Mike Conley provides calm presence to young Wolves squad: ‘He’s very important to us’

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SALT LAKE CITY — Mike Conley made sure to get his point across as clear as he could.

His message to his Minnesota Timberwolves teammates on the first day of preseason: Enjoy the moment. We are a good basketball team with the upside to be great. But, we don’t know when this will happen again. So, enjoy it.

“That was definitely the message,” Conley said. “I’ve been on really good teams that have been close but haven’t gotten quite to where we want to go. And it’s been the little things here and there. So, we want to take advantage of our opportunity. We want to strike while it’s hot, but at the same time, we want to be grateful for the position we are in.

“You never know if we’ll get back to the playoffs, much less get further than that. These guys deserve a lot of credit. They’ve responded from day one.”

When you’ve been in the NBA for nearly two decades, time is a double-edged sword. Conley has stood the test of time as an NBA point guard, one of the best playmakers of this era. But, it can all seem fleeting. Conley has been on some good teams, which have bordered on being great. He made a Western Conference finals with the “Grit ‘N’ Grind” Memphis Grizzlies. He, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert led the 2021 Utah Jazz to the top seed in the West and into NBA title contention.

But, for one reason or another, those were teams that eventually fizzled out. Memphis just wasn’t good enough to beat the peak San Antonio Spurs. The Jazz? Conley’s calf and Mitchell’s ankle didn’t hold up long enough, and that meant a surprise second-round exit to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Mike Conley is 36 years old now and still, a starting-level NBA point guard, which is amazing considering how, at 6 feet tall and 175 pounds, he is relatively small in stature. But, for a man who has nearly seen it all, his word carries the kind of weight that few individual players around the league possess.

It serves as a bit of coincidence that Conley’s last few nights have been in Salt Lake City, his first since joining Minnesota, as the Timberwolves and Jazz faced each other on Saturday night and will do so again on Monday night at Delta Center.

The 2021 Jazz team was incredible in large doses, an offensive machine featuring shooting, skill, ballhandling and passing that overwhelmed most of the NBA during that regular season. But, ill health flared up at the wrong time for that team. They fizzled and the following season became one of the most tumultuous teams in Jazz history and the front office blew up the roster in 2022.

Conley survived the initial purge the summer Gobert and Mitchell were traded, but everyone knew it was a matter of time before he was dealt. And last February, he was sent to Minnesota. He’s not the player that he once was, one who became one of the best individual playmakers of his generation. The quickness is still good, but no longer elite. He can no longer get on the floor and drop in 20 points a night. But he doesn’t need to on this Timberwolves team because Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns exist.

What Conley has to do is provide leadership and wisdom. He needs to run a turnover-free offense. He needs to be a rock in Minnesota’s locker room. These are all things where he’s still very good.

The Timberwolves are 46-21 on the season and a game behind West leader Oklahoma City. They are the best defensive team in basketball, and Edwards’ rise to being a superstar-level player along with Towns has given them enough offense to sustain what they are defensively. But Minnesota had most of that before last February. They needed someone to galvanize them as a unit, and that’s what Conley provided. Conley’s not the best player on the roster or even the second or third best. But his importance to what the Timberwolves aspire to do this season cannot be overstated. He’s been the glue that has held everything together.

“I think he’s taught me how to be a level-headed player, and he’s taught me how to be more consistent in the way I do things on and off the floor,” Minnesota guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker said. “I’m aspiring to be a lead guard full time, and when I look at Mike, he’s always even-keeled. That’s just so helpful to us. He has this ability to control his emotions and control the game when frustrations get high.

“When everyone is kind of running around, Mike is calm and telling us what we need to do to get back on track. He’s just very important to us.”

Conley has sacrificed some of what he can do offensively for the greater good of the group. Even if he’s no longer in his prime, he’s capable of erupting when needed. With Towns out of the lineup with injury until the postseason, Conley has looked for his offense more in recent games. In a big win over the LA Clippers, he scored 23 points. In Saturday night’s win over the Jazz, his 25 points represented a season high.

The Timberwolves have been running him off screens a little more, to take advantage of Conley’s prowess as a shooter. And because their offense is more versatile than it has been, Conley can share ballhandling responsibilities. Adapting without Towns has been a process, but incorporating Conley more has been something Minnesota has worked on.

“We’ve been almost treating him like a shooting guard, a little bit,” Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch said. “We have a lot of guys who can handle the ball, so we’re able to run him off actions, and that helps him create separation. He’s been getting out and running and we’ve been able to find him for some open looks. He’s playing in a great rhythm right now.”

Minnesota is good enough to make a run deep into the postseason, which is something Conley knows. But he knows everything has to align as well. Three years ago, he thought he had that with the Jazz, but health betrayed that team. What happens this time is yet to be determined. Whatever happens, Conley is going to enjoy the moment for what it turns out to be.

“You can’t control some factors that deal with winning,” Conley said. “You look at the Denver Nuggets last year. They were a great team and the best team in the league, but they were healthy as well. We just have to go one step at a time and hopefully, we have a chance to be in a good position.”

(Photo of Mike Conley and Collin Sexton: Alex Goodlett / Getty Images)

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