By Phil Stukenborg
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Memphis Grizzlies wanted to keep Mike Conley so much that they gave their veteran point guard the richest contract in NBA history.
For Conley, the basketball — and pressure — is in his court after signing a five-year, $153 million deal Thursday.
Conley’s play will be closely monitored during an upcoming season in which he will earn more than new Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant, a seven-time All-Star with four league scoring titles and an NBA Most Valuable Player award. Durant signed a two-year, $54.3 million deal.
Conley doesn’t expect the lucrative deal to affect his play.
“It’s amazing the opportunity I’ve been given,” Conley said. “As far as the pressure, it’s hard to really gauge that because I put pressure on myself to perform regardless. The amount of money I make is not going to change how I approach the game. I’m going to continue to be aggressive and do a lot better than I did last season and the season before.”
Conley, a 28-year-old point guard, has played nine seasons with the Grizzlies during which he has averaged 13.5 points and 5.6 assists. He led the Grizzlies to the 2013 Western Conference finals, the farthest the franchise has advanced in the postseason.
“I’ll take the heat right now (on being the highest-paid NBA player),” Conley said. “Eventually, it will all die down. Two years from now everybody else will be making so much more.”
In Conley’s non-All-Star selection defense, he has played in the Western Conference during his career with point guards Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker and Steve Nash.
“He’s our All-Star,” said Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace. “He’s an elite point guard in this league. It’s unanimous around the league that he’s one of the top-tier players at his position, a very crucial position.”
At an on-court ceremony at FedExForum celebrating the signing, Conley announced he was donating $1 million to the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aids at-risk youth in the community. The $1 million was matched by the franchise’s ownership group led by majority owner Robert Pera.
Conley used the press conference — also attended by Grizzlies MVP season-ticket holders — to address the recent tragedy in Dallas, where five policemen were killed by a lone gunman, and the nationwide protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I’m a quiet guy, I’m very reserved,” he said. “At the same time, as much as I want to lead by example, I know when it’s time to speak up. Right now is that time … It’s not about money, we have to be on the forefront to set examples for the kids. We need to become mentors for the youth.”
Conley has battled injuries the past few seasons and appeared in only 56 games last season because of an Achilles tendon injury. He hasn’t played more than 73 games in any of the past three seasons.
“I’ve concentrated solely on (staying healthy) during the offseason,” Conley said. “I want to be healthy. I want to be able to be here every night and give everything I’ve got. I’m doing everything I can to be able to do that.”
Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans, who has been an All-Star selection, had the previous richest contract in league history when he signed a five-year deal last year worth approximately $145 million.
Others who have signed max contracts without All-Star game appearances include the Wizards’ Bradley Beal, Utah’s Gordon Hayward and Oklahoma City’s Enes Kanter. Beal signed a $128 million deal this offseason. Utah matched an offer sheet from Charlotte for Hayward worth $63 million for four years in 2014, while Oklahoma City matched Portland’s max four-year deal for Kanter last summer for $70 million.
“We’re in the era of the point guard,” Wallace said. “There’s probably never been a greater collection. But we know Mike’s value.
“We have nine years invested in him. And he’s just gotten better and better. He’ll thrive in (new) coach (David) Fizdale’s offense. We never gave a second thought other than doing what it took to get him.”