Utah Jazz

Crossing basketball borders with Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell

What you are about to read is overwrought with sympathy, and it shouldn’t be — Mike Conley, Jr., after all, was once the highest-paid basketball player in all the land.

And yet, when Mike Conley, Jr. returned to Memphis earlier this season, I cried. I had not expected to cry, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this reaction. I could write more on how I’ve become uncontrollably sentimental as I’ve grown older — and maybe one day I will—but first, a tale that has very little to do with my emotions or even the point guard whose name I’ve mentioned as a trigger for sentiment.

The Utah Jazz had not been to the playoffs in four seasons. In regard to weather patterns, such an absence might be termed a drought. The franchise had come close the previous season, finishing ninth in the Western Conference standings, but, ultimately, they had proven themselves too young and too inconsistent to even be bullied by contenders after the regular season’s end. The 2016-17 season, however, was different. The team notched 51 wins and claimed the fifth seed. Not quite a contender they were at least present.

They were led by Gordon Hayward, a star whose ducktail riff of a haircut, college pedigree, and pale complexion aligned him ever so kindly (or cruelly) with the state’s wholesome heritage. Utah fans could easily transcribe him as the heir to Stockton and Malone. In the post, the team featured Rudy Gobert, a human being stretched to his limits. He was at the time already one of the game’s preeminent defensive forces. Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors were young and improving. Joe Johnson, George Hill, and Boris Diaw all brought proven pedigrees and playoff moxie. And Joe Ingles, a man old before his time, could shoot when called upon.

This Lego set of basketball acumen would win its first-round series against Blake Griffin and Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers in seven games. So what if Griffin didn’t finish the series? This was still an up-and-coming team leapfrogging a perpetual contender in the hierarchy of all things that mattered. This was something to be excited about in the Beehive State, in that city beside the world’s eighth-largest saltwater lake.

The Jazz would go into the second round with high hopes for a miracle — they were, after all, matched up against a Golden State Warriors squad that included, for the first time, Kevin Durant in addition to the elegant Splash Brothers and mercurial forward Draymond Green. The Jazz would be swept, but the future remained bright so long as the young nucleus stayed together in the state that produced Roseanne Barr and the Sundance Film Festival.

The Jazz, however, could not keep the band together. George Hill wandered ever westward, landing in Sacramento for a time. Hayward, meanwhile, departed Salt Lake City, retreating back into the east — beyond his home state of Indiana and all the way to Boston — in order to join forces with his former college coach and a flat earth conspiracy theorist.

Utah’s young roster still included the likes of Gobert, Hood, Ingles, and Dante Exum. The cupboard was not left bare by any means, but the team had lost arguably its two best perimeter players. And Hayward, who had averaged nearly 25 points per game in that playoff series against Golden State, would be especially difficult to replace. (Hill only played one game in that series.) But Utah held an ace up its sleeve.

Precisely twenty days prior to Hayward’s departure, the organization drafted Donovan Mitchell out of Louisville, causing Brigham Young to yell once more for posterity’s sake, “This is the place!”

About Mitchell’s first two seasons in the league, Trevor Magnotti wrote the following:

He’s exceeded expectations in nearly every category in his first two years in the league. His first year was all smiles and rainbows, as Mitchell went from the 13th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft to scoring 20.5 points per game and leading a 48-win team in scoring. The presence of Ben Simmons kept him from winning Rookie of the Year, but only barely. In his second season, Mitchell struggled early on with efficiency, but post-All-Star break, he averaged 26.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game while posting a 58.1 true shooting percentage. In terms of future star indicators as a shooting guard, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better resume than Mitchell’s.

The body electric that is Donovan Mitchell personifies the Western myth. He stands just an inch over 6-feet, but he boasts a near 7-foot wingspan. Like a young cowboy lighting out for the territories, he fills space, and every offensive maneuver is a passage lifted from early on in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy:

They rode out along the fenceline and across the open pastureland . . . . like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing. (30)

In just his third season and still only 23, Mitchell’s career is still something of a lark, except that his competitiveness is hellbent on imbuing the world with his power. In other words, this is all serious fun as long as he remains undaunted and unabridged. He is already better than Gordon Hayward and that would make for a decent story, except life is never so easy and abrupt. The length of a career begs for longer arcs.

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

So far this has all had very little to do with Mike Conley, Jr. and everything to do with Mitchell’s outrunning Utah’s pastoral ghosts, subverting past legends and would-be heroes with the violent repertoire of a young offensive genius.

If Conley had been the focus, then this all would have had very little to do with Donovan Mitchell. That distance collapsed, however, on July 6, 2019. On that day, the Memphis Grizzlies traded the lone surviving member of its Grit ‘n Grind era to the Utah Jazz, and seeing as how the Grizzly point guard is 32, it is rather easy, in a nonsensical way, to paint the two players as being each other’s inverses.

Moreover, the bounce in Mitchell’s game is a testimony to playing unburdened — weightless even — although time and unmet expectations can eventually warp such perceptions for any athlete. Conley was not always the figurehead of a failed contender, and yet that’s how the basketball public has almost always known him. In all his star pairings, he has always been the less-heralded one at the start, and he has remained quick so as to stay one step ahead of despair.

