Normally around this time of year, the NBA Finals and NBA Draft have concluded, the hustle and bustle of free agency has died down, and we are transitioning into the dog days of the offseason. On June 30, that familiar hectic feeling starts to ramp up; turning on notifications for Shams Charania, Adrian Wojnarowski and Chris Haynes and trying to keep pace with all the player movement. From superstars causing seismic ripple effects across the league to underrated players looking to make their mark, the offseason is the playoffs for some teams. With every shocking development, trade, or signing, NBA free agency is easily one of the most jaw-dropping experiences in sports.
Unfortunately, this year, the coronavirus had other plans. As a result of the pandemic, all of those events mentioned have been delayed well into the fall. While there were still free agent signings last month, it was teams acquiring replacement players as some around the NBA decided to opt out of the season restart in Orlando.
So, let’s take a look back at a move from last year’s offseason. It could be potentially one of the biggest trades of the last decade, depending on how these next few years pan out for the Grizzlies: Mike Conley’s move to Utah. Let’s get into it.
A roller-coaster year for Mike Conley and the Jazz
When you think of the Grizzlies as a franchise, very few players embodied that “Grit and Grind” attitude like Mike Conley. Sure, they’ve had other greats like Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, but Conley was the constant. As a perennially underrated guard in the Western Conference with excellent shooting and facilitating ability, he was Memphis’ crown jewel.
He missed most of the 2017-18 season with a left Achilles injury, only suiting up for 12 games. The next season, despite having Conley, Gasol, and promising rookie Jaren Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies started out 13-8 before the bottom fell out in December and January, where the team went a combined 7-24. Gasol was shipped out to Toronto and Memphis looked at a hard reset.
Sadly, like Gasol, Conley’s tenure with the Grizzlies had to come to a somber end. A player of his caliber contrasted with the youth movement that the Grizzlies wanted to undergo. With a 33-49 record, the team had great lottery odds and a chance to draft a young point guard for the future. The writing was sadly on the wall.
As a result, Mike Conley was shipped to Utah for a package including Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, the No. 23 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft (Darius Bazley) and a future protected first-round pick. The “Grit and Grind” era in Memphis had concluded with one last move, and the youth movement commenced.
The Jazz assumed trading for Conley would be a shrewd maneuver. After all, they would be acquiring an elite defender who averaged 18.1 points per game on a 50.7 effective field goal percentage from 2014 to 2019. Conley would be that scoring burst next to Donovan Mitchell that they just did not have at the time. This move was supposed to be the one to push the Jazz over the hump and into the elite tier of the Western Conference. Unfortunately for Utah, the acquisition has not been as fruitful as it hoped.
In his first five games with the Jazz, Mike Conley averaged 12 points per game while shooting 32 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from behind the arc. In the month of November, his play did not get much better, with his averages progressing to 14 points per game on 37.4 percent from the field (he did shoot 38 percent from three-point land, for what it’s worth).
In December, a nagging hamstring injury forced him to miss all but three games that month. Luckily, this did not hinder the Jazz too much, with the team starting out 21-12 on the season before the New Year. However, it was safe to say the trade for Conley had not panned out for them to that point.
The Jazz went 11-4 in January, by far their best month yet. Conley, on the other hand, returned from the hamstring issue and struggled coming off the bench, averaging fewer than nine points per game while shooting 19 percent from three in the six games he suited up for that month. He returned to the starting lineup once February hit, and the season took an interesting turn.
Conley played well, as did the team heading into the All-Star break. He posted 20 points or more in three of the four games he played, and the Jazz entered the pause on a four-game win streak. Once the break ended, though, was when things came crashing down for Utah. The team came out with three-straight losses; The Jazz allowed 113 points to the Spurs (and trailed by as many as 25 in that game), 120 points against the Rockets, and an alarming 131 points against the Suns.
As for the Jazz’s struggling star, Mike Conley did not look great either. He sat out against the Spurs, then posted 13 points on 33 percent shooting in the loss to Houston and only eight points against Phoenix. This raised questions about Conley’s fit in the rotation, and he was even removed from the starting lineup. Who knows what happened behind the scenes, but hours after his removal was reported, he was back in with Joe Ingles sliding to the bench and Royce O’Neale in the starting five. Head Coach Quin Snyder said the move was defensively oriented, but it could have easily just been the Jazz front office not willing to give up on the Conley experiment just yet.
Since then, Conley’s play in Utah has improved tremendously. Before the NBA season’s suspension, Conley was averaging 16.4 points per game on 48/46/82 shooting splits in March and looked a lot more comfortable on the court. In the bubble, his positive play has continued as well, with three 20-point games (at the time of writing).
So, Conley’s tenure in Salt Lake City did not exactly get off to the best start. There have been injury issues, hot and cold stretches, and he was even benched for a few hours. Although his play has improved as of late, you would like more consistency from a player who you dealt two first round picks for.
Meanwhile, in Memphis, the Grizzlies have been doing just fine. Scratch that, they have been exceeding all expectations.
