Dec. 02, 2016
Mike Conley: Checking In with the Highest-Paid Player Ever
by Bill Annechino
Mike Conley signed the largest contract in NBA history over the summer. This contract was largely a result of the rising cap (although Conley is certainly a player deserving of a large salary), and will be surpassed as more and more superstar-level players hit free agency. For now, however, Conley is the answer to that trivia question. News broke this week that Conley had multiple fractured vertebrae and is expected to be out for six weeks, with a reevaluation in four. With Conley on the shelf for an extended period, I thought this would be a good time to take stock of where he is at in the infancy of his lucrative deal. All statistics come courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.
The tragedy in the Conley injury is that he is playing the best basketball of his career. His previous high in points per game was 17.2, back in the 2013-14 season. This season, Conley is averaging a full two points (19.2) per game higher than his previous best, and 5.5 points better than his career average of 13.7. Much of Conley’s improvement has come via an increase in volume. He hasn’t become a more efficient shooter; he is shooting 44 percent from the field, which is his career average. However, he is taking more than two more shots per game this season than his career average (13.8 this year vs 11.3 career). He has also shown improvement at the free throw line. Conley is averaging two free throw attempts per game more than his career average (5.1 vs 3.1), and he is converting them at nearly 10 percentage points better than his career rate (89.7 vs. 81.0). Conley is also taking more than two more three-pointers this year than his career average (5.3 vs 3.2). Another way to think of his three-point shooting is to say that his 3PAR this season was 38.5 percentage, compared to a career rate of 27.8. More significantly, he is shooting a blistering 46.7 percent on these shots, compared to a career rate of 37.7. His free throw rate sits at a career-high number of 37.3 percent, compared to his career average of 27.4. These numbers have combined to give Conley a 53 percent eFG%, which is significantly better than his career mark of 49.3.
Mike Conley has become a more valuable player this season than he was before. His previous high in VORP was 4.3, back in 2012-13. That figure was over 80 games; if we project his current rate over 80 games, Conley would have tallied about 5.2 VORP this season. We now know that, because of injury, Conley will not get there. Conley was also averaging almost twice as many win shares per 48 minutes than his career number (.221 vs .125). The usage rate also shows that Conley has become a bigger part of Memphis’ offense, as he was posting a rate of 26 this year, compared to a career rate of 20.6. Along with his increased volume and usage has come a more intelligent approach to his game. As previously mentioned, he has greatly altered his shooting profile to include a much higher percentage of three-point shots. Conley’s true shooting percentage has risen to a career-best rate of .599, blowing his career .539 out of the water.
It is somewhat bittersweet to analyze these statistics that tell us that Mike Conley has turned a corner in his career to become a player worthy of the largest contract in NBA history while also having to report that Conley is out with an injury to his spine. The nature of a spinal injury is that we do not know how affected Conley is going to be when he returns; the best-case scenario is that Conley comes back within the six-week recovery window and picks up where he left off. I have (thankfully) never experienced a spinal injury, so I cannot say for certain how it affects a professional athlete, but I think that it is within the realm of possibility that it will hinder Conley’s aggressiveness. It would be a real shame if that were the case, but it doesn’t change the fact that Conley has responded to his historic contract by playing the best basketball of his career.