Despite fighting through a seemingly never-ending string of injuries, the Memphis Grizzlies have managed a nice start this season, opening with an 11-7 record that has them fifth in the Western Conference. Their quest to maintain that nice start just got infinitely harder, however, with the news Tuesday afternoon that point guard Mike Conley will miss at least the next six weeks because of a transverse process fracture in his back.
While the Grizzlies have been able to survive various injuries to Chandler Parsons, Tony Allen, James Ennis and Brandan Wright over the first few weeks, losing Conley – who signed a five-year, $153 million max contract this offseason, the NBA’s biggest deal ever, to stay with the franchise – is quite another.
Ever since Memphis put its roster together this summer, an injury to Conley was always going to be a huge problem. The numbers bear that out: when Conley is on the court this season, the Grizzlies are outscoring teams by 6.5 points per 100 possessions in 547 minutes. But in the 337 minutes Conley has been on the bench, Memphis has been outscored by 13.8 points per 100 possessions.
Conley’s backups – a pair of rookies in Andrew Harrison and Wade Baldwin – have struggled. The Grizzlies have been outscored by 4.5 points per 100 possessions when Harrison has played and an insane 21.2 points per 100 possessions in the 172 minutes Baldwin, the team’s first-round pick of the 2016 NBA Draft, has been on the court.
The problem for Memphis is that while Harrison and Baldwin are a pair of bad options, there aren’t many better ones floating around the waiver wire. Though the Grizzlies could desperately use a veteran presence at the point, the two most obvious names on the market – Mario Chalmers and Jarrett Jack – are recovering from an Achilles tear and a torn ACL, respectively, and both are likely not far enough along in their respective rehabilitation processes to be able to contribute immediately.
So now the Grizzlies, a team that was already overly reliant on Conley’s ability to create, suddenly find themselves without a single proven playmaker. The addition of Parsons, who was signed to a max contract of his own as the most expensive outside addition in franchise history this summer, was supposed to change that. But Parsons, who spent much of last season dealing with knee issues in Dallas (the reason the Mavericks didn’t pursue him in free agency), has played in only six games and remains sidelined now.
In the short term, Conley’s injury, first reported by The Vertical, will present Memphis with two questions: can he make it back in six weeks, the short end of his projected absence, and second, can the Grizzlies survive if that’s all he winds up sitting out?
If Conley misses just those six weeks – which, given he’s 29 and in the first year of a five-year contract, it seems optimistic to assume – let’s say he would return in time to visit Washington and play the Wizards on Jan. 18. That would mean Conley would miss 25 games, and that’s before taking into account the time he would need to ramp back up into becoming a full-time contributor for the Grizzlies again.
The schedule during that stretch is far from forgiving, too. Among those 25 games are three matchups with the Golden State Warriors, two games each against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder and single games against the Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Clippers, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons and Portland Trail Blazers.
That’s 18 games against teams that are expected to be playoff teams this season – and the Grizzlies will enter all without one of their two best players, and their only reliable shot creator. Good luck with that.
The other problem for Memphis is that, because an earlier trade will send its draft pick to Denver unless it lands in the top five spots of the 2017 NBA Draft, an extended injury absence won’t even provide the benefit of a high-value young player to supplement the Grizzlies’ core next season.
So now they will sit and wait and hope Conley can return around this current six-week time frame – and that they can survive that long if he does. As it looks right now, the odds of either aren’t tipped in the Grizzlies’ favor.