One was considered a sure-fire bust that conned squads by riding the coattails of Greg Oden to the lottery. The other entered the league with a famous last name, but was included in a trade ridiculed as the most lopsided in NBA history.
The former is Mike Conley Jr., a player who has been on an arduous stair climb up the NBA’s monumental point guard hierarchy. In the fallout of another seemingly lopsided Grizzlies trade involving Rudy Gay on January 31, Conley has become the longest-tenured member of the team and quietly muscled his way into the top-10 floor generals in the league.
Conley is a premier defender, who blankets opposing ball handlers like barbecue sauce on beef ribs. Defensively, basketball’s Rickey Henderson led the league in total steals this season and shattered his own team record.
Conley’s performance in Game 2’s win over Oklahoma City was a high-definition glimpse into how drastically his role has expanded over the last three months.
After getting Memphis into trouble during his horrendous Game 1, Conley messed around and fell an assist short of a triple double Tuesday night.
"After we lost Rudy, it was tough," Conley told ESPN.com. "We didn't know who was going to be that guy down the stretch. I kind of had to assume that role, grow into it, and live and learn from it. Sometimes I make a shot and sometimes I don't I'm kind of getting used to it. Tonight was one of those nights."
Tony Allen thinks top-10 is underselling Conley, who also drained the jumper that buried Oklahoma City.
“Mike Conley is now one of the top five point guards in the league, whether anybody likes it or not” said Allen after Memphis tied the series heading back home.
Conley isn’t flashy, which made him a sublime fit for the gritty Grizzlies during his first five seasons. However, from an onlooker’s perspective, he’d plateaued as an Alex Smith-like game manager in basketball shorts averaging 12 points in addition to seven dishes.
After January 31 he shed his conservative skin and became a dynamic scorer. Conley averaged 17.6 points per game in March and 17 points per game in April while still maintaining his solid line of six to seven assists per night.
Conley’s reputation isn’t the only one that’s taken a Carl Lewis-sized leap forward. Gregg Popovich’s “Benjamin Button system” continues getting better over time, and bears the most resemblance to what Lionel Hollins has constructed in Memphis.
Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph harken back to the Spurs’ Twin Towers, however, the relationship between Gasol and Conley Jr. is more similar to the one developed between a young Tony Parker and Tim Duncan.
I’m not ready to hop on the express bandwagon to anoint Gasol as the NBA’s best individual center, but he has finally fully emerged from his brother Pau’s shadow. Alongside Conley, he may constitute the best point guard and center tandem in the entire NBA. (Although, the Nets and Bulls may have something to say about that)
Cliff and Chris Paul can step back because the Gasols are the best assisting duo in the NBA. Like his brother, Marc drops dimes better than any low-post big man in the league and if he’s clogging the lane for Randolph, he relocates his home office and does work on the elbow. In the aftermath of Gay’s trade, Gasol became a primary facilitator by averaging nearly five assists per game over the final three months of the season.
Tuesday night, the two-headed raw-and-overcooked duo of Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher looked as helpless defending Conley as Kendrick Perkins did on Gasol. It's a look they've seen before. Kevin Durant’s 36 points inflicted damage on Memphis, but couldn’t counter the 24 from Gasol and 26 from Conley.
They may unintentionally resemble Parker and Duncan, but those cats are rocking championship jewelry. That’s a look Memphis is actively trying to duplicate.