Reports: Brooklyn Nets Targeting Mike Conley As Top Free Agent

Mar 5, 2014; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley (11) controls the ball against Brooklyn Nets point guard Deron Williams (8) during the first quarter of a game at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 5, 2014; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley (11) controls the ball against Brooklyn Nets point guard Deron Williams (8) during the first quarter of a game at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports /

Early in the post-Deron Williams era, the Brooklyn Nets need a strong floor general for their next era of success. The Nets hold tantalizing hope for the best point guard in the 2016 free agent class, Mike Conley.

While this hasn’t been directly tied to material rumors, ESPN New York’s Mike Mazzeo and The Commercial Appeal’s Chris Herrington connected the dots.

Mazzeo laid down the logic that the 6’1″, 175-pound point guard is the exact point guard the Nets need and Brooklyn head coach Lionel Hollins, who led the Memphis Grizzlies for the four of Conley’s eight pro years, has a close bond with him.

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Mazzeo quotes Conley as saying Hollins is “like a second father” to him.

Before long, Mazzeo breaks down and acknowledges, “It makes too much sense. But it will be a tough sell.”

Herrington said, “Conley is thought by those around the team to be the most likely top target, with the presence of his former coach, Lionel Hollins, presumed to be a drawing card.”

The best available, yet imperfect fix

The 2016 free agent class features remarkable stars, and Conley looms as an unlikely choice man among point guards. He’s safely the sixth-best at the position behind Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, John Wall and Damian Lillard, none of whom will be available.

Others on the market include Rajon Rondo, whose value hinges on his performance this year with the Sacramento Kings, and Williams, who wouldn’t return a year removed from a buyout with the Nets.

At age 28, Conley has yet to win an All-Star nod.

Still, Conley has marked his place as supreme floor general, a caretaker who can splash scoring and effectively defend. He broke out with 17.2 points per game in 2013-14. His three-point shooting is sound, at 37.5 percent for his career.

Conley was never about stacking assist numbers, as seen by his 6.2 dimes per 36 minutes, but his combination of speed and pinpoint passing open scoring opportunities, particularly in the post.

The Nets should fancy themselves as the big-market suitor. As they tear apart the roster in hopes of saving money while looking to compete before too long, Conley could serve as a steady hand for a team lacking offensive coherence. Brook Lopez has been a franchise scoring talent, but doesn’t stay healthy. Rookie forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson possesses tantalizing scoring ability.

Thaddeus Young is decent and Bojan Bogdanovic could blossom. Joe Johnson stands as their most aggressive shooter, but is quickly declining and likely won’t be in Brooklyn next year.

Last year, in Hollins’ first season as the Nets’ head coach, Brooklyn placed 20th in offensive rating. Williams struggled running the offense and posted woeful figures of 13 points and 6.6 assists per game with 38.7 percent shooting.

Jarrett Jack is acting as the bridge during this campaign, and it isn’t going well. The pace and offensive rating have crashed to 27th and 29th, respectively, while the team’s in the middle of the pack with a 13.7 percent turnover rate. Jack scores 14 points per game, but holds a dismal 17.1 percent turnover rate.

Whenever Jack has started at point guard in his career, he carried unnecessary scoring loads for bad teams like the 2011-12 New Orleans Hornets.

In 2014-15, the Nets went 11-16 with Jack starting, while he averaged 15.9 points per game.

As nice as he seems for Brooklyn, Conley seems a precarious choice. He’s battled through injuries for some time. A variety of injuries slowed him last season. He’s been plagued by foot and ankle pain for a couple of years.

Nets general manager Billy King must seriously contemplate whether he wants to pair an injury-prone Lopez with a point man who constantly battles pain. If Conley were further drained by injury while wearing the black and white, Brooklyn would be mired in long-term mediocrity.

A tenuous coaching connection

Pinning hopes of signing Conley on Hollins relies on the idea the Nets would remain a playoff team strong enough that the 62-year-old coach keeping his job. Last year, Hollins guided Brooklyn to a seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference despite the possibility the veteran squad could get a top-four spot.

Before the season, Sean Highkin listed him as one of the coaches on the hot seat in an NBC Sports article, saying, “Hollins has always felt like something of a short-term solution in Brooklyn. … Their ceiling is the eighth seed and a first-round exit; their floor is a lot worse than that. It would take a catastrophic start to the year for Hollins to lose his job during the season, but there isn’t exactly a lot of long-term security in his position.”

That catastrophe is coming alive as the Nets have lost their first five games, four of which were by double digits. Brooklyn has shown no signs of defense under the defensive-minded coach, allowing more than 100 points in every contest. In the 101-91 loss to the Grizzlies on Oct. 31, the Nets gave Memphis players free paths to the basket.

Afterwards, a YES Network reporter asked him about coaching his 500th game, and Hollins commented, “Winning is important to longevity.”

Hollins surely recognizes the need for winning to sustain himself in this situation.

The next few weeks aren’t forgiving for Brooklyn, as they see seven games against true playoff teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. If the Nets enter December 5-11 or worse, Hollins will be in dire straits.

Tough to break up the Grind

Conley is part of one of the longest-running core groups in the NBA. He and Grizzlies teammates Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph have been together since 2009-10. They’ve made five straight playoff appearances together, including a Western Conference Finals trip.

Since Randolph is on the decline, Memphis counts on Conley and Gasol to lead the future. Gasol told The Commercial Appeal’s Ron Tillery that Conley’s persuasive actions ensured his return. However, the 30-year-old center informed Yahoo Sports’ Michael Lee he wouldn’t force Conley’s hand.

Meanwhile, Randolph has vowed to bring Conley back, telling Tillery, “Yeah, I’ve got Mike taken care of.”

Conley declined to entertain an extension offer from Memphis, per ESPN’s Marc Stein, which was only logical for the savvy negotiator as he nears the end of a five-year, $40 million bargain deal. An extension would only allow his base salary to be 7.5 percent more than his current rate of $9.6 million.

He seems unworthy of a maximum contract without an All-Star selection, but the lack of elite point guards could inflate his potential earnings.

Considering the Grizzlies re-signed Randolph in 2014 with ease and Gasol this summer with virtually no challenge by the time free agency opened, they could retain Conley with the same smoothness.

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Next year’s free agency is far away, and the Nets’ capacity for playoff contention appears just as distant. Hollins’ connection with Conley may be strong, but his hold on the job is weak as Brooklyn struggles. With that, he can scarcely try attracting Conley. Moreover, any team would be hard-pressed to lure him from Beale Street.