It's customary to suggest that Mike Conley is overlooked when discussing the NBA's best point guards. This is especially true after he raised his game in the second half of last season and the playoffs once the Memphis Grizzlies handed him more responsibility without Rudy Gay. That Conley is even in this discussion at all is a testament to his tremendous growth since his five-year, $45 million contract extension in 2010 seemed like a huge mistake.
Nevertheless, one could suggest that being "overlooked" is a backhanded compliment. Nobody says Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul are overlooked because it's obvious that they are superstars. We can see the athleticism or the obvious ability to manipulate the floor with one crossover dribble. Saying Conley is "overlooked" could be viewed as an admission that we can't figure him out, or, worse, don't want to figure him out.
I'd caution against expressing that disrespect, though. Why? Because the very foundation of Conley's on-court success relies on the defense overlooking him.
Conley's an expert at the art of deception. He's not a player that will overwhelm you when you expect him to drive. Instead, he's someone that probes, re-sets, stays cerebral, then drives when you don't expect it, using a vicious hesitation move, creative dribbling and nifty footwork that can hardly be identified to the naked eye.
We'll talk all about that soon, but it's important to note why Conley's ability to change speed is so effective conceptually. Over the past few years, Conley has slowly added skills to the game. He was always quick, but struggled because he lacked a jumper, proper understanding of angles and a perfectly ambidextrous game. Teams would simply play off him while forcing him right, and Conley had such little confidence in his jumper that he'd try to drive anyway. The defense, well prepared for him to do just that, swallowed him up and forced lots of turnovers.
Now, after years of hard work, Conley is a proficient jump shooter. Last season, he hit nearly 45 percent of his shots from 10-24 feet, the very range from which teams used to dare him to beat them. Conley's also slowly built out other offensive skills, like a tighter handle with his right hand, equally-proficient finishing ability with either hand and a nifty floater from either side. There's no "right" way to play Conley now; you have to account for many different outcomes. And on a team that is so post-oriented, you also have to account for Conley simply being conservative, backing out and dumping the ball to Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The defense never has any idea what's coming.
All that sets up that vicious hesitation. Look at all these players getting left in the dust.
None of these moved were telegraphed. Conley moved with quick, short steps, unlike Rajon Rondo, whose hesitation move was profiled earlier in this series. The difference? Rondo stood wide because he was given space and so he could take long strides, starting with his front foot. Conley, on the other hand, isn't given much space, and therefore it's his back foot that ultimately gives him speed.
Notice Conley's back leg position in these screenshots:
By being so low to the ground, Conley is able to generate so much power. Power leads to quickness, which leads to Conley zipping by defenders going to the rim.
But it's also worth noting how quickly Conley shifts into leg-power mode. This is Conley's leg position the split second before he gets down and accelerates in the Clippers screenshot above.
This is why it's so hard to key on Conley's hesitation. He doesn't dramatically change how much he bends his knees, which not only confuses the defense, but also allows him to make the move so decisively. There's a misconception that one must stand up and then get back down in a low stance to execute a hesitation move. That's a waste of valuable time. Instead, the key is stopping while staying down, then accelerating without dramatically changing your knee bend. Conley is conditioned enough to do that beautifully.
It's also worth noting that Conley is capable of accelerating off either foot and with either hand. Generally, he pushes off the left foot when dribbling with his left hand and his right foot when dribbling with his right hand, but there are exceptions. The Clippers example is one -- Conley is powering off his right foot despite dribbling left. These are two other examples:
This makes it impossible for defenses to know when and how Conley is planning to attack them.
Conley's dribbling skills are yet another reason, though. He has the deadly combination of a great crossover and an equally-fantastic inside-out dribble. The latter is essentially the combo move of the former, so the key is selling it as if the crossover is coming. Look at how well Conley sells the crossover here before pulling it back and going with the inside-out dribble. Many guards half-heartedly do this. Conley makes sure that his entire hand is behind the ball, like a crossover, before turning it back to go the same way.
All this -- the change of speed, the patience, the footwork, the dribbling skills -- allows Conley to zig zag while waiting for his opportunity to attack, if he attacks at all. He moves in such a jagged path that it's really hard to track him. How could the Lakers know that this would be Conley's path to the rim on this play?
That type of patience is worth praising, but it's only possible because of the hard work Conley has done to refine his footwork and handle. Only then can he master the art of deception, the art of functioning while everyone else on the court overlooks him.