Leading up to the 2023 NBA trade deadline, Mike Conley wasn’t expecting the Utah Jazz to move him. The then 35-year-old guard expected to retire in Salt Lake City. So, Conley was in disbelief when his agent called him on February 8 to inform him that Utah was trading him to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“It seemed like nothing was happening on the other teams,” Conley told The Athletic regarding his mindset at the trade deadline. “I was like, ‘We’re going to be in Utah.’ ”
The trade that sent him to the Twin Cities was Conley’s first not having control over his new team in his 16-year career, and the Timberwolves were the third team he’d suit up for. The move was unique because the Wolves played the Jazz that evening. Mike’s agent called him to tell him that the Jazz had traded him 30 minutes before heading to the Delta Center to begin his usual pregame routine.
“It was the weirdest day of my life, for sure,” Conley said regarding the trade. “Normally, you get a second to decompress after something like that goes down. But as soon as I was traded, I walked over, and I met everybody on the Timberwolves’ side. It was just a super weird scenario. And then they get on the bus with me the next morning; I thought I would have like two days. I came home, got a little bag, and ready to go, so it was a unique, unique situation.”
Rumors linked Conley to Minnesota leading up to February 8. Tim Connelly was looking to move off D’Angelo Russell’s contract before he became an unrestricted free agent in the summer, and the team needed a different floor general who could help Rudy Gobert get acclimated with his new teammates. Conley fit the bill, but it was still unexpected to see the Timberwolves pull the trigger on a trade involving two lefty point guards ten years apart in age. Sixty-six games later, the trade seems like an obvious success for Connelly and his staff, which has been incredibly surprising.
Or has it?
Before we go any further, I have a confession. On January 22, 2023, almost one year ago today, I wrote an article titled “Should the Wolves Target Mike Conley In A DLo Trade?” In the piece, I was mostly against trading Russell for Conley, mainly due to the age gap between the two. Mike was approaching his 16th season in the NBA. Typically, that’s right around when Father Time catches up on a player. Meanwhile, D’Angelo was in the middle of his physical prime.
I was also bullish on DLo then. I thought he brought certain intangibles that most fans overlooked. However, Minnesota Mike is playing on an entirely different level than Russell. Suddenly, I knew what a true point god looked like. It wasn’t something I expected, but the numbers prove Conley has been doing this his entire career and shows no signs of slowing down.
Through his 12 seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, MC’s on/off numbers help paint the picture of his value. Efficiency differential measures how many points a team scores minus how many points the opponent scores per 100 possessions. According to CleaningtheGlass.com, Memphis’ efficiency differential with Conley on the floor was positive in every season aside from his rookie year. He was ranked in the 87th percentile amongst guards for seven out of those 12 seasons.
What does that mean? The Grizzlies were a much more efficient team on offense and defense when Conley was on the floor.
It was more of the same in Utah, where Mike resided for three and a half seasons. The 2020-21 campaign was a career year for Conley. He helped lead the Jazz to a Western Conference-best 52-20 record and was awarded his first All-Star appearance. Below are some incredibly telling stats from that season, courtesy of PBP Stats and Cleaning the Glass:
- UTA w/ Conley on (1498 minutes): +16.95 net rating, 119.80 offensive rating, 102.8 defensive rating
- UTA w/ Conley off (960 minutes): -4.30 net rating, 110.77 offensive rating, 115.07 defensive rating
- Efficiency difference w/ Conley on: +11.8 (96th percentile amongst guards)
- Turnover percentage w/ Conley on: -1.2% (83rd percentile amongst guards)
- Opponent points per possession w/ Conley on: -10.2 (97th percentile amongst guards)
Additionally, Conley found his most prolific counterpart in Salt Lake City. Rudy Gobert provided the veteran guard an above-the-rim pick-and-roll option, which Mike never had in Memphis.
In 2020-21, Conley ran PnRs 45.1% of the time, which ranked him sixth-best amongst guards. Gobert was the one screen-setting, rolling, and slamming most of the time. He averaged 5.2 points per game via PnRs alone, which was second-best amongst rollers, and he was the roller 31.7% of the time, ranking him fourth-most.
All of those stats are courtesy of Synergy and are with a minimum of 50 games played.
Conley’s highly efficient play and connection with the Stilfle Tower were why Minnesota’s front office traded for Conley. While both of those positives have been driving factors to the Wolves’ West-best record through 39 games, MC’s abilities from long-range have been arguably more impactful.
When the Timberwolves offloaded Russell, who attempted seven threes per game in 2022-23, there was a concern that they would severely lack three-point shooting from the guard position. DLo’s efficiency was inconsistent in Minnesota, but Chris Finch could always count on him to attempt a high volume of threes.
Conley shot 38% from three in his career before arriving in the Twin Cities. However, he only attempted just over four threes per game and was in the middle of a down year with the Jazz, averaging 36% from three on five attempts per game. Finch needed Conley to adapt to a new role and attempt to make more threes than he had before. That may be difficult for other 36-year-old players who are getting used to a new team and system, but not Mike.
Conley concluded last season shooting 42% from deep on 5.8 attempts per game for Minnesota. That would have been a new career-high for him had he kept that up for an entire year. Fast forward to this season, and MC is having a historic three-point shooting campaign.
Again, Conley’s raw numbers highlight his success from beyond the arc. All of these stats are via NBA.com and Cleaning the Glass:
- 3-point percentage: 45.5% (7th best league-wide; career-high)
- 3-point makes: 90 (2nd most league-wide)
- 3-point attempts: 198 (2nd most league-wide)
- Corner 3-point percentage: 57% (93rd percentile amongst guards)
- Non-corner 3-point percentage: 41% (86th percentile amongst guards)
Bite Bite (sorry, I had to at least once) has successfully shot the ball in many different ways. He can shoot off the dribble in pick plays while also spacing off the ball and waiting for catch-and-shoot opportunities. Conley can positively impact the game without the ball in his hands, which wasn’t one of DLo’s strengths. That makes him an incredible backcourt partner to Anthony Edwards, especially in late-game situations.
The Timberwolves have played 45 minutes with Conley on the floor in high or very high-leverage situations this season and 18 minutes without. Minnesota’s net rating is +28.14 with him out there and +6.72 without him. Most of those 18 high or very high-leverage minutes without Mike came last week against the Boston Celtics. Conley missed his first game with the Timberwolves in Boston, and the team fell 127-120 in overtime.
The Celtics closed on a 14-3 run after Minnesota took a nine-point lead with 3:35 left. Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns combined for five points on 1-of-4 from the floor in the fourth quarter. Boston’s defense clamped down, and the Timberwolves struggled to get anything going on offense. Finch typically subs Conley in when that happens, and he moves the ball and makes three-point shots. However, Finch and his staff didn’t have that luxury, and the Wolves lost a winnable game despite the odds not being in their favor.
That gut-wrenching defeat further proved Conley’s value.
I have no issue admitting I’m wrong, and my stance on trading for Conley was most likely the worst take I’ve ever had. Conley has been producing efficient and winning basketball through his 16 seasons in the league. Father Time scared me when the trade was announced, but it seems as if Minnesota Mike is nowhere near slowing down. He’s not turning back the clock, though. What he is doing right now isn’t anything new. Regardless of the role, team, or age, Conley’s invaluable traits on both sides of the ball have always driven winning.