A new era in Grind City
Although trading Mike Conley was a tough decision to make, it was a necessary one. After cutting ties with Marc Gasol, it was evident the Grizzlies intended to pivot and reset for the team to be successful in the next decade. The Gasol trade netted Memphis a package including Jonas Valanciunas from Toronto; the man known as “Lithuanian Lighting” impressed in 19 games with the team averaging a shade under 20 points per game and almost 11 boards per contest.
Before trading Conley on June 19, the Grizzlies got extremely lucky about a month beforehand. With the new draft lottery system in place, Memphis shot up an absurd six slots all the way to No. 2 overall, despite having a 6.3 percent chance of doing so. Suddenly, the Grizzlies went from scouting Darius Garland and Coby White to focusing on a bigger prize hailing from Murray State.
Enter Ja Morant, who the team drafted the day after trading Conley, marking the end and beginning of an era. To say Morant stepped into Conley’s role and did well would be a massive understatement. From day one in the Grizzlies lineup, he has been a whirling dervish of energy, a human highlight reel. In fact, in his first seven career games, Morant put up numbers we have not seen from a rookie since some guy named Michael Jordan did it in 1984.
He has been absolutely phenomenal day in and day out, leading all rookies in total points and assists while shooting 49 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from behind the arc. The athleticism and swagger he showed in college has perfectly translated to the NBA, and he has been the driving force powering Memphis to a playoff spot.
Now, although Ja is an outstanding player, he was not included in the trade for Mike Conley, so let’s not dwell on him. As far as the actual return for Conley, it has been a bit of a mixed bag but with mostly positive results.
Grayson Allen has increased almost all his stats and shooting splits across the board, including a scorching month of December where he averaged 10.5 points per game on almost 49 percent from behind the arc. While he had a bit of a negative reputation before moving to Memphis, he has changed his ways for the most part and has become a solid young talent.
Jae Crowder’s stretch in Memphis was interesting to say the least; he shot an alarming 29.3 percent from three in 45 games and was in the news for his actions late in a game against the Knicks, but he did have a game-winner early in the season to propel the Grizzlies over the Nets in a barn burner.
Now, this is where the deal really leans in the Grizzlies’ favor. Basically, Kyle Korver was included in the package for Mike Conley for salary-matching purposes, which makes sense. Somehow, the Memphis front office were able to flip an aging Korver (along with Jevon Carter) to the Phoenix Suns for a package of Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton, and a pick. So, thanks to the Suns, the Grizzlies managed to land a former lottery pick, a second-year defensive specialist, and another pick. Wait, it gets even better.
On draft night, the Grizzlies traded the No. 23 overall selection included in the Conley trade (Darius Bazley) and a second rounder in 2024 to move up to No. 21, where they picked the uber-efficient, advanced stats darling Brandon Clarke. Just like that, Memphis conned the rest of the NBA and landed one of the best prospects in the draft, whose only knock on him was his age.
Starting with Josh Jackson, it is obvious he has not lived up to his lofty draft slot to this point in his career. However, just moving on so soon from a player you drafted at No. 4 overall could backfire horribly for Phoenix. Jackson could easily be a late bloomer who just needed a change of scenery, and credit to the Grizzlies for swooping in and stealing a solid project.
As for Clarke and Melton, they have been downright scary together. This is not hyperbole; Melton and Clarke had a net rating of plus-11.7 in 477 minutes when playing together this season before the restart, the highest-rated duo on the Grizzlies (minimum 300 minutes). Moreover, Melton was involved in six out of seven of the Grizzlies’ best two-man pairings at the time of league suspension.
Melton has been exceptional on the defensive end, and at only 22, the best could be yet to come. Once again, the Suns gave up on a promising guard who showed brilliant defensive ability his rookie season, and the opportunistic Grizzlies took advantage.
Brandon Clarke has taken the NBA by storm in his rookie season, largely in part by doing exactly what he did in college: scoring efficiently and effectively, while being a difference maker on the opposite end. Brace yourselves: Clarke has the highest field goal percentage in NBA history for a rookie averaging 10 points or more.
He uses his athleticism to perfection, running the pick and roll with Ja Morant as if they’ve been teammates forever; Clarke is in the 95th percentile when it comes to rolling to the basket this season, and every play looks effortless. On defense, the argument could be made that he is even better on that end. Per NBA.com, at the time of writing, Clarke is second in field goal percentage allowed (minimum 50 games played). At just 6-foot-8, he uses his leaping ability and reaction time to be an absolute menace on the defensive side of the ball.
He is phenomenal on defense, he is surgical on offense, and possibly the scariest part: he is adding three-point range to his game. Clarke does not shoot them often, but 36.8 percent on about one attempt per game is nothing to frown at. He has improved massively as a free throw shooter from San Jose State to now, and if he adds a consistent jumper, the league is very much in trouble.
All in all, the Grizzlies were able to move Conley’s large contract, in turn opening the position for their franchise cornerstone. Furthermore, they then flipped some of their return for Mike Conley into two great prospects who are already contributing to the team in a big way. Not to mention, the Grizzlies also picked up a future first-round pick, so that tips the scale even more in their favor. The Jazz, meanwhile, acquired an oft injured and somewhat inconsistent star, along with a ton of questions to answer throughout the season. Conley has picked it up as of late, but judging right now, this trade looks like an easy win for Memphis a year later, and it has positioned itself nicely to dominate the next decade.