clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Mike Conley is the Key to the Timberwolves’ Postseason Viability

Acquiring the 35-year-old floor general at the trade deadline is proving to be a season-saving move.

Atlanta Hawks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

New Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Mike Conley has been one of the most well-respected players in the league for the entirety of his 16-year NBA career.

Conley has earned seemingly unanimous support from teammates and coaches past and present for his ability to connect with teammates on and off the floor, and how he makes everyone around him better players and people. While it’s important to focus on the rare intangibles he brings to a Wolves team that desperately needs them, we also can’t lose sight of the fact that, at 35 years old, Conley is still an exceptional player serving as an overqualified No. 3 option on a team that makes a playoff run.

Entering this season, the Wolves deployed a bifurcate rotation, structured around a Karl-Anthony Towns side with Anthony Edwards and a Rudy Gobert grouping with D’Angelo Russell. Minnesota Head Coach Chris Finch did so, understandably, to maintain the incredible synergy KAT and Ant showed down the stretch of last season, while leaning into D-Lo’s (perhaps over-marketed) strength as a pick-and-roll player.

Doing so created a team that tried to play three different styles: one for each branch of the rotation and one when the starters played together. The team went 10-11 in the 21 games of that experiment, ranking 17th in offense, 15th in defense, and 18th in net rating. The starting five delivered a solid +4.0 net rating (in only 260 minutes) with what would’ve been the league’s top defense (104.2) and a bottom-five offense (108.2). While it was technically working on paper, it felt clunky, inconsistent, and played in a style that didn’t promote the best strengths of its two best players in Towns and Edwards.

Given Russell’s not-so-subtle frustration with playing alongside Gobert, it’s not surprising that the team failed to played up to the sum of its parts. By bringing in Conley, President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly did his best not only to get the most out of a player he moved heaven and Earth to acquire, but also to find a player whose leadership and connective play-style could synergize a talented group on the fly, in the midst of a playoff push, unsure of when their best player would return to the lineup.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

The list of players with the skillset to be able to do that, let alone be feasibly acquired at the trade deadline is very small, but Conley has proven he’s up to the task in an objectively very challenging context.

“Hopefully just showing them how to be a real pro, what level you have to play at, what level you have to think at to be really good, not just to be individually good, but as a team. The talent’s there. We see that. These guys are super young,” Conley said after his first game as a Wolf. “Ant, the first thing he said to me is, ‘You play Call of Duty?’ That says a lot. We’re just super young guys and getting them to understand we’re going to be better when we keep grinding this thing out.”

Conley, who is married with three sons, could very easily just take respite in extended family time when he’s away from his work. Instead, he balances family time and connecting with a much younger group of teammates through playing Call of Duty and other video games after games and practices. He’s 14 years older than Edwards, but the two have forged a fast friendship on the sticks that has translated to the court. It may be one example, but it speaks volumes about Conley’s adaptive nature and willingness to make things work.

“Hopefully my steady hand and what I’ve been through and seen, I’ve played with a lot of different personalities, a lot of different guys and know how to approach a lot of situations. Hopefully that helps unlock that and allows all these guys to get better as the season goes along.”

His influence has translated to the court in the six weeks since he arrived alongside Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

The Minnesota offense is 9.0 points per 100 possessions better with Conley on the floor (97th percentile), largely because its turnover rate dips by 3.4% in those minutes (99th percentile), per Cleaning the Glass. On the other end of the floor, the Timberwolves are allowing 3.3 less points per 100 with Conley out there and they are significantly better in two key pain points: opp. offensive rebound rate (-5.6% with Conley on, 98th percentile) and opp. free throw rate (-15.2%, 100th percentile).

Overall, the Wolves are 12.3 per 100 better with Conley in the game than on the bench (97th percentile). That is first among starting point guards with at least 500 minutes played with their team, better than Damian Lillard (+9.1, 93rd) Stephen Curry (+8.8, 92nd), Luka Dončić (+7.9, 90th), Ja Morant (+5.8, 84th) and James Harden (+5.6, 83rd). Of course, it’s a small sample size, but the value Conley has added is very clear.

Let’s dive further into his impact.

(Editor’s note: if you are reading on Apple News, please click here to view embedded videos and for the best overall reading experience.)
Minnesota Timberwolves v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Chemistry With Rudy Gobert

On the floor, Conley’s impact begins with holding the key to unlocking Gobert’s full potential on the offensive end. There is no question that Gobert’s game is layered, and further weaponized as each element is peeled back. From advanced screening angles, a unique brand of spacing, where he needs to receive the ball, and how to best manipulate a defense to create opportunities for the Frenchman, his game is a complex one to gain an understanding of. A point guard has to want to do the requisite work; while D-Lo didn’t, Conley could teach the class.

Whether it is manipulating screen angles, non-verbal communication, delivering passes to the right spots, or simply sensing the correct moments to get Gobert involved, Conley is the master when it comes to weaponizing everything that Gobert does offensively.

