The anticipation of Minnesota Timberwolves roster activity heading into last Thursday’s NBA trade deadline gave way to excitement and quite honestly, more anticipation after the 2pm Central Time cutoff passed, with Mike Conley’s addition to and D’Angelo Russell’s subtraction from the lineup.
I was a big proponent of a Conley/Russell swap as the idea became less and less theoretical. At some point the player the Wolves invested so much of their future in (Rudy Gobert) would need something invested in him for the present. Adding not only a more willing and able passer at point guard but a recent former teammate with whom Gobert had great chemistry made all the sense in the world, despite Russell’s hot streak offensively over the last 60 days.
So here we are. Mike Conley is a Timberwolf, and coming off a massive win over the Dallas Mavericks in which he showed great pick-and-roll awareness, the ability to spot up and attack closeouts, and find the open gap as a rhythmic member of the offense. The game he debuted in against his former Memphis Grizzlies team was more of a warmup, getting used to playing with new teammates and picking his spots conservatively. We’ll break down his best offensive possessions here from the Dallas game, many of which lend promise to the longer-term potential this team can fulfill.
The first thing to notice here is that Mike Conley is not the initiator of the halfcourt flow. He spaces to the corner while Taurean Prince takes the ball screen and kicks it out to start the movement. That’s an important value add on a team that is continually putting the ball in Anthony Edwards’ hands as a creator — and has other options in Prince, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kyle Anderson to bring the ball up the floor.
Eventually, the ball gets back to the slot on Conley’s side, where Prince uses Gobert’s screen, Reggie Bullock has to tag Gobert’s roll and the pass back to Conley is on the money. He smartly uses Bullock’s undisciplined closeout against him and the defense is slow to rotate.
I wouldn’t expect this move to be a regular one for Conley’s game. It’s a nice change of pace, though, where he can react quickly to a long contest by a defender and make another commit or just get a straight-line drive to the rim. More often he’ll just let it fly from beyond the arc. His midrange floater game lends itself to this type of attack as well. It’s just a savvy, patient decision from a veteran guard.
The next clip is a bit more traditional. Conley just sits in the backside corner while Edwards finds Gobert on the short roll. It seems the mere presence of his friend Mike on the court gives Gobert elevated confidence, as he euro-steps into contact and throws a perfect kick out strike to the ready-to-shoot Conley. Bottoms.
Conley’s role off-ball will be as important as on-ball. He’s shooting 43.8% on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers this season, good for 11th among 163 players that have played in 40 or more games and attempted two such shots per game, according to NBA Stats.
Here’s the spatial awareness and willingness to move into an advantageous spot that smart basketball players display in big moments.
It’s the end of the second quarter, so the Mavericks are sprinkling some zone defense to try and mess with Anthony Edwards’ ability to get to the rim. Gobert occupies Christian Wood on the weak-side block, leaving Kyrie Irving and Josh Green to cover the two Wolves on the side of Prince’s gap attack. As this occurs, Conley sneaks below the rim and sprints to the far corner, and there’s nobody to check him because all eyes have collapsed on the paint touch by Prince. Conley sets his feet and gets a huge late-quarter make.
Here’s the fun stuff. D’Angelo Russell loved getting ball screens, but they were to a more personal end more often than not, trying to get a defender on his back and snake around to draw a foul. Mike Conley is not cut from the “chess match” cloth — he’s going to come off the screen and get to the middle of the floor, then make the best decision. That decision is often a pass, and an accurate one at that.
These two just know each other. Every pocket pass Conley makes to Gobert is timed and bounced the same way. Gobert isn’t second-guessing where and when the dish is arriving, and that’s indicated by the strength of these finishing dunks through traffic and contact.
Dallas “ices” the drag screen in transition, forcing Gobert’s roll back into the three help-side defenders rather than an empty side where nobody can tag him. No problem for one of the best two-man net rating combos in the NBA last season, as the Maverick helpers are preoccupied with the spaced Wolves. Another beautiful no-frills pocket pass from Conley leads to an unimpeded layup.
This alignment has been Finch’s standard ATO set all season. Gobert re-screens for a better angle, again shaping his roll path to the middle of the floor. Only two Dallas players are able to cover him, and they’re late. Conley gets Powell to step up just a hair and that opens the lane for Gobert to catch, dunk and draw the foul.
The bottom line is this: Rudy Gobert stands to gain so much from this trade. Nobody else comes close, except maybe Anthony Edwards (because he’s the most important piece on the roster). The Wolves being able to involve Gobert offensively by keeping him off the block and out of the dunker spot opens up some really unguardable actions that skilled passers like Conley, SloMo and Prince will capitalize on.
The best part is Conley doesn’t need the ball to be effective. He’s a smart spacer and excellent shooter. All the more reason to give Edwards the keys, and when Karl-Anthony Towns returns, the threat level of the halfcourt offense will only exponentiate.
I appreciate D’Angelo Russell for what he is, and especially what he was to the Wolves since December. But Mike Conley doesn’t mess around. He doesn’t care about a rip-through foul or forcing a defender to topple him from behind. He’s making the smart play on the ball and finishing the play off the ball. Putting more of those guys around Anthony Edwards and Rudy Gobert is a bona fide victory at the trade deadline, even with just one positive game of proof.