The weeks leading up to the NBA’s February trade deadline were anxious times for Mike Conley and his wife, Mary. They had spent the past three-and-a-half years in Utah, making a home in Salt Lake City for their three children while Mike pursued a championship with the talent-laden Jazz.
They had found the perfect neighborhood, filled with similarly aged children for their kids to play with, made friends in the organization and the community, and with Mike at 35, could envision what life would look like in Utah even after his playing days were over.
But one by one, they had watched the core of the Jazz depart. Donovan Mitchell traded to Cleveland. Rudy Gobert shipped to Minnesota. Bojan Bogdanović sent to Detroit. Suddenly, Conley was one of the last vets standing in Utah’s rebuilding plan. Even though the Jazz had been surprisingly competitive through the first three months of that 2022-23 season, Mike and Mary knew they could be next out the door.
Conley stayed in constant communication with his agent and would even bend the ear of a journalist or two to see what they were hearing about the rumor mill. He kept a close eye on the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers, two playoff-hopeful teams in need of a veteran point guard. But as the deadline grew nearer and nearer, there was little tangible sign that the Jazz had anything substantive cooking, so the family started to settle into the idea that they would stay in Utah … at least for the rest of the season.
“It seemed like nothing was happening on the other teams,” Mike Conley said. “I was like, ‘We’re going to be in Utah.’ ”
On Feb. 8, one day before the trade deadline, Conley started going through his normal midday routine at his home in Utah before heading to the arena for a game that night against Minnesota. While playing the video game “Call of Duty” with teammates Malik Beasley and Kelly Olynyk, he heard Beasley through his headset starting a curious conversation.
What? Say what? Me to L.A.? Oh, man. Me and Vando to L.A., and Mike to Minnesota?
The trade deadline can be a hectic time of year. Rumors flying everywhere. Conley did not know who Beasley was speaking to, but he started texting his agent, just in case this one had legs. In a day and age where players will often learn about trades through social media, Conley had the news broken to him by Beasley while on a video game. The Jazz traded their vet leader to Minnesota with Nickeil Alexander-Walker in a three-team deal that brought Russell Westbrook (briefly), Juan Toscano-Anderson and Damian Jones to Utah and sent Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt and D’Angelo Russell to the Lakers.
“I was like, ‘Whoa! We play them tonight. I’m going to the arena in like 30 minutes,’ ” Conley said.
Conley’s arrival in Minnesota has been a revelation for the Timberwolves. From the moment he landed, he has helped stabilize a team in desperate need of a steady hand on the wheel. With Conley at the helm this season, the Timberwolves have been one of the league’s biggest surprises. They are 11-3 and in first place in the Western Conference, the best start in franchise history. And Conley is the 36-year-old straw who is stirring the drink.
“It’s probably the best situation for me at this stage of my career,” he said. “Not only do we have a team that can be competitive to a contending team in no time, but I also get to be a part of that, like I’m not being thrown to the side where they say, ‘Hey, you know, you’re done playing. You’re not going to play much. It’s a leadership role.’ ”
The Conleys have settled nicely in Minnesota, their third stop in Mike’s 17-year career. But those early days of transition last winter were not easy. The NBA is the most transaction-obsessed league in American sports. Fans tinker with online trade machines like they’re running a front office. Teams are hyperactive in wheeling and dealing, shipping players around the league. Lost in the analysis of the deals, the celebration of a new player’s arrival and the rampant rumormongering of who is going and who is staying is the human toll exacted on those in the middle of it all.
Conley had been traded before, in the summer of 2019, when Memphis sent him to Utah. At the time, his oldest son, Myles, was just 2. Now they are a family of five. Myles is 7, Noah is 5 and Elijah is 3. They had friends in Utah. Myles and Noah were in school. The timing of the move coming during the season meant they would be without their dad for an extended period while he went to play for Minnesota. Mary and the kids would stay back in Utah to finish the school year.
“There were all these unknowns of us starting over,” Mary said. “When we got traded the first time, the kids were so little, it was just me. So it didn’t affect them as much. But now, this time, it’s like I have to start thinking about a school, sports, pediatricians, dentists, everything.”