Let’s start with what Gobert can do for Conley.

The big fella knows all of Conley’s tendencies. Gobert knows that his trusted point guard is better going to the right because Conley steps into his shots with his right foot and prefers to shoot floaters right-handed, so he’ll often set screens (or flip them at the last minute) to get Conley going to that side. It can often confuse defenders because conventional wisdom says that defenses should force handlers to their weak hand.

Conley is so good at knowing when to use a screen, reject it, make a quick pass immediately after Gobert releases, or create for himself with a defender on his heels. Because he has so much experience doing all of the above, he almost always makes the correct read.

The same goes for Gobert as a screener and roller. Rudy has a very good knowledge of floor spacing, especially for a non-shooter; he knows where to fill the lane so that defenses will collapse on him and open things up for his buddy. Here, Gobert sees Scottie Barnes get caught too low in the paint, so he drags him down to the rim knowing that Jakob Poeltl is going to retreat to the paint. Had Gobert come across the front of Barnes, this space isn’t there, but instead it’s a wide open middy.

Even when the Russell/Gobert battery wasn’t clicking on the ball earlier in the season, Gobert made his impact felt as an off-ball screener. He has kept that same great awareness and understanding of when to screen, when to hang out in the dunker spot, and when to just read the action and flow around the rim as the play develops. This skill is particularly innate when it comes to Conley, but is also becoming a core part of both the Timberwolves’ “random” and scripted offensive attacks.

Here are a few plays that highlight Gobert’s screening, but also Conley’s ability to read and play off of Gobert’s positioning off the ball.

By far and away, though, the best part of the Conley/Gobert connection is how much more impactful Conley makes Gobert. While Kyle Anderson and Jaden McDaniels have come a long way in developing on-court partnerships with the 7-foot-1 center, Conley is on a different level.

My favorite aspect of Conley’s impact is that he knows where to get to on the floor, what speed at which to do so, and how to move defenders with his eyes in order to best create a window of opportunity either to pass to Gobert for a bucket or get to his floater in the lane.

Here, you can see all the different ways Conley opens things up for Gobert, from quick passing, deep drives to collapse a defender, or pausing in his drives to look off lurking bigs.

Finally, the most consistent way that the Conley/Gobert duo produces opportunities to score: floaters. The Timberwolves hoped that Russell would be able to live in the short mid-range area (4-14 feet), but it only represented 18% of his shot profile, which was disappointing considering he shot 44% on those shots (about average league-wide) and the Wolves needed to add rim pressure without Towns. Conley has already taken a third of the shots that area that Russell did, but has only connected on 35% of them (14th percentile). Considering he shot 44%, 45% and 46% in his three full seasons with Gobert, there’s plenty of time for those numbers to come around. To make up for it, Conley has shot 41.4% from 3, including four big ones in the win over the Golden State Warriors last night.

He doesn’t just get to the floater in PnR, either. Conley attacks over-aggressive defenses in spot-ups and hand-offs to get into the lane and find his shot, too.

Conley’s Growing Offensive Aggression

As Towns said after the team’s win over the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, “An aggressive Mike Conley is a dangerous Mike Conley for us because he’s done nothing in his life but be a fantastic player.”

That’s what the Wolves need from Conley as he sees less and less pressure with the team welcoming back a full strength offense featuring Towns and Edwards. Despite admitting on the Ryen Russillo Podcast to struggling with the balance of when to get new teammates involved (so as to learn their tendencies) and look for his own, Conley has done an admirable job in both recognizing the team needs his scoring and actually getting buckets.

His shot-making, especially off the ball, has really popped of late. That’s an encouraging development.

Conley is averaging 15.8 points per game on 46.2/44.4/88.9 shooting splits over his last 10 games, to go along with 4.9 assists to 1.2 turnovers and 3.1 rebounds per game. The floor general increasing his 3-point output since joining the Wolves has been a big help for a team prone to cold spells from distance.

That stretch includes four games of at least 20 points (something he did only once as a member of the Utah Jazz this year) and three games of at least 24 points. The Wolves went 2-1 in those contests — and should’ve been 3-0 had they closed out the Bulls in the first overtime.

The more Conley looks for his shot when it makes sense in the flow of the offense, the more dangerous the Timberwolves are going to be offensively once back at full strength. He is still an exceptionally skilled scorer that Finch and Co. need to optimize if they want to make the playoffs and do some damage.

A Quick Study

Despite never being traded midseason before, Conley has picked up playing with a diverse trio of two-man game partners very quickly — something Russell struggled with throughout his time in Minnesota (partly due to injuries/illness, but the point remains). Conley playing with two polar opposite partners in Walker Kessler and Kelly Olynyk this season certainly helped him in adjusting on the fly with Gobert and especially Naz Reid, whom Conley has been impressed with so far.

