Mike Conley’s basketball career can be easily segmented into distinct eras. There’s the one really freaking good year at Ohio State when he almost won a national championship with Greg Oden. After that, he was an integral part of the ‘Grit-n-Grind’ Grizzlies in the 2010s, and then as the wily veteran on those early-playoff-exit Utah Jazz teams with Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.
Now heading into his first offseason with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Conley is hoping to be part of the defining era of Minnesota Timberwolves basketball in the years to come. The fourth-overall pick in the 2007 draft will have just turned 36 by the time the curtain lifts on his 17th season in October. He’s got one year left on his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2024. Therefore, the clock is ticking for Tim Connelly and Co. to come up with a delicate plan for how to maximize Conley in his twilight years.
Every year there are increasingly more examples of NBA teams creating and sustaining success around aging point guards. Chris Paul led the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals in his age-35 season. John Stockton was in his mid-30s when the Jazz ran into the Chicago Bulls buzzsaw in back-to-back years. And 37-year-old Kyle Lowry has the zombie Heat knocking on the door of the NBA Finals.
In his first 43 games with Utah, Conley was averaging his fewest points per game since his rookie season. However, he was also averaging the most assists per game of his career for the upstart Jazz before the D’Angelo Russell trade. While the Wolves were only 12-12 after Conley arrived (15-16 including play-in and playoff games), Conley was a big reason why the Timberwolves made the playoffs with a plus-7.7 on/off net rating. He was a plus-18.9 in the first round against Denver and is an important piece of a team that hopes to play further into the postseason next year.
The key to getting the best out of Mike Conley next season is the two most dreadful words in basketball, load management. As much as Anthony Edwards hates it when players sit when they’re not injured, it’s a strategy that can and should be used sparingly — especially with older players. Conley averages just under 32 minutes per game during his career, which spans more than 1000 games. However, that has decreased to just over 29 minutes per game since joining the Jazz in 2019. Somewhere around 28 to 30 is probably the sweet spot the Wolves want to keep Conley to preserve him as much as possible for another playoff run. Unfortunately, as constructed, Minnesota’s roster is not going to help them rest their starting point guard much.
The Wolves have plug-and-play playmakers in Kyle Anderson and Anthony Edwards who can grab the reins of the offense for a few minutes at a time. But assuming they release Jordan McLaughlin before his contract is guaranteed for next season, they’ll be without a backup point guard. That will put a huge burden on Conley until they address the glaring need this summer. One of Minnesota’s top priorities this summer should be finding a young, athletic, durable backup point guard. They need someone who can give the team 20 meaningful minutes off the bench to spell Conley during the grueling 82-game regular season.
A potentially bigger decision than how to manage Conley’s minutes is what to do with his contract when it expires after next season. Basically, they’ve got the usual three options:
- They can re-sign him ahead of his age-37 season.
- They can thank him for his service and let him walk in free agency.
- Or trade him sometime before next year’s trade deadline.
Re-signing a point guard in their late 30s isn’t unheard of. Chris Paul signed a four-year contract extension with the Suns ahead of his age-36 season. But do the Timberwolves really want to tie the next few years to an older point guard whose role will diminish by the year as Anthony Edwards ascends to his physical prime?
It seems unlikely they would just let him go for nothing when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2024. Therefore, the other option would be to see how he plays the first half of the season and try to ship him at the trade deadline for pieces they could control for a few more years. Or, depending on how the regular season goes, they could go all-in for a shot to contend for at least a Western Conference Finals berth.
Perhaps Conley is the linchpin in a contending roster next season and Tim Conelly decides to ride it out and see how far they can go with Conley. In that circumstance, he risks losing him for nothing in free agency. Still, it would seem like the choice is between a midseason trade like the one that brought him to Minnesota in February, and an attempt to re-sign Conley to keep some roster cohesion around Edwards.
Whatever happens this summer and next season, the Wolves have to walk a fine line in order to manage Conley’s situation correctly. One wrong move, and he will be just another in a long line of talented players who came in and out of Minnesota.