Mike Conley's message to his Minnesota teammates is being tested: 'We can't be satisfied'

MINNEAPOLIS — It was the moment Mike Conley had been waiting for, to assert himself with his teammates with the Minnesota Timberwolves, to let them know small goals shouldn’t be the ceiling, to dream bigger.

To let them know urgency should be the theme.

A training camp dinner was the opportunity. The franchise that had only been out of the first round once in its three-decade existence was going to be challenged by its most experienced player, the point guard who’d gone to the conference finals once in 11 playoff runs.

“I was like, ‘Man, we have to change our mindset,’” Conley recalled to Yahoo Sports earlier this week in Minnesota. “We’re not here to make a playoff berth or a playoff win. You gotta start thinking about, championship mentality and what does that mean. Every day, wanting to be better and ultimate goals at the end of the year.”

The team had given the eventual champion Denver Nuggets their admitted toughest run in the playoffs the year before, a competitive five-game series in the first round. But the West was stacked, it had always been that way when Conley was in Memphis and then Utah.

Still, when Conley looked around the room, around the table that night, he saw no reason for this team to take a step back to even the teams with championship pedigree or Hall of Fame players.

“The city might be excited for a playoff win or playoff series win, but that’s not what we’re here for. We gotta get our minds on the bigger picture. From that day forward, training camp on, players and coaches, we all about, ‘How can we be a championship culture in order to hopefully one day compete in one?’”

One of the ears that perked up that night belonged to Naz Reid, the reserve scorer who was headed toward a Sixth Man of the Year campaign.

“He’s been in some situations,” Reid said. “He’s gone through situations where he could provide information and kind of lead, and prepare us for the experience before you go through it."

What ensued was a three-way race to the finish at the top of the West, with Minnesota finishing a game behind Denver and Oklahoma City. Any lingering disappointment dissipated when the Timberwolves swept the Phoenix Suns, one of those teams with championship expectations, in the first round. Conley's words were coming to life.

It wasn’t hard for Conley to engage; he’d always been the trusted veteran even when he wasn’t a veteran. But during his first few months in Minneapolis, he wasn’t sure of his personal future. The Timberwolves traded for him at last year’s deadline and he didn’t know if they would fully guarantee his $24.3 million salary or if he’d find himself back on the trade block.

“It was one of those situations, I kind of felt vulnerable at that time,” Conley said. “I don't want to like come in and just be that loud voice. These guys would resent me immediately. I'm just the new guy. I’ll get to know the situation. I’ll talk if I need to.”

Nonetheless, Conley won the NBA's Teammate of the Year award this season, his second such honor. The Timberwolves guaranteed his contract in June, and he’s since signed a two-year extension that will take him to 2025-26.

“Only thing I know is to love hard in every situation I’m in,” Conley said. “Once the summer happened and working out with guys, I decided I’ll have to address the team in a different way than they’ve heard in the last few years.”

Urgency was the message passed forth, message received.

Conley missed Game 5 of the second-round series against the Nuggets in Denver due to an Achilles injury he suffered in the waning moments of the previous game, and they sorely missed his leadership. Now, facing elimination in Game 6 at home, with Conley listed as questionable, that message from that night is ringing true.

“At this point, you gotta know what’s on the line, what’s at stake,” Reid said. “Everybody wants the ring. We know the desperation, the urgency at this point."

In Conley’s younger days, he didn’t think his lone conference finals appearance would be just that, a four-game sweep at the hands of the close-to-dynastic San Antonio Spurs in 2013. And after that, who could’ve seen Stephen Curry and, later, Kevin Durant and the otherworldly Golden State Warriors emerging and dominating the conference?

But then again, Conley didn’t see himself winding up in Minnesota with these Timberwolves. He thought as his days in Utah were ending, he would be in a warm weather city: Los Angeles.

“[The Jazz] asked me my preferred spots and I told them, ‘Somewhere where I have a chance to win.’ Minnesota wasn’t even on my list of teams,” Conley said. “It was the Clippers, the Lakers or some other organizations that were more out front.”

Minnesota came in at the last minute, or the L.A. teams didn’t put their best foot forward. Utah was going through a rebuild, and the Lakers decided on D’Angelo Russell. The Clippers added Russell Westbrook following his exile from the Lakers. In other words, it was a curious game of musical chairs.

In a weird twist of irony, Minnesota and Utah were playing each other on deadline day when Conley got wind of a three-way deal involving the Lakers, Jazz and Timberwolves. The three point guards were involved, along with many other players and draft picks.

“I was like, I hadn’t heard one thing about this from anybody in the organization, so it caught me by surprise,” Conley said. “As you can imagine, with the timing, I was shocked.”

The Timberwolves were 30-28 at the end of the night, the Jazz 27-29 — so it’s conceivable Conley didn’t see much difference from the team he was leaving to the one he was getting to.

“At this point in my career, I was close to that point where I was getting pushed to teams who were in the Western Conference finals, teams that went to the Finals the year before,” he said. “The first thing in my mind was, ‘We got a lot work to do, we’re not there yet.’ Right below eighth, ninth seed. So, how can I get this team to where I want to be? How can I mold this into what I want it to be as soon as possible?”

As it turned out, it was the best possible move for Conley and certainly for the Timberwolves. He’d already played with Rudy Gobert in Utah, and he knew all about the potential of Anthony Edwards, a rising star.

Imparting the urgency was a stairstep process, and it started with his young teammates, and Edwards. They saw the work he was putting in on off-days and wondered why he wasn’t taking it easy on his mid-30s body.

“I need this, I’m not trying to sit out back to back. I’m not trying to be the 36-year-old prototype, old guy on the team. I want to be better than that.”

Conley is a cold tub devotee, which aids in recovery. But it is a shock to the system initially, and Edwards wanted no part of it.

“How do you get in there every day?” Edwards asked.

“You need to get in here with me,” Conley replied.

A week later, Edwards dipped his toe in. Later, he got his whole foot. Then his knees.

You get the picture.

“Now he’s in there all the time,” Conley said.

That’s his way of leading by example, of not having to have the loudest voice in the room. Players watch and take note.

“Then guys say, ‘I’m gonna eat less or get more rest.’ I’m not wasting time, I’m not hanging out late," Conley said. "I’m so locked in on a goal right now, I need y’all to be there with me. I know you might not feel like you’re ready, but you’re ready.”

For Conley, helping turn this from a .500 operation to a top contender while still being a big part of it was a surprise, so he’s taking the new lease on it as a blessing. He doesn’t want his teammates to have regrets, because while this is their first real run, it isn’t a guarantee they’ll be back.

Luxury-tax apron implications, along with ownership upheaval, are facing the franchise. As fleeting as it is, this could be the Timberwolves’ best chance — because it won’t get easier.

“Not realizing ‘this is your shot,'” Conley said. “The first time you’re like, ‘Congratulations to us, we’re gonna keep building.' Then they fired Lionel Hollins (in Memphis), we started getting new coaches, roles changed, guys getting paid, people left, people came in. All that stuff happened.

“It’s like that here. We got a lot of guys who make a lot of money now, and they’re young. We can’t be satisfied. You gotta use this opportunity.”

It was almost like he could see the future. From taking a 2-0 lead to falling behind 3-2 against the champions who are finding their way.

“I’m one of those people, I don’t want to learn through losing,” Conley said. “I don’t want to learn by letting a team win a couple games in a series to make us change some things. Why don’t we, in games, figure this out? We’re good enough to do this. I don’t have time for it, y’all don’t have time for it.”

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