The Conleys were at ease enough with their situation in Utah on Feb. 8 that Mary decided to go forward with a planned trip from Utah to New York City with Spencer Hardy, wife of Jazz head coach Will Hardy, and several other friends from the organization. Her flight was in the air when her cell phone suddenly started buzzing with text messages.
I’m so mad right now.
Oh my gosh!
I think it happened.
Mary was sitting right next to Hardy as the messages started pouring in, tears gushing from her eyes and panic pulsing through her body. She couldn’t call Mike. She couldn’t hug her children and explain to them what was happening. Minnesota had never really entered their minds as a possible destination. She was a mom and a wife stuck 30,000 feet in the air and hurtling in the exact opposite direction from where she needed to be.
“I just lost it,” Mary said, her eyes welling again seven months later as she sat on a couch in the couple’s suburban Minneapolis home. “It’s hard not to cry now because it was such an emotional time. And I think what made it really hard is because we weren’t together.”
Shortly after hearing about the possibility of the deal, Conley headed to the Jazz arena to investigate the situation. What followed was a whirlwind made even more unique by the fact that his new team was, by some crazy coincidence, at the same arena preparing to play the Jazz. Conley got dressed and went through some Jazz warmups to find some kind of normalcy. But when it became clear that the deal was going to go through, he showered, said some goodbyes to teammates and Jazz staff and headed for the door.
On his way out, he bumped into former Timberwolves equipment manager Peter Warden, who introduced himself and started to prepare him for the transition. He asked Conley what size shirt he wore, prompting Conley to smile at the seeming mundanity of the question as his world was turning upside down.
At the time of the trade, the Wolves were 29-28, a record far below expectations after they pulled off one of the biggest trades of the summer of 2022 when they landed Rudy Gobert from Utah for five players and a bevy of draft picks. They needed Conley, who had extensive experience playing with Gobert, and they needed him right now.
Fans often dismiss the human element of these transactions, justifying it by the extraordinary salaries that so many of them command. But all the money in the world couldn’t take the initial sting away for Conley.
“You can make a lot of money, but if you get punched in the face, you’re still like, ‘Oh my God, that hurt,’ ” he said. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. But at this moment, it’s hurting me. So let me feel this for a second here and then move on.”
Conley headed back home to his children, who were being watched by Mary’s mother. He remembers a surreal scene of sitting on the couch with them while the Jazz and Timberwolves were playing on the television. The kids were a little confused. They were used to watching Daddy play when the Jazz were on TV.
He explained that he had been traded. He pulled up a map and showed them where Minnesota was. He told them about the Mall of America — “The biggest mall in the world!” he told them — to get them excited.
“I want to go to Minnesota. I can’t wait to go to Minnesota,” Myles told his father. Mission accomplished.
“They probably didn’t understand exactly what it meant, like you’re going to leave behind your schools and all that stuff,” Mike said.
What really sold the kids on Minnesota? In their eyes, the team name changing from Jazz to Timberwolves was a serious upgrade.
“Our kids love animals, so to cheer for Wolves, Timberwolves, was very cool,” Mary said. “That was one easy thing.”
Maybe the only one. The Conleys are a close-knit family. When they considered trades to Los Angeles, it was not as daunting. It’s a quick flight from Salt Lake City to L.A. But Minnesota? It caught them completely off guard. Mike would leave immediately to join the team, suiting up two days later in Memphis of all places, the city where he spent the first 12 years of his career.
“We have a huge support network and our neighbors are there for us, and tons of friends. But no one can replace your spouse, no one can replace your dad,” Mary said. “So I think we all handled it well, but it definitely still was hard.”
The Jazz were conflicted as well. Sending Conley away meant saying goodbye to a key part of a team that was surprisingly competitive at 27-28, not far behind Minnesota, and firmly in the Western Conference Play-In Tournament race. As a first-year head coach who was younger than his starting point guard, Will Hardy leaned heavily on Conley for guidance.
“Mike was a massive safety blanket for our team and, most importantly, for me,” Hardy said.
