Rudy Gobert grabbed a rebound off a Kristaps Porzingis miss early in the third quarter Monday against Boston, and immediately gave the ball to Mike Conley.
Porzingis went to the floor on his shot attempt, meaning Minnesota had a 5 on 4 going the other way. Rather than rush the play, Conley essentially skipped his way down the floor, giving Boston’s transition alignment a chance to take shape so he could read what was in front of him.
Jrue Holiday stepped up to stop Conley just past mid-court. Al Horford sat in between Gobert, who was diving to the rim, and Karl-Anthony Towns, who slowed up near the 3-point line.
Conley had an option to try to thread a lob over Horford to Gobert for a likely assist. But he opted instead to swing it to Towns, which forced Horford to come out to guard the 3-point shooting big man. That left Gobert all alone on his rim run. Towns then tossed it up to Gobert for the flush.
Two points for Gobert, assist to Towns, and no box-score credit to Conley.
Such is the life for a true floor general, whose primary offensive responsibilities are making sure Minnesota gets into the right actions and gets the ball into the right spots to set the offense up to be successful.
Conley finished with just eight points and three assists in the win over previously-unbeaten Boston.
“I kid you not … I probably feel like I impacted the game more that particular game than I have in a game in like five years,” Conley said. “And I looked up and I had two points.”
How so? Conley said there were times in the game when Boston would go on a mini run. And, in response, Conley would dial up a sequence of maybe three consecutive offensive plays to get the pendulum swinging back in Minnesota’s favor.
“And we executed every single one of them, got the ball to exactly who we wanted to, got the matchup we wanted and executed. And I’m like, ‘Man, the plan worked, and that’s how it’s supposed to be,’” Conley said. “It wasn’t just, ‘Let’s see if we can win the next three minutes.’ It was like, ‘This is how we’re going to win the next three minutes. This is how we’re going to win the next minute.’ That kind of stuff really gets me excited about my position and my role.”
Conley knows his role with the Timberwolves – as it’s been for much of his NBA career – is to run the team. That can involve scoring, passing or defensive play – it doesn’t really matter. It’s organizing everything and helping maximize the players on the floor to achieve the best team result.
“It was exciting to see all that stuff come together (Monday), but I look up and, if you didn’t watch the game, you’d be like, ‘You didn’t do anything,’” Conley said. “Nah, actually, that was one of my better games. Efficient, played hard and did the things we needed to do to win. That’s what I love about being one of the last few guys to truthfully play that way. It can be misunderstood, and I’m OK with it.”
Specifically, he’s one of the last true point guards to play that way. Conley recognizes himself as a dying breed at the position, which has never been more evident than when analyzing Minnesota’s opponents this week.
Boston’s “point guard” is Jrue Holiday, who doesn’t fit the traditional mold. New Orleans generally starts CJ McCollum, who was a shooting guard for much of his career. With him out Wednesday, the Pelicans didn’t have a point in any sense. Neither did Friday’s opponent, the Spurs, who bring legitimate point guard Tre Jones off the bench as second-year defensive stopper Jeremy Sochan brings the ball up the floor. Teams are electing to go with scoring guards – or even no guards – over the traditional pass-first point guard in lineup constructions. That transition, Conley, admitted, has been “weird” to witness. He understands the idea behind maximizing size or defensive versatility. Minnesota does that in its second unit, and Conley is a fan of being able to throw a different look at an opponent.
But you can tell he thinks not featuring one at all is a mistake.
“There’s times where it’s never been more evident that you need one out there,” Conley said. “A lot late game. … That’s been shouldered a lot on the point guards being able to organize, being able to manage different situations.”
Boston, for instance, has the most-talented roster in the NBA. But the Celtics, who never feature a floor general, continue to fall short of their championship aspirations. Often, it’s due to horrible late-game execution in the playoffs.
Yet more and more teams are going that route.
Conley noted there are a lot of talented players capable of bringing the ball up and getting a team into its initial actions.
“But I don’t think you’re getting the same impact that you would if you had learned that in fifth, sixth grade, just like anything in life,” he said. “There’s just the innate ability to read different things without needing somebody’s guidance. The instincts of that part of the game, I think, are not easy to find nowadays.”
For instance, in Minnesota, Timberwolves coach Chris Finch may talk to Conley in the huddle and give him the option of three different plays to run, depending on what he sees. Conley dissects the defensive look and matchups, picks an option and goes from there.
“I don’t know if that’s something that non-point guards do or not,” Conley said, “but I know for sure that’s something I’m capable of doing and bringing every game.”
Coaches can try to call out every play from the sideline, but that can’t be done with the same pace with which a point guard on the floor can execute a plan. Plus, Conley said, the more people involved in a communication line, the more likely things are to be lost in translation.
“When I’m on the court and guys look dead in my eye like, ‘What are we running?’ I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve got it, here’s what we’re going to do,’” Conley said. “And coach knows, ‘Mike is going to make the right call. I trust him.’”
Why wouldn’t he? Conley has the pedigree of one of the League’s top floor generals. Conley had a streak of 200 straight minutes sans a turnover finally end Friday. It’s no mistake Minnesota looked like a bit of a mess before Conley arrived in February, and has figured a lot out since. He has a certain mastery of the game and knows how to properly manipulate it.
Conley can inform his teammates of if there is enough time left on the clock for a responsible 2-for-1. He knows if the Wolves have a foul to give on the final possession of a quarter. He can slow the game down if it’s not being played at Minnesota’s preferred pace. He is a quarterback on the court, as a point guard should be.
“There’s just the innate ability to read different things without needing somebody’s guidance,” Conley said. “The instincts of that part of the game, I think, are not easy to find nowadays.”
That’s the hard truth about floor generals in the NBA. Yes, teams are shifting away from them, but that might be because the supply is so scarce. There’s Conley, Tyus Jones and who else? Indiana’s Tyrese Haliburton is the distributor and scoring combination Conley resembled in his 20s, but even those players are few and far between.
Why? Conley said to follow the money. Players are paid for numbers. Guys aren’t paid for hockey assists, or even for being solid defensive guards. They’re paid to average 20 to 25 points a game. Conley didn’t mention any names, but Washington’s Jordan Poole is a prime example of that. Kids growing up are now watching scoring guards bring the ball up the floor, whereas Conley learned the position from watching guys like Mark Price or John Stockton.
Conley isn’t sure if the floor general is going extinct, or if this is merely cyclical.
“Some things it goes five years of people following a trend and people go, ‘Well, nobody is winning this way,’ … and it goes back to point guards again,” Conley said. “So, who knows?”
In that same vein, perhaps Conley is both the last of his kind, and the potential for a rebirth. Should he continue to command Minnesota down its current path of success, and maybe even lead the Timberwolves to a title, other NBA teams may follow suit and try to find someone similarly capable of driving the bus.
And if the demand for such players goes up League-wide, perhaps the supply will eventually refill, as well.
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“Guys want to be all the way on the other spectrum – like I just want to average 30 and five assists and be seen as this or that. It’s like, ‘Bro, you can have just as much value to the team averaging 12 and six’ … or whatever it is, and being able to slide your feet and guard, slide your feet, not turning it over,” Conley said. “All those things put value into truthfully winning games. That’s why teams still kind of value that player, but there’s just so few of them, it’s like, ‘Where do you find them?’ There’s only a couple left, so you’ve just got to hope that there’s one out there.”