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January 23, 2019

NBA Trade Rumors: Would the Sixers explore a trade for Grizzlies guard Mike Conley?

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After making the deal for Jimmy Butler in the fall, the assumption was that Philadelphia's "star hunting" quest would be on hold again until at least the offseason. But with a potential shake-up happening in Memphis, there might be an opportunity for the Sixers to upgrade again this season, provided they're willing to take a gamble.

According to numerous NBA insiders, including ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and The Athletic's Shams Charania, the Grizzlies are now open for trade calls on a pair of franchise heroes, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. Memphis has long resisted breaking up the band, but with the Grizzlies at 19-28 and sitting one spot above the bottom of the Western Conference, management has decided it's about time to look to the future.

Based on some talks with people around the league, other teams appear to believe Gasol is the more likely candidate to move. The Spanish center can opt out and become a free agent this summer, and according to a league source, the Grizzlies have been more aggressive in shopping Gasol up until this point because of that uncertainty. This is obviously not helpful to the Sixers, who have little use for an expensive center who isn't as good as their franchise player.

Conley, on the other hand, is a much more interesting name, it's just not immediately clear if he's as available as Gasol. He checks a lot of boxes that the Sixers need at the moment — he can defend point guards, he's an above-average shooter at the position (37.5 percent career from three), he puts another playmaker on the floor, and perhaps most critically, he's just very good at basketball.

If you're looking to wrap your mind around what Conley offers the Sixers, consider his career context for a moment. He has played a variety of different roles in Memphis, most of which involved him finding a way to succeed while paired with a franchise center and a more "traditional" frontcourt of Gasol/Zach Randolph. In his early days, Conley was a low-usage player who had to serve as the perimeter release valve for Memphis' inside-out attack.

As the years have worn on and the core of the Grit&Grind Grizzlies has deteriorated, Conley has taken up a larger share of the offense, running lots of two-man game and pick-and-roll with Gasol. He is quite good at it, and when you add that on top of his catch-and-shoot ability, you have another player who would presumably make life easier for Joel Embiid. He's used to probing to find easy looks for his center, finding the spot on the perimeter to best serve the big man, and using the threat of a big man with soft touch to find his own easy baskets.

Based on discussions with people around the team, the Sixers admire Conley's game and believe he would help their pursuit of a championship. But this is where the trouble starts for Philadelphia — while there is interest in Conley conceptually, the pieces probably aren't there to make this happen, and there are pitfalls to consider beyond, "This guy is good at basketball."

We can start with the financial concerns. Philadelphia's financial prudence has created a weird problem — they don't really have a lot of salaries they can afford to offload in a deal. Sending Jerryd Bayless as part of a deal for Jimmy Butler was the no-brainer of the century, but now the Sixers have a lot of small to medium-sized salaries, none of which are attached to players who are very valuable on their own.

Because of this, the Sixers would likely have to move at least three players, plus draft assets, in order to make a deal work with Conley's $30+ million salary. The framework would probably start with Markelle Fultz, who would be billed to the Grizzlies as a young guard with upside*, with the Memphis media market taking him out of the spotlight to everyone's benefit. Add in a couple expiring contracts in Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala, plus a first-round pick (assume Memphis asks for the Miami pick), and that's probably your starting point.

(*The problem with this exercise, and really all Sixers-related trades, is that I don't think Fultz has much value around the league until proven otherwise. A few fans have already bristled about swapping Fultz for an older point guard, but getting a player even close to Conley's value with Fultz as the "headliner" would be something the Sixers probably consider a gift from god at this point.)

Back to Conley. That $30+ million salary is huge, and with Conley on the books through at least 2019-20, it would really up the urgency to compete right now. Conley has an early-termination option on his deal after the 2019-20 season, so the Sixers would be faced with either his unrestricted free agency next summer or another year of Conley on a $34.5 million salary.

All things considered, it would probably be a better sign if he ends up being a free agent next summer. One of the reasons Conley is scary on this sort of deal is his recent track record of health. Conley played just 12 games last season and had to undergo surgery to smooth a bone protrusion in his left heel, and that heel/Achilles area has been a constant trouble spot for Conley in recent years; his 2015-16 season was also cut short by issues with his left heel.

For the Sixers, this is an especially noteworthy problem, given the lingering health concerns about Embiid and Butler. Conley has been healthy this season following last year's surgery, but you'd be betting on a player who turns 32 in October to get healthier than he's been in years as he gets older. That's not the safest or smartest bet.

This is where most people would bring up how their depth would be hurt by such a move even with a healthy Conley, though this is where I diverge from the pack. You'd be building a very different sort of team and a different sort of depth by bringing Conley aboard, to the point that you don't really have to worry as much about your bench.

With Conley, the Sixers could run out a starting five of Conley-Redick-Butler-Simmons-Embiid. That is a killer group with all sorts of two-man combinations. A rotation could easily be constructed to keep 2-3 of them on the floor at any given time. Conley could hit the bench with Embiid and Redick in the first wave of subs, allow Butler and Simmons to do their thing in the middle portion of the quarter, and then you could build the end 1st/3rd lineup around the Conley/Embiid combination.

And that's just one example. When you have four players of that caliber plus Redick, you really just need bench players who can step into small but defined roles. The Sixers would already have a couple — Jonah Bolden is the backup five who can protect the rim and offer their pick-and-roll players a lob target, and Landry Shamet is the bench shooter to offer a near mirror-image of Redick. He likely won't help this season, but you'd look to Zhaire Smith to be your athletic Swiss army knife, and then you're already at eight men in the rotation for next season.

There are questions to be asked about how this would all work. How much does Brown bend the offensive structure to accommodate Conley? How does Simmons' role change with a real deal point guard in the starting lineup? Are there enough touches to keep everyone happy? Conley has a reputation as an outstanding locker room guy, which the Sixers would welcome, but there's no telling how all the pieces fit together when all is said and done.

Committing to a player like Conley would be doubling down on the philosophy of the Butler trade. Getting an All-Star in his prime was a commitment to winning now, and Elton Brand has since said he believed it was his responsibility to get a talent who could help Embiid and Simmons immediately. But the sneaky subtext of the Butler trade is that they still have outs if the marriage doesn't work — walk away from Butler this summer, and you have a chance to spend an obscene amount of money in free agency. That door is (mostly) shut if you bring Conley on board.

So the question is this: is Conley the guy worth betting on, and do you have a realistic chance to win a title in the next two years with him in the fold? If everything breaks correctly, I think you can talk yourself into a "yes" on the latter question. But the downside is significant, and if you don't come up with a title in the near future, you have little maneuverability with which to improve your core moving forward. This franchise will ultimately go as far as Embiid and Simmons can take them, and you don't want to leave them stranded in their prime years.

A team with Mike Conley as their fourth-best player would be a formidable squad in the playoffs. It's getting there in one piece that would be up for debate, and I'm not sure the Sixers can afford to take the risks that would come attached to his arrival.

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