“I thought he was good playing against him but I didn’t know his bag, he has such a variety in his bag. He can just do so many different things,” Conley said after the win over Atlanta on Wednesday. “He’s like a guard at his position. He’s got great skill around the rim, his touch around the rim is unbelievable. His shooting ability is a lot better than I thought, like it’s a lot that he’s shown me in a little bit of time. I hope he’s here for a long time.”

Conley didn’t waste any time getting to learn where to deliver the ball to Towns, either. The duo shared the floor for all of Towns’ 26 minutes, a surprising development that was in part brought on by Jordan McLaughlin missing the game due to illness.

Rotation from Wednesday’s win over Atlanta

Towns cashed in four of Conley’s six assists — two from downtown and two from inside the arc — and looked very comfortable next to his new point guard in their debut together. Minnesota put up a +18.8 net rating (124.1 offense, 105.4 defense) while the duo shared the floor, driven by an incredibly low 5.2% turnover rate, and an offense that shot 60.4% true shooting (which would rank fourth in NBA over the full season).

As for finding his other teammates, Conley has excelled with making aggressive passes — particularly with hitting cutters in traffic. His dime to Taurean Prince to seal the Wolves’ win over the New York Knicks on last week was a simple, yet clutch example of patience and taking what the defense gives him.

Plays like this next one will be an important part of how Conley can keep the likes of McDaniels, Edwards, Prince and Towns involved while he runs PnR with Gobert. I’d expect more of this, especially against smaller teams that collapse on Gobert and/or pack the paint to slow down drivers.

“I think he’s the perfect piece, in my estimation. He really is. He can make all the big plays, he can run the offense, he can get the ball to the guys where and when they need. He’s going to hit big shots,” Finch said postgame on Wednesday about if Conley is the variable that can unlock the KAT/Gobert pairing. “The two bigs with Rudy and KAT, other than a couple spacing issues, I’m not worried about the functionality about it. It’s literally the guards that have retool themselves a little bit.”

Conley has already proven his ability to serve as a bridge between Gobert and the rest of the roster, and adding KAT into the fold as one of the most versatile offensive players in the league — who creates a ton of spacing by himself — should only make that job easier as the Wolves hit the home stretch of games over the next two weeks.

A Competitive Defender at the Point

The Timberwolves haven’t had a consistently competitive defender at point guard in a long time. While Conley isn’t reinventing the wheel or dominating games with his defense up top, he is doing more than anyone expected of him when he arrived at the deadline. Last night, Conley helped secure the biggest stop of the game, drawing praise from Finch, who said he longer feels like he needs to hide anyone on defense (shots fired!).

Most notably, his screen navigation is a one, big upgrade from D-Lo’s, and two, another way in which his chemistry with Gobert shows its worth. Conley is adept at drawing illegal screens, and often plays his matchups right into where Gobert can make the best impact as a rim protector, rather than into dead spots in the defense where handlers can elevate in the mid-range against drop coverage. Conley is also a good decision-maker who sticks to the scouting report when choosing to go over or under a screen.

Given his small stature at 6-foot-1 compared to the rest of the Wolves, Conley is going to get picked on in a playoff series. However, he has held his own on an island so far this season in Minnesota. He is allowing just 0.80 points per possession on isolations, good for the 77th percentile, per Synergy Sports, and has held his matchups to shoot 4/12 from the floor — a terrific mark.

But where Conley has impressed the most defensively is in his “chaser” role following shooters around the perimeter. McDaniels often takes the opposing lead ball-handler, which puts Conley off the ball. His defensive awareness, positioning and quickness in closing out are upgrades over Russell and the numbers bear that out.

Conley is allowing 0.745 PPP in spot-up situations (97th percentile per Synergy), while Russell allowed 0.985 (64th percentile).

Even in situations where Conley isn’t supposed to be guarding the player who ends up shooting, he still does his best to contest, rather than stand and point at his teammates after the ball went through the net, which became a staple of the D-Lo experience defensively. With how well the Timberwolves’ length enables them to fly around, if their shortest player is willing to give that effort consistently, good things will happen.

The Wolves’ rebounding has also been much improved while Conley is on the floor. As I mentioned before, opposing teams grab offensive rebound 5.6% less with Conley in the action (98th percentile, per CTG), the best mark on the team. McLaughlin’s -3.7% mark (93rd percentile) is second on the team, while Russell’s +1.0% mark (35th percentile) was the second-worst among rotation players. With Minnesota’s size inside, teams are going to be more inclined to shoot over the top of it; to combat that, Finch needs guards who will rebound, and he now has two of them in Conley and McLaughlin.

Mike Conley is so much more than the player who will unlock Rudy Gobert. Like any great conductor, he may have a specific background like percussion (or high pick-and-roll), but his true power is felt when the orchestra creates a whole that is better the sum of its parts. When the baton is in his hand, you don’t have to worry about what’s coming next. You just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

While the first returns of his impact have been stellar, both with and without Towns, his presence will only be felt more as the Timberwolves return to full strength down the stretch and rely upon him to bring everything together.