Who's your favorite point guard in the league? Chris Paul: He epitomizes the role a la John Stockton. Rajon Rondo: His defensive and passing skills make basketball enthusiasts drool. Derrick Rose: He can take over a game at any moment. Russell Westbrook: His scoring abilities are explosive. His crossover is deadly. Although those are your favorite point guards, does that make them the best?
Arguably, the best point guard in NBA history from a fundamentalist perspective is John Stockton. Stockton lead his Utah Jazz to two consecutive NBA Finals. As the all-time assists and steals leader, Stockton epitomizes what a great point guard should be.
For similar reasons, basketball analysts agree that Los Angeles Clipper’s guard Chris Paul is the best point guard in the National Basketball Association. Paul is an undeniable star. He commits few turnovers, creates scoring opportunities for his teammates, leads by example, and can shoot efficiently. There is no debating his prowess at the NBA's equivalent to the NFL's valued quarterback position.
However, the title of second best point guard is debatable. With the recurring injuries of Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo, these point guards are slipping in position ranking. Stephen Curry continues to amaze with his shooting abilities, but commits the most turnovers (4.2 per game) of any point guard in the league. Similar to Curry, Wall can score, but he commits 3.55 turnovers per game. Damian Lillard is having a stellar season, but lacks the defensive prowess to help contain opposing point guards. Future Hall of Famer Tony Parker is one of the top scorers and leaders at the point guard position, but he has never been a consistent three-point threat.
A great point guard must be able to protect the ball, facilitate through passing, efficiently shoot from the perimeter (forcing defenses to be honest), cause turnovers through steals and ball pressure, and display leadership. Chris Paul does all of those things exceptionally well. Likewise, Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies does the same. In fact, he may be the second best point guard in the NBA.
At 6’1", 185 pounds, Mike Conley resembles Stockton in physique and in durability, growth, leadership, shooting, turnovers to assists ratio, and defensive prowess. Here are five reasons why Conley is the best point guard in the league behind Chris Paul.
John Stockton only missed 22 games in his entire career. Similarly, Mike Conley is consistent, dependable, and durable. While the top point guards of the league are frequently injured (Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Deron Williams), Conley has played in 476 games out of a possible 512 games, thus Conley has played in 93 percent of games in his seven year career. In that same time span since 2007-2008, Chris Paul has played 87 percent of games within the last seven seasons. Having your floor general on a nightly basis is key to long term success in the NBA.
Conley’s durability is surprising. His thin stature is vulnerable to the demands of the NBA lifestyle—82 games, interviews, commercials, preseason games, playoffs, and more obligations. In seven seasons, Conley has played almost 17,000 game minutes including the post season. The Memphis Grizzlies have never employed a useful backup for Conley to help mitigate his every game workload. Players like Allen Iverson (then out of his prime), Jerryd Bayless, Nick Calathes, Keyon Dooling, Gilbert Arenas (then out of his prime), Josh Selby, Jeremy Pargo, Greivis Vasquez, and many more mediocre point guards never panned out to be successful in Memphis. Their lack of success forced Grizzlies’ management and coaching staff to delegate large minutes to the trusted floor general.
Similar to Stockton, Conley proved his critics wrong by improving his game incrementally each season. His field goal percentage has increased to 45.6 percent this season—a 2.8 percent increase since being drafted in 2007. Worth noting, Conley’s field goal attempts increased after Rudy Gay, the team’s leading scorer, was traded to Toronto. Thus, although he was taking more shots per game, he shot more efficiently.
In 2012-2013, Conley made 106 three pointers. He is on track to top that number this season. Conley currently has made 62 three pointers. As a three point threat, Conley’s career three point percentage is under 40 percent, similar to Stockton’s career averages.
In terms of player’s efficiency per game, last season, Conley posted the third-highest PER in the league at 26.4. His averages were reminiscent of Stockton’s premiere seasons at 16.9 points per game and 9.7 assists per game. Conley is currently ranked fifth in PER at 20.76 amongst all point guards.
