The Minnesota Timberwolves finally pulled the trigger on an effort to clarify their point guard fit. As part of a three-team trade with the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday, Minnesota sent out D’Angelo Russell and received Mike Conley, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and three second-round picks.
With all due respect to Alexander-Walker and those picks, this trade is about Conley and what he can do for the Wolves. At 35 years old, Conley is no longer in his prime, but he’s still a good player who projects as a great archetype to help Minnesota’s best players succeed and is under contract through next season.
As a distributor and decision-maker, Conley is better than ever this season. He’s averaging 7.7 assists per game per Basketball-Reference, more than an assist higher than his previous career high of 6.5 in 2010-11. Some of that jump is because he has had to take on more of a creation role without a hub like Donovan Mitchell, but he is an excellent playmaker.
At the same time, Conley is as reliable as they come with the ball in his hands. Among 264 players this season with at least 20 games played and a usage of at least 15%, Conley ranks fourth with a 4.46-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio per NBA.com. He is great at maximizing opportunities and limiting mistakes while operating the pick-and-roll.
Conley also gets as much as anyone out of his dimes. He ranks eighth in the NBA with 20.6 assist points created per game despite being one of two players in the top 20 of the metric who play less than 30 minutes per contest per NBA.com. He’s going to get Anthony Edwards (and Karl-Anthony Towns when he returns) great shots.
This is clearly a move to help the Wolves make the most of Rudy Gobert. He and Conley formed a formidable partnership in Utah over their three seasons together, with Conley being the playmaker Gobert had the most chemistry with.
Conley led Utah in assists to Gobert in the big man’s final two seasons there per PBPStats and was tied for second in 2019-20, when he played just 47 games. They got better together each season; Conley’s assists to Gobert went from 49 to 88 to 100. That last season, the next closest Jazz player in assists to Gobert was Mitchell with 39.
Conley runs pick-and-roll and he spots up; that’s basically it. As a player higher on ball movement and lower on isolations, he’s going to fit better in Minnesota’s starting five than D’Angelo Russell did with Karl-Anthony Towns in the lineup.
Until KAT returns, though, that comparative fit is a bit more muddied. Russell’s ability to go get a bucket, and his improved shooting percentages this season, gave the Wolves a viable weapon to take some scoring brunt off Edwards. Conley, meanwhile, has taken a dip this season.
He’s averaging 10.7 points per game, the second-lowest number of his career. To be fair, he’s taking the second-fewest shots per game in his career, too, but his efficiency numbers are down — he has shooting splits of 40.8-36.2-81.3.
However, there are reasons for optimism with Conley’s shot. He’s still making 42.9% of his catch-and-shoot threes per Basketball-Reference, and StatMuse has him at a blistering 64% from the right corner. He has a great instinct for moving into his spots and smoothly launching.
He also shot a combined 41% from behind the arc over the previous two seasons, so it’s fair to believe he’ll progress to his usual standard.
You also have to think Conley is due to improve as a pull-up shooter, an area in which he was elite the previous two seasons. On pull-ups, he had an effective field goal percentage of 55.9% in 2021-22 and 56% in 2020-21, which ranked second and fourth, respectively, among players with at least 200 such attempts. This season, he’s down to 44.1%, including a 32.3% mark from three.
Conley is a solid if unspectacular defender, but that’s all the Wolves need to upgrade at the position. He has ranked somewhere between +3 and -2 in defensive RAPTOR in each of his four seasons with the Jazz. Over that time frame, all of the seasons Russell played for the Wolves, D’Lo never cracked higher than -0.8.
That stat isn’t the end-all-be-all, but it confirms what you see on the tape. Conley is reliable and knows where to be, and familiarity with Gobert is a huge key on that end. The Wolves have struggled with navigating ball screens to assist Gobert’s drop coverage, but Conley has three seasons of experience in guiding ball handlers into positions where Gobert can cause havoc.
The biggest issue with bringing Conley in is that he is an injury concern. In his first three seasons with the Jazz, he played 47, 51 and 72 games. He’s already missed 12 this season, and he hasn’t missed fewer than double-digit games since 2013-14. Minnesota will need to have guard depth they’re comfortable with starting in a pinch (perhaps Alexander-Walker plays a role in that?).
This move leaves some questions for the Wolves, especially given some of the other moves made Wednesday by teams vying for positioning in the West. However, the prospective fit with Gobert, Edwards and Towns makes this a sound move from the Minnesota front office.