But the Jazz were in rebuild mode, prioritizing stockpiling draft assets and developing Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler over winning in the moment. It was not a shock that on the day Conley left, the Jazz suffered one of their most lopsided defeats of the season 143-118 to the Timberwolves.
Mary was not able to see her husband in person until she met up with him in Dallas five days later. Finally reunited, they embraced, talked and tried to get their bearings.
“It was hard even watching the games,” Mary said. “It just didn’t seem real. I could see him in the jersey, but I’m like, ‘Where are we?’ It was just so unfamiliar.”
The Wolves played three games before the All-Star break, giving the family a small chance to catch their breath and spend some time together. But it felt like every waking moment was spent scouting school districts, looking for a house and navigating Minnesota’s snowy winter.
Even in the first few days with his new team, Mike had started to wrap his brain around the situation. There were several familiar faces. He had played alongside Gobert and Alexander-Walker in Utah and Kyle Anderson in Memphis. He was now teammates with a budding young star in Anthony Edwards and was awaiting the return of three-time All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns from a calf injury. Jaden McDaniels is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and coach Chris Finch told Conley that he needed him to run the show.
Conley’s biggest concern about possibly getting traded was that he would land on a team that would just see him as a contract that was soon to come off the books and not an asset on the floor. That was not the case in Minnesota.
“Man, this is great,” Conley thought to himself. “I get to have the ball, shoot, score, pass, whatever it is. Whatever it takes to win. And I saw the depth of the team that we had, and it was like, man, there’s not many teams that have this.”
He played in all 24 regular-season games after being acquired by the Wolves, averaging 14.0 points, 5.0 assists and shooting 42 percent from 3-point range. More importantly, he showed the rest of his teammates how best to play with Gobert and helped lead them to a playoff berth, where they performed well in a 4-1 loss to the eventual champion Denver Nuggets. An excitable team by nature benefited greatly from Conley’s cool. Edwards quickly took to him, picking his brain on what went right and what went wrong after every game.
“If you heard the reports about Mike Conley before he came, you would’ve thought he was broken down and had to be wrapped in bubble plastic every day,” Finch said. “But it’s certainly not been the case. He’s given us everything and more. I think he’s exceeded our expectations by a long mile on and off the floor.”
In some ways, the isolation of those early days in Minnesota helped Conley narrow his focus to the court. With his family back in Utah, Conley had nothing to come home to, so he didn’t come home. He spent long hours at the Wolves practice facility, working out, getting treatment and honing his craft. He most often FaceTimed with his kids while he was recuperating in the cold tub.
“It kind of rejuvenated me in a sense,” he said. “And it kind of kept my mind off of all the things that I couldn’t control as far as seeing my family or not seeing them.”
This summer, the Timberwolves exercised Conley’s $24.3 million team option for this season, an expected move given Conley’s impact on the team and their need to leap this season. Once that happened, Mary started to feel more secure about finding a house for the family to live in while the Wolves pulled out all the stops to help her identify prime areas, review schools and get a sense of the community.
“The organization is really, really great and welcoming and included us and tried to help us in any way,” she said. “And that’s all any mom could ask for.”
After much searching in the Twin Cities’ red-hot real estate market, they ended up buying a beautiful place in a suburb about 15 minutes from downtown Minneapolis with a pool and deer running through the fields behind the house. Mary now knows her way around Target Center and has gotten to know people in the organization. The family has become enamored with the lake life that is such a part of the fabric of Minnesota. The kids are in school and playing sports and making friends.
Suddenly, the Conleys are feeling the positives of their situation. Mary laughs when she points out that Minnesota is much closer to their summer home in Columbus, Ohio.
“We’ve gotten over the roller-coaster emotions,” she said, smiling. “We can be excited now.”
Timberwolves fans have been excited from the moment the deal went down. They dubbed their new point guard “Minnesota Mike.” Mary wore a shirt with the moniker to the team’s home opener against Miami in October.
