone, also making seven threes to bury Los Angeles. Conley did not return for the second half after suffering a quad contusion to his right leg. When he returned to the floor, for only the second time in his career, he was asked to come off the bench.
In a very physical game against the Charlotte Hornets on Nov. 29, Conley went down due to a dirty play by Frank Kaminsky. The left-handed guard was out of commission indefinitely. Conley was averaging about 19 points per game at the time. The fans were so upset the NBA did nothing about Kaminski’s play. Instead, the league chose to call it a freak accident and allowed the clumsy big man to get away with no penalty.
Reports: Grizzlies' Mike Conley out indefinitely with a transverse process fracture in a vertebrae
A Bonafide Star is Born
This ironic story has a twist. Conley broke both franchise and NBA records in the 2016-17 season. Many media members and coaches agreed that Conley was well on his way to his first All-Star selection before being derailed by injuries. Miami Heat head coach Eric Spoelstra said that it would be a crime if Conley’s name was not called.
Conley missed about four weeks after being ruled out indefinitely. However, it was too late for the clutch guard to make up that time in his bid for an All-Star selection. Conley’s back injury ultimately cost him big-time. He never complained, never made unnecessary comments or anything of the sort. Instead, Conley chose to work his behind off with the same fire as before – the determination and drive with which he started.
Conley helped lead the Grizzlies to the postseason. He finished the season averaging 20.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 6.3 assists. As a 29-year-old veteran, Conley had the best NBA season of his career. And in the 2017 NBA playoffs, Conley turned into a legitimate star.
Despite Memphis’s first-round exit, Conley established himself among the NBA’s elite in the past playoffs. He brought hope to Grizzlies fans. Even if “Grit and Grind” comes to a close soon, with Zach Randolph leaving this past summer, Memphis can still count on Conley.
CHARLOTTE, UNITED STATES – NOVEMBER 21: Marco Belinelli (L) of Charlotte Hornets blocks Mike Conley (R) of Memphis Grizzlies during the NBA match between Memphis Grizzlies vs Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum arena in Charlotte, NC, USA on November 21, 2016. (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)