Where is the line between the NBA’s stars and the league’s merely good players?
Star is such a loaded term – full of reputation and production and marketing and talent and style – that, occasionally, it can be useful to sort through all the distractions and look at objective measures.
Let’s examine players in order of regular-season win shares. Stop me when I name a player who’s not a star. I’m going to go quickly at first.
1. LeBron James
2. Kevin Durant
3. Chris Paul
4. James Harden
5. Russell Westbrook
Still with me? Good. Let’s keep going.
6. Marc Gasol
There are plenty of people who don’t appreciate defense, but even they recognize Gasol won Defensive Player of the Year and that he must be pretty good on that end.
7. Stephen Curry
It’s a wonder he wasn’t an All-Star, but after a spectacular and exciting postseason, he’s definitely a star.
8. Kobe Bryant
9. Deron Williams
Williams was on the verge of fading from star territory, but a strong second half to the season keeps him comfortably viewed as a star.
10. Blake Griffin
Dunks often and appears in commercials even more often. Griffin is definitely a star.
11. Mike Conley
Well, on second thought…
ESPN’s cameras captured a conversation between Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins and Spurs point guard Tony Parker during the Western Conference Finals.
“Mike’s learning from you,” Hollins said. “He’s learning from you.”
After the best regular season of his career and a postseason that nearly matches – pretty remarkable considering how much his competition is upgraded in the playoffs – Conley is showing he might be on his way to becoming Parker’s peer rather pupil.
Conley had 20 points, four assists, three rebounds and five steals in Memphis’ Game 3 loss 104-93 to San Antonio tonight, bringing his playoff averages to 17.6 points, 7.1 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals. But he still ran hot and cold, leaving plenty of questions in his wake.
Is he the player who made five steals in the first 8:04 of the game, or is he the the player who ceded his defense on Parker to Tony Allen?
Is he the player who turned the ball over five times in the first three quarters and was befuddled by Kawhi Leonard guarding him, or is he the the player who had no turnovers in a hotly contested fourth quarter and (a less hotly contested) overtime?
Is he the player who scored on Memphis’ final possession of the third quarter and then added a game-high 13 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, or is he the the player who shot 2-of-11 before that?
Is he the player Memphis trusted to take the final shot of regulation, or is he the the player who could muster only an off-angle runner while going away from the basket?
Is he a star?
Maybe the numbers overrate Conley. Maybe our perception of him hasn’t caught up to what the numbers tell us. Plenty of players would love their resume to include an up-and-down game against Parker and the Spurs in the conference finals, because few get that far, and many who do only see the downs.
Suddenly, I’m wondering why Conley received no Most Improved Player traction – he finished tied for 15th in the voting – and why I didn’t even consider him for my hypothetical ballot. Conley spent his four seasons playing about league average ball. He took major step forward last year and other one this year.
In this series, he’s showing why he deserves a discussion about whether he’s a star. But he’s also showing why he’s not one yet.
His Grizzlies trailing 3-0, the 25-year-old Conley has likely run out of time to prove his stardom this season. But to re-quote Hollins, “He’s learning.”