MINNESOTA MIKE!!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/7YQ2QnApvW
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 15, 2023
As promising as the fit looked last season, it’s been even better this season. They have already beaten formidable opponents in Denver, Boston, New York and Golden State and are 7-0 at home. After a rough first season in Minnesota, Gobert has returned to his dominant defensive form. Edwards has shown all the makings of a young superstar. Towns has found his rhythm. And Conley’s fingerprints are everywhere.
“One of the things I’m really grateful for is Mike coming here,” Gobert said. “The presence, the impact that he has, not just on the court, but especially in the locker room. The way he carries himself, you can overlook it, but for Ant, for all the young guys, Jaden, it’s invaluable what he brings. They’re going to carry that over their whole career.”
When Conley first arrived in Minnesota, he told himself not to get too close. He has always been the kind of guy to fall fast for his surroundings. He loved it in Memphis. He loved it in Utah. He loved his one year of college at Ohio State so much that the family lives in Columbus in the offseason.
He was planning on keeping his latest home at arm’s length. This was a business. He is in the final year of his contract. The future is uncertain. No need to form close ties just yet. But Conley just can’t seem to help himself.
He loved spending time on the water this summer. He has found some great restaurants and told his father just before the season started that he needs to come out and visit, take a boat ride and play some golf to appreciate how nice it is here.
“I just fall in love and I’m like, ‘Man, this could be a place we could have a lake house in Minnesota,’ ” Mike said. “Instead of having to go somewhere really far or something, I would just go to Minnesota for the summer. So I’ll just start rambling and getting into my head.”
Myles came home from school recently and proudly told his mom that he made eight friends that day. Noah likes to compare the kids he has met in Minnesota to his old friends in Utah. Mary has found a workout spot and is now looking for community groups who could use help during the holiday season. After a period of acclimation, things appear to be falling into place.
“I’m happy. We’re good. We’re settled,” she said, the relief palpable in her voice. “And then wherever the future takes us, we’ll be ready to support.”
Timberwolves president of basketball operations Tim Connelly was the architect of the deal that brought Conley to Minnesota. Connelly said before the season that he hopes this is the last stop in Conley’s career, but that will be tricky. Towns, Gobert and Edwards are all on max contracts. Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid signed lucrative extensions this summer. The luxury tax is looming for a franchise that has rarely paid it.
Then again, Conley is the only starting-caliber point guard on the roster. There is no Plan B right now.
“Certainly we didn’t get Mike for just to be a short-term thing,” Connelly said in September. “When you get a person as special as Mike is, you want to be sure that he doesn’t leave here.”
The one thing Conley has yet to do in 17 years in the league is win a title. But after the harrowing days of early February, he does not want to embark on a puddle-jumping, ring-chasing sojourn through the back end of his career. It just so happens that for one of the rare times in the franchise’s 35-year history, the Timberwolves offer a legitimate option to contend in the Western Conference.
“Why not chase it here and hope that my family adjusts and gets settled here right now and not have to run around for three or four more times before I retire,” he said. “And just because I’m chasing something I want, you’re not guaranteed to get it anywhere else you go anyway. So why not do it with people that love, respect you and treat you the way you want to be treated? This organization is all about heading in that direction.”
When times have gotten their toughest for the Timberwolves this season, when the offense gets stagnant and an opponent is making a run, Finch will turn to Conley and tell him, “Go get the ball.” The rest of the team looks to him to settle things down, to get a good shot and to solve whatever problem they are currently facing.
Whenever he hears that command from his coach, Conley smiles. Whenever he sees one of his teammates looking to him for help, he embraces it.
“I haven’t heard that in a long time,” he said. “To have that kind of trust from not only coaches but the team, this is why I’m here. This is what I’m supposed to do.”
The Conleys did not have control over landing in Minnesota. They had no say in how the deal went or the logistics of the move from Utah. But the family stayed strong and made it through those difficult early days and now are thriving, on the court and off it.
Now as the Timberwolves dare to chase something that would have been unfathomable for nearly all of their previous 34 years of existence, one thing has become abundantly clear: Mike Conley is in control.
(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos: Jordan Johnson, Zach Beeker / NBAE via Getty Images)