Realizing the potential greatness in his fellow competitor, Chris Paul said "The team goes as he goes...I try to contain him as much as possible, but Mike is one of those guys year in and year out just keeps getting better, and he's a handful."
Conley earned All-Defensive 2nd Team honors in 2012-13. During that season, Conley ranked third in steals per game at 2.18. Trailing only Chris Paul and Ricky Rubio, Conley’s steals lead to fast break opportunities for Tony Allen—a defensive-focused shooting guard that excels with transition opportunities. This season Conley is ranked 9th in steals per game amongst point guards. A further analysis reveals that for every turnover Conley commits (averages 1.92 per game), he roughly earns a steal (.80 steals per turnover). Conley is ranked fourth amongst point guards in steals per turnover.
Traditional point guard
Despite the rise of athletic point guards like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, great point guards don’t have to be flashy. They simply need to know what to do and when to do it in order for their respective team to succeed. He is ambidextrous. He can drive equally on either side of a screen.
Like many great point guards before him, Conley can shoot. Conley’s trademark jumper is a high arching bomb from the center of the three point line. He has also developed a reliable floater when carving through the lane. Additionally, after breaking down a defender with his dribble and pulling up for a perimeter shot, Conley is shooting 44.4 percent.
Further forcing defenses to be honest, Conley is a persistent driver. Successful NBA teams need a perimeter player that can take the ball at least 20 feet from the hoop and dribble in the lane without turning the ball over. Conley does not turn the ball over. He is ranked fifth in assists per turnover leaders at a 3.26 ratio.
A protected crafty dribble through the lane forces defenses to collapse. Because NBA teams refuse to play zone defense, help defenders and hedgers are always on alert for crafty dribblers. Conley ranks eighth amongst driving point guards with 7.4 points scored per 48 minutes. At 8.1 drives per game, Conley ranks 11th amongst all NBA players.
Although he currently ranks 13th in assists, the return of Marc Gasol, the addition of Courtney Lee and the pending return of Tony Allen will boost those numbers. Gasol, standing at 7 feet tall, is a legitimate scoring threat in the post area. Lee, the league’s leader on pull up jumpers, knocks down a whooping 53.8 percent of those shots. Those gray areas in between the post and three point line are statistically inefficient league-wide. However, if effective, those particular areas can be difficult to effectively defend. Since acquiring Lee from the Boston Celtics, Conley’s team has won seven out of eight games (including back-to-back games against a talented Houston Rockets squad).
In analyzing passing numbers via NBA.com/stats, in the total number of passes a player makes and the scoring opportunities that come from those passes, Conley ranks 13th amongst point guards at 19.7 points created by assist per 48 minutes. As the Grizzlies’ quarterback, he makes about 67 passes per game: a number that would make the NFL’s Drew Brees jealous.
Above any other reason, Conley is the second best point guard in the league, because he is a leader. He has the "it" factor that all great point guards have. Conley proved his leadership in the 2011 NBA Playoffs by outplaying Tony Parker as the Grizzlies upset the favored Spurs. Parker said during the series “He plays good defense. He is at the top in steals. He knows when to shoot and when to pass. He has a great tempo and patience about his game. He’s one of the top-10 point guards in the league.”
Similarly, Conley outplayed the league's best point guard Chris Paul in last season's NBA Playoffs. Down two games, Conley led the Grizzlies to four straight playoff victories. In Game 2, Conley torched the Clippers for 28 points. In Game 3, he handed out 10 assists with three steals and zero turnovers; this was a feat that hadn't been accomplished since John Stockton did so in the 2001 NBA Finals. In Game 4, Conley scored an efficient 15 points, handed out 13 assists, and committed only two turnovers.
In a league full of athletic, scoring, flashy point guards, Conley's game is an ode to the facilitators of the game's past.
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