When Mike Conley suffered a traverse process fracture in his back Monday, the Memphis Grizzlies’ season was instantly jeopardized. A club already dealing with a slew of injuries lost its MVP for at least six weeks, according to The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Conley’s value to David Fizdale’s crew can’t be overstated. Without a flashy playing style, he’s proven he belongs on the NBA’s top shelf of point guards. His versatility as a dual-threat attacker and cagey backcourt defender led them to an 11-7 start and put them in the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture. Conley was averaging 19.2 points, 5.7 assists, 1.4 steals and 47 percent three-point shooting.
With apologies to the talented Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, Conley is the straw that stirs Memphis’ drink. When he’s at the reins, he moves the rock exactly where it needs to go. Conley dictates the right balance of interior and perimeter usage, and he’s also one of the league’s best defenders. He puts pressure on opponents and forces turnovers without fouling. The Grizzlies are 14.6 points better (per 100 possessions) when he’s on the floor than when he’s sidelined.
A huge reason for such a dichotomy is the lack of depth behind Conley. Rookies Andrew Harrison and Wade Baldwin have struggled to score efficiently and set up teammates in relief of Conley.
NBAMath.com illustrated Conley’s impact compared to Harrison and Baldwin, and it hasn’t been pretty. Conley’s Total Points Added dwarfs that of the youngsters:
Memphis' situation doesn't look very promising with Mike Conley out. pic.twitter.com/7R8TKKawhU
— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) November 29, 2016
Baldwin owns terrific length and athleticism for the position, and he’s showcased it with a few drives and blocks this season. But he’s still figuring out how to create and knock down shots, which is part of the reason why he’s spent time with D-League affiliate Iowa Energy.
Harrison hasn’t really fared any better, although he’s done a better job of taking care of the ball and drawing fouls. After a productive year for the Energy last season, Harrison hasn’t yet established shooting consistency against NBA defenses.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any other guards or wings on the roster who could share in the facilitating responsibilities. To add injury to insult, the team’s most creative forward, Chandler Parsons, is still out with a knee injury.
The Grizzlies could sign a free agent at the end of the week to help bridge the gap between now and Conley’s return. They can apply for a hardship exception to open up an extra roster spot on Dec. 3. The pickings are slim, however, as Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post notes:
The problem for Memphis is that while Harrison and Baldwin are a pair of bad options, there aren’t many better ones floating around the waiver wire. Though the Grizzlies could desperately use a veteran presence at the point, the two most obvious names on the market – Mario Chalmers and Jarrett Jack – are recovering from an Achilles tear and a torn ACL, respectively, and both are likely not far enough along in their respective rehabilitation processes to be able to contribute immediately.
So who’s actually healthy enough and deserving of a workout? According to Wojnarowski, Kendall Marshall, Toney Douglas and Will Bynum are expected to come in for workouts. Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders added that the Grizzlies have expressed interest in Norris Cole.
None of them would be major game-changers, but they might be able to hold the fort down until Conley returns. Here’s what to expect from each, and who’s the best fit:
Toney Douglas (6’2″, 30 years old): The main reason Douglas has played for six teams in seven years? He’s good enough to hang around the NBA, but he doesn’t stand out enough in one area to maintain a major role. While Douglas is a good defender and a capable outside shooter, he’s not much of a creator off the bounce. He doesn’t consistently shake defenders and generate offense for himself and the team.
Will Bynum (6’0″, 33 years old): Bynum has bounced back and forth between the NBA and Chinese Basketball Association, offering a nice mix of scoring and passing in both leagues. The veteran guard has become an aggressive playmaker, which has resulted in a higher volume of assists and turnovers. At this stage in his career, however, I question his scoring ability. Given his size and playing style, he may not give Memphis enough scoring to warrant a key role.
Kendall Marshall (6’4″, 25 years old): Marshall is the most gifted passer of the group, with great vision and precision in both transition and half-court sets. His best season was 2013-14, when he averaged 8.8 assists per game for the Lakers. If Memphis signs him, Marshall would constantly look to set up Gasol and Randolph, but his inconsistent outside shooting would limit the spacing and flow of the offense.
Norris Cole (6’2″, 28 years old): Cole, who’s currently playing in China, may be the best choice from these four targets. Not only does he have arguably the best combination of scoring, passing and defense, he also has a rapport with Fizdale (three-plus years with the Miami Heat). Cole is a shifty drive-and-dish player and a streaky shooter. He had a rocky stint with the Pelicans last year, but a reunion with Fizdale and Memphis’ veterans could reignite his career. Cole has an opt-out clause in his contract with Shandong if he wants to return to the NBA.
The fact that Cole could be the best short-term option illustrates how desperate the Grizzlies are. Their lack of depth entering the season put them at the mercy of Conley’s health, and there aren’t many outside options with which to bolster the roster.