The 2019 offseason was viewed as a pivotal one for the Utah Jazz ever since their first-round elimination, and they’ve come out firing with multiple notable moves. This multi-part Spotlight series will dig into one particular element of each new Jazz acquisition’s game, and how it helps turn them into a legitimate NBA title contender. Our next entry: Mike Conley, the “pure” point guard the Jazz have long been missing.
Born of a different era of NBA basketball, the term “pure point guard” has become something of a backhanded compliment in the modern game.
It’s generally reserved for “game mangers,” lead ball-handlers who lack elite scoring punch and thus tailor their game around clearing the runway for teammates. Most are fantastic passers, racking up gaudy assist totals and taking limited risks with the ball. In past generations, the pure point guard held real utility.
Today, the term has become shorthand for small ball-handlers who can’t shoot. The league has begun to squeeze these types out in its own version of Darwinism.
Take Rajon Rondo, a man caught between the modern game and a more antiquated version. Even the league’s best defenses in Rondo’s Boston heyday were only just beginning to understand the power of spacing and the impact of recent defensive rule changes. A decade later, guys like Rondo are ignored to near-comical degrees by defenses who use their limited games against them.
A younger Ricky Rubio may have been the last great hope for fans of the pure point guard.
But even Rubio’s prodigious passing skill, plus a reputation as a strong defender and even a good free-throw shooter, can’t break through the cap placed on his value by his poor shooting. His high turnover numbers, not typical of the traditional “pure point guard,” are a direct result of modern defensive understanding – teams can play him to pass to such a degree that even his strongest suit is weakened.
The Jazz, too, realized their ceiling with Rubio. But how best to raise it while finding a proper backcourt mate for young budding star Donovan Mitchell?
Enter Mike Conley, the modern pure point guard.
The low-hanging fruit when analyzing the Rubio-to-Conley upgrade is shooting. Conley is in a different class as a jump-shooter, particularly on catch-and-shoot threes where Rubio’s limited skills were so often a hindrance. Defenses have lost one of their primary escape valves against this Jazz offense. This would be enough on its own.
But wait, there’s more!
Consider two simple metrics that help illustrate the values of a lead ball-handler: Assist percentage (rate of team baskets the player assisted on while on the floor) and turnover percentage (an estimate of player turnovers per 100 plays).
These metrics naturally impact each other: Guys with high assist figures tend to have the ball a lot and pass it a lot, so keeping turnovers down is a challenge. Players who can do that plus use a high percentage of scoring possessions efficiently? Those are your unicorns.
Last season, Conley’s output in these two categories: 33.4 assist percentage, 9.1 turnover percentage.
Doesn’t sound impressive? It is. Just three other players in NBA history have even topped 30 percent assists with under a 10 percent turnover ratio in a season, most recently a young Tracy McGrady in 2003. No one has ever matched Conley’s precise 2018-19 thresholds in the same year. His combination of ball security and creation for teammates was historically unique, and he did it while posting the sixth-highest average time of ball possession in the entire league.
The deeper you dig, the better the fit appears.
Look at how Conley’s rate of live-ball turnovers – the worst kind, which we’ll explain in more detail momentarily – compares to other Jazz ball-handlers from last season on a per-possession basis (figures courtesy of PBPStats.com):
· Ricky Rubio: 2.95 live-ball turnovers per-100-posessions
· Raul Neto: 2.51
· Donovan Mitchell: 2.46
· Joe Ingles: 2.43
· Dante Exum: 2.40
· Mike Conley: 2.05
You’re reading that correctly: Rubio was at roughly 150 percent of Conley’s live-ball turnover rate last year. No one on the roster even approached his care avoiding these highly damaging turnovers; few in the league with Conley’s volume did, honestly. His rate of live-ball turnovers is more in line with a wing like Brandon Ingram, Khris Middleton or Rudy Gay.
Not all turnovers are created equal. Live-ball turnovers aren’t the only way to give up a transition chance against, but they’re one of the simplest and easily the most lethal.
Per research by PBPStats curator Darryl Blackport, NBA teams have averaged roughly 155 points per-100-possessions on plays that end within seven seconds following an opponent turnover over the last two seasons – a rough proxy for transition attempts that result from these turnovers. By comparison, the best overall offense in NBA history, the 2018-19 Warriors, scored 115 points per-100. It’s easy to see why these are the worst turnovers in the game.
Rubio was the Jazz’s most frequent culprit:
It’s important to remember that these kinds of turnovers hurt teams like Utah more than most others. The Jazz had the league’s best halfcourt defense last year, per Cleaning the Glass, so it hurt that much more every time they let a team get out and run on them rather than facing Rudy Gobert and their vice-grip base defense.
For all his qualities as a secondary ball-handler, Joe Ingles is also a common offender:
Conley commits fewer of these turnovers, as we’ve established. But there’s even more to it still: Even when he does turn over a live ball, he seems to be…smarter about it?
This is nuanced, but stick with us here. Remember that crazy 155 points per-100 figure the league averages on transition attempts following live-ball turnovers? The Grizzlies “only” allowed roughly 142 when the live-ball turnover came from Conley specifically, according to Blackport’s research.
Cleaning the Glass, which calculates a bit differently, gives us the same broad message: Memphis got eaten alive after their live-ball turnovers whenever Conley wasn’t on the court last year, but actually fared surprisingly well after a live-ball cough-up when Conley was out there.
Look, these are limited samples with some potential noise involved. Especially given everything we’ve gone over to this point, though, it really doesn’t feel crazy to ascribe at least some of this to Conley himself, and to his elite level of intelligence as a ball-handler. He just doesn’t make the kinds of passes that get most other point guards in trouble, especially the “pick 6s” that go the other way for easy points.
To sum up: Not only is Conley a balanced, efficient offensive player without a single broad weakness for an opponent to exploit, he’s the kind of savvy game manager the Jazz have been missing for years.
And in the end, isn’t this really what folks should mean when they call a guy a “pure point guard” in today’s league?
The Jazz just got theirs.