Mike Conley usually switched off his phone. Golf was his sanctuary. He avoided social media. If he was exchanged, he and Mary devised a family plan. Like everyone else, Conley understood he might move in the summer. He knew anything could happen to him, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and his teammates. He and Mary debated re-enrolling the kids in Salt Lake City schools.
“We tried to manage it as good as we could,” Conley told The Athletic in a long interview. It was difficult because there were few responses to our inquiries. Who was staying or going? Expectations were unknown. I was exchanged daily.”
Conley considered joining the Clippers. A trustworthy source told him a transfer to the Clippers, a franchise that had pursued Conley for years, was possible. The Clippers choose John Wall.
Conley’s performance versus LA in Sunday’s 110-102 Clippers triumph was ironic. It’s ironic that summer anxiety has spilled into the Utah Jazz’s early season excitement. Due to his hefty deal, 35 years old, and poor performance in Utah’s playoff defeat to the Dallas Mavericks past season, Conley wasn’t traded by the Jazz.
That feels far now.
Jazz are 8-3 after 11 games. They lead the Western Conference alongside Phoenix. Only they have eight Western Conference victories. Six of the eight wins were against playoff or Play-In Tournament clubs from last season.
“This was challenging at first because I’m 35 and I’m so used to championship aspirations,” Conley told The Athletic. I joined the Jazz for titles. I wondered what might happen. I wanted to be here once Will Hardy, our new coach, started putting things out. We’re growing. I wanted to focus on the boys, not myself. I’ve loved every minute on this squad, and we play a style of basketball we haven’t played in a while.”
Utah is one of the finest tales in the league, a feel-good example of what can happen when excellent players play hard and together. Conley led it. Career-high 7.1 assists per game. He’s 41% from three.
Importantly, he calms the Jazz. He rules the floor. He leads a brilliant Jazz offense that struggles without him. Most expected the Jazz to sink this season.
Jazz never considered that. Did they expect an 8-3 start into Monday’s home game against the Los Angeles Lakers? This schedule, 8-3? No. The Jazz front management believed Conley, Clarkson, Olynyk, and Beasley would make them competitive.
On the opening day of training camp, Conley and the Jazz scrimmaged, ending with cold packs and protein drinks. The realization was immediate. The Jazz’s pre-camp scrimmages showed signs. Camp confirmed.
Not bad. False.
Conley and the Jazz heard the media. They heard their role. On media day, they addressed that. Twitter timelines are read by everyone. They seldom spoke up. Discussed it.
“We just kind of looked around and said we’re not anything what they say we are,” Conley added. Too many talented players to tank. We knew Day 1. No rebuild. We convinced ourselves we weren’t that horrible, and the boys bought into that. We believed in ourselves and thought we could start well.”
Teammates responded immediately.
Utah guard Collin Sexton told The Athletic that Mike preached it. We gained confidence. We wanted to play with a chip since so many people wrote us off.”
Conley leads a deep, versatile team. A resilient bunch. On Sunday night, the Jazz lead the Clippers for three quarters until LA regained control in the third and early fourth minutes. Utah never panicked. After Conley and the starters returned, the Jazz dominated the Clippers and won.
Utah beats numerous styles. The Jazz have won track meets and slugfests in 11 games. The Jazz never expected this start. Not Conley.
“If you told me in July or August that we would be playing this good, I would’ve said, ‘Hey I’ll take it,’” Conley said. “Since it’s so early, I don’t want to accept it as supporting what we think because we have a lot to prove. We can improve. We know ourselves, how we play, and how we can improve. It’s great to know we can do some of these things and silence people.”
Conley understands he may be dealt before the season ends. He’s enjoying this team. Self-explanatory. He’s playing like himself again. In previous Jazz seasons, Mitchell’s offensive prowess forced Conley to take over ballhandling duties. Quin Snyder tried to balance that by staggering their minutes, but Conley clearly lagged behind Mitchell.
Conley controls this season. He leads the offensive again. He’s doing his Memphis Grizzlies duty. Results exist.
Clippers head coach Ty Lue called him one of the most underappreciated point guards in NBA history.
Linus’s Peanuts comfort blanket is Conley’s ball. The Jazz trust him to handle the offense and know they’ll get a decent shot.
Hardy likens Conley to Tom Brady. They talk during games. Hardy lets Conley call plays. It’s like managing a free-wheeling team.
“I’ve learned a lot more from Mike than Mike has from me,” said Hardy, four months younger than Conley.
Conley’s performance in the Dallas series is hard to believe after watching him early in the season. It keeps him with the Jazz. People wondered if Conley was done.
Perhaps his worst postseason performance. Six games, 9.2 points in 29 minutes. He shot 33% from the field and 20% from three. He and Mitchell struggled to keep ahead of Jalen Brunson, who signed a big free agent deal with the New York Knicks.
Conley accepts his awful performance. He insists his challenges were not physical. No injuries. Not tired. His troubles were merely a coincidence. In the midst of the series, Conley told Snyder he was fine with being benched and shortened. If he injured the team, he wouldn’t play.
Conley felt shot-making was important. That ruled. I fouled out in the second game, and their guards were tough. I couldn’t purchase a bucket after the second game. I was disappointed because I performed well last year, but those 10 days ruined it. It obliterated it.”
Conley, like most of the team, wants to prove himself. He is still a starter and confident. He can lead and is confident. Conley can lead a successful offense.
“Donovan was so talented and there were so many other people who could make plays that I stood on the side a lot,” Conley said. “I’m back to possessing the ball and being a floor general and when I do that, I’m home.”
Importantly, Conley enjoys himself. His career-defining grin is back. Quiet confidence returns. Conley has seldom mentored before. He played with senior Jazz players.
Conley and Sexton are big brothers on this squad. They fire. Always talking. Sexton seeks his counsel despite being over a decade older. Conley is enjoying this squad more than expected.
Duration? We’ll see. Conley is leading the Jazz’s league-best tale. This season is probably one word compared to last.
“Honestly, these young guys are keeping me in the moment,” Conley said. “Everyone wants to see movies and asks questions. Coach-like. I’m liking this game.”
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