He arrived on the national basketball landscape as part of a vaunted Ohio State recruiting class. The “Thad Five” included Othello Hunter, David Lighty, Daequan Cook, Greg Oden, and Conley. They were supposed to own college basketball, and they almost did. They lost in the national championship game to a Florida Gators team featuring Joakim Noah and Al Horford. Such runs are respectable, and basketball is full of teams at every level that dispersed too quickly. Oden, Conley, and Cook all entered the NBA draft following the loss to Florida. Oden and Conley would be picked first and fourth and sandwiched in between them were the likes of Kevin Durant and Al Horford. Oden’s career fell into ruin, and Conley became something of a survivor.

His longevity in a Memphis uniform along with his nice-guy charisma — his tragic persistence — have forever acted as tools for redeeming his teammates: Oden’s physical frailty, Zach Randolph’s immature behaviors, Tony Allen’s offensive limitations. As a salve for his team and his community, rightly or wrongly, Conley is often portrayed as the one who completes others. But fate has often fallen with too much force for a single point guard to bear.

He, too, has needed saving.

Conley spent his first twelve NBA seasons in Memphis. That means when he first suited up for the Grizzlies, George W. Bush was president and the word “hope” under Barack Obama’s likeness could be taken literally and without any derision or debate about what constitutes a progressive presidency. The Grizzlies reached the 2012-13 Western Conference Finals, but never went further. They traded Marc Gasol to the Toronto Raptors last February, leaving Conley alone to carry the load. By season’s end, with only a handful of games left on the schedule, Conley was a regular feature on the DNP list, wearing street clothes instead of a uniform.

There is a second protagonist in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, and McCarthy puts him through hell. The character’s name is Billy Parham, and he will ultimately fail to save a wild wolf. He will fail to retrieve his family’s stolen horses. He will fail to return his brother’s body across the border from Mexico, and in The Crossing’s final scene, he weeps after failing to retrieve a stray dog that reminds him of the wolf he already lost. Conley is always smiling and nowhere near Parham’s nadir, but he is waiting on his first All-Star appearance.

Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

The year before Mitchell entered the league and outdueled Russell Westbrook in the playoffs, Conley carried the heaviest load of his career in terms of Win Shares (10.0) and played what is arguably the best season of his career. In his team’s 2016-17 first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs, he looked, at times, every bit as good as Kawhi Leonard. This was almost a year after he had signed that fat contract that, for a time, made him the game’s highest-paid player. And this was also after Grit ‘n Grind had already died many deaths. Conley was, if anything, not just a survivor but a resurrection artist, and that’s something Utah and Mitchell hope he’s still capable of doing.

Utah is currently the Western Conference’s sixth-best team. They came into the season hoping to contend with either Los Angeles franchise, the Denver Nuggets, and the Houston Rockets — and they still might.

So far, however, the offseason acquisitions of Mike Conley and Bogdan Bogdanovic have gifted Utah with only the 23rd best offense in the league. History in Utah begins with a tale about two Spanish missionaries so lost in the wilderness they had to eat their own horses to survive. A shoddy offense, featuring too many missed jump shots and perhaps too much isolation, can’t be that bad, but it also can’t be that good for traveling far into the playoffs.

If Conley fails to rediscover his shooting range, then there is at least something fitting about seeing him play out this portion of his career in those Nike City jerseys that consist of golden yellow and burnt crimson bands cascading over a wild canyon’s walls. Conley is, after all, much closer to the sunset than the sunrise.

He has played in over 800 NBA games. His hamstrings are tight. He can’t take naps; he has to chase the kids around when he’s not playing basketball. He’s not washed, but he can’t stay up as late as he once did. And that would all be okay and normal except playing in the NBA requires staying up late.

Mitchell is a younger man than Conley. He is an explosive scorer and exactly the type of player people dreamed of pairing with Conley back in Memphis. What a cruel blow from the basketball gods it is to have delivered Conley and Mitchell to one another at the precise moment in Conley’s career when his game has begun to leave him. Then again, there’s still enough game left in Conley to conjure hope in the wilderness, to permit letting them play out this string to some end that is fitting of their character.

No one wants to speak ill of Mike Conley. No one wants to speak ill of a man who is so liked and respected. But there is a time in an individual’s wanderings when telling the tale becomes truer than living it, and that is also the moment when one passes from a realm of substance into a realm of belief and despair. In the closing passages of McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain, which is his Border Trilogy’s last installment, Billy Parham “and the children would sit at the kitchen table and he’d tell them about horses and cattle and the old days” (290).

I did not cry when Memphis traveled to Utah on December 7, 2019. The Jazz won, and Mitchell scored 22 points. But the man who is currently in the best position to prevent Mitchell’s career from echoing his own did not play. Such silences in a Western can be badass, but they are also where the tough get lonely.

Next: Karl-Anthony Towns is built of simpler stuff

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