All along, the Memphis Grizzlies could offer Mike Conley things that no other suitor could: more money and security through a five-year deal; the chance to build on a career-long investment in Memphis; friendships and equity throughout the Grizzlies organization; and a competitive atmosphere enriched by both the familiar and the potential for growth. The intersection of those factors made a return to Memphis likely but an agreement on the opening day of free agency confirmed the premise. Conley will continue his career with the Grizzlies on a five-year, $153 million deal—a true max for his experience bracket and the richest overall contract in NBA history.
The specifics of Conley’s contract are understandably shocking. Conley is a few tiers removed from the best players at his position and otherwise bears little resemblance to a conventional superstar. Yet he’ll be compensated above and beyond any of the league’s greats due to the intersection of his free agency and the NBA’s greatest financial boom. Do not see that as a reason to punish him or take his deal, in itself, as some indictment. Prized free agents can only be paid what their market allows. Conley just happened to step into the richest, most uninhibited market the NBA has ever seen at a time when his game warranted the investment of a max contract.
Memphis was ultimately the team to pay it but not the only team to offer. Dallas, for example, very much wanted Conley but didn’t have enough to motivate his signing. Other teams, San Antonio among them, looked into what it might take to add Conley and just how interested he might be in moving. Nothing that Conley heard in his meetings with other teams or through his representation was enough to sway him. Memphis began as the frontrunner and ended as a closer.
Conley’s return cements this as the biggest and most expensive off-season in Grizzlies history. Chandler Parsons will join Conley in Memphis on another, smaller max deal—the third max that this notoriously cost-conscious organization has agreed to in the past year or so. Memphis will still need to figure out how to invigorate its offense and activate its dormant defense while learning how to operate under a new coaching staff, though the fact that players like Conley and Parsons will be a central part of those efforts is reason for optimism. Change is a function of capability. Conley’s return preserves much of it and enticed Parsons to add more, reinvigorating a franchise that was at risk of drifting from the league’s more competitive ranks.
Paying to keep Conley was both an act of preservation and a very necessary move for a franchise without much reasonable alternative. Just last summer Conley helped entice Marc Gasol to return, as their partnership had become the functional centerpiece of Grizzlies basketball. For Memphis to turn around a year later and short Conley in a competitive market would compromise that foundational arrangement.
It’s natural to worry about the final years of Conley’s deal, in which he’ll make upwards of $30 million as a 31-, 32-, and 33-year-old. It’s understandable to worry about what Conley’s recent injury history (a combination of freak accidents and more concerning ailments) might mean for this team as he ages and his salary climbs, all alongside two other highly-paid teammates who have missed time of late. Yet we can’t pretend as if the Grizzlies could opt for half-measure replacements or a refusal of Conley’s contract on principle without it amounting to a franchise reset.
That’s how much even a sub-superstar guard can mean in the right context. The clever, jitterbug improvisations of Conley’s off-the-dribble work make the most of even simple basketball actions. Few can match the diversity of his in-between game. Defensively, Conley walks the fine line between pestering opponents and keeping good guarding position. Never does Conley need to be prompted to give up the ball, nor is he reluctant to shoot when the opportunity calls for it. Some aspects of Conley’s game will fade with age, as happens with all players and smaller guards in particular. Yet as much as anything, the Grizzlies are paying for Conley as a leader, an intelligent operator on the floor, and a franchise institution.