The words “Mike Conley” and “All-Star” have seemed destined to never appear in the same sentence. That should change this year.
With All-Star voting closing in one week, attention on who will be selected is ramping up. As always, there is intense competition in the backcourt of the Western Conference, but the ever-underrated Mike Conley is more than holding his own this season.
To start, Mike Conley has always had an uphill battle in receiving an All-Star nod due to the nature of how they’re selected. Usually selections will favor the high-volume scorers, even if they’re limited in other areas and/or don’t have as large of an impact on playing “winning” basketball. On social media following the All-Star game selections, many of the “snubs”, at least according to the court of public opinion, are the aforementioned volume scorers. Last year, one example was Zach Lavine, who was the subject of a recent piece of mine, which detailed his lack of impact on helping his teams play winning basketball.
Is this wrong? Not necessarily. The NBA above all else is an entertainment business, and watching those guys get an iso bucket is absolutely fun to watch. But it is my personal belief that an All-Star team should be made up of the 12 best players in each conference.
That brings us back to Conley. He recently appeared on JJ Redick’s “The Old Man and the Three” podcast, saying “I don’t want to shoot 25 times [a game], but in order to average 25 [points]… you have to do that… You can score 30, you could have 10-15 assists, but on a nightly basis, in order to be that guy you have to want to hunt that… and that kind of mindset has kind of held me back a little bit.”
Conley isn’t a volume scorer because he doesn’t want to be. And unfortunately, he’s been penalized in All-Star selections because of it. He even added, “I’m as good as all the other players that are getting All-Star bids” and said, “I could care less about the stats, I care about winning, I care about the guts of the game”. We know he’s capable of scoring in bunches, check the tape:
We know the locks to make the All-Star team for the backcourt out West (Curry, Lillard, Luka), so the guards most likely to be in contention with Conley for a reserve All-Star spot are Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, De’Aaron Fox, Ja Morant, and Conley’s teammate, Donovan Mitchell.
Some say Conley doesn’t deserve the nod over those guys because he isn’t a good enough scorer. Let’s start with shooting. Conley is having a career year behind the arc, shooting a career high 41.0% from three. More surprisingly perhaps, is his accuracy off the dribble. Let’s compare his shooting to those players in contention with him:
Booker and Morant did not qualify due to a very low amount of attempts. As for sample size, Conley has taken 55 such attempts, Shai 56, and Mitchell 57, with Chris Paul and De’Aaron Fox shooting even less, so Conley has been by far the most efficient shooter off the dribble this season, on very comparable volume.
And while Conley is not known for being an isolation scorer like Booker, Fox, Mitchell, or Shai, he’s actually been one of the most efficient of the bunch as well. Here’s a chart showing both isolation efficiency and true shooting percentage, which is a stat that effectively combines twos, threes, and free throws into one percentage. It is widely accepted as the best way to measure a player’s overall efficiency:
Conley has categorically been one of the most efficient scorers of the reserve contenders. A fair point to raise is that he’s doing it on lower usage, and while that is the case, Conley is a better passer and playmaker than almost everyone on this list, with the obvious exception of CP3.
Of course, numbers do not tell the whole story, which is why we included highlights earlier. The “eye test” is a necessary and valid form of evaluating players. But given that a key element in deciding All-Star selections usually emphasizes stats, it’s a good starting point for this discussion. Conley’s box score stats may not jump off the page, as he averages only 16.5 PPG, 3.7 RPG, and 5.8 APG. However, in the advanced stats, specifically player impact stats, Conley shines. How do these players stack up in player impact? (A little intro course to analytics as well!):
Real Plus-Minus is a player’s average impact in terms of net point differential per 100 possessions. Essentially, how much better was that player’s team while said player was on the court. Mike Conley ranks 9th, one spot above Nikola Jokic. Of the group of players in contention that we mentioned, the only players in the top one hundred are his teammate, Donovan Mitchell, who is 18th, and De’Aaron Fox at 32.
Win Shares is a statistic derived by baseball analytics legend Bill James. Applied to basketball, it attempts to give credit to individuals for team success, and historically does a good job of that. Per 48 minutes, Conley ranks 15th, ahead of all the others in contention, as well as likely All-Stars Trae Young and Jaylen Brown.
Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) is the “estimate of the points per 100 TEAM possessions that a player contributed above a replacement-level (-2.0) player, translated to an average team and prorated to an 82-game season”. Again, essentially measuring how much do they affect winning. Surprise, Surprise, Mike Conley ranks 11th in the Western Conference, and again, far ahead of most of his competition (DeRozan 27th, Paul 34th, Shai 35th, Mitchell 55th, Booker 171st).
There are other stats that show that Conley is elite, but we’ll close with Cleaning the Glass’s differential stat, which shows “the difference in how the team performed with the player on vs. off the court”. Mike Conley is the #1 Point Guard in the league in this metric. Full stop. This statistic, which is a measure of recorded events that occurred on a basketball court, shows that no other point guard has made as big of an impact on winning as Mike Conley.
Do we believe Conley is the best point guard in the league? No. Advanced stats don’t portray the whole picture, and they’re not supposed to. But when all of them are saying similar things, it begins to paint a picture that you can complete by watching film, and using the beloved “eye test” (which Conley passes with flying colors).
Some people have a distaste for analytics, and will attempt to discredit those advanced stats by saying he doesn’t score enough. I would know, as I have received multiple DM’s arguing this point on my Instagram page. Which begs the question: which stats matter? Do one or two counting stats (points and assists), which provide almost no context and do not reflect efficiency or impact on winning, matter more than the advanced stats that take far more information into account?
This is a larger topic that could be an entirely separate article. But the bottom-line is that there does not appear to be a statistical argument to keep Conley out of this All-Star game. He has arguably been the best player on the team that currently has the best record in basketball, and maybe if he were playing in a more high profile market than Utah, it would be much more difficult to snub him yet again for the All-Star Game.