The B-Side: Tony Allen, Stealing Away the Identity of the Defensive Specialist

Rob MahoneyNBA Lead WriterApril 24, 2012

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 15:  Guard Tony Allen #9 of the Memphis Grizzlies reacts against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Seven of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs on May 15, 2011 at Oklahoma City Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The B-Side is a recurring feature here at Bleacher Report that gives kudos to the unheralded: the brilliantly executed set that leads to a bland layup, the swarming coverage that causes a shot clock violation or even the phenomenal move that ends with a blown finish. Every night in the NBA is filled with plays that are noteworthy for a wide variety of reasons, and this space is set aside to enjoy the alternatives to the standard highlight—one clip at a time.

If the last decade of basketball taught us that defenders can operate in a way that circumvents the traditional box score, the final few years of that stretch has done a brilliant job of returning the top of the defensive hierarchy from exception to rule.

Steals and blocks matter, and although some of the finest perimeter defenders of the 2000s (Shane Battier, Bruce Bowen, etc.) have done masterful work without making much of a dent on the stat sheet, today's highest-functioning defenders tend to make an impact that's at least partially measurable in the standard box.

The full impact of defenders like Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard may not be measurable statistically, but both are nonetheless elite rebounders and shot blockers.

LeBron James—the most versatile perimeter defender around—racks up steals and blocks alike, granting himself at least partial credit for his defensive exploits with harder data. Andre Iguodala does the same in his masquerades as a pickpocket.

And somewhere in that mix is Tony Allen, who still has a decent claim as the top perimeter defender in the NBA, and ranks statistically as one of the league's greatest thieves. On Monday night, Allen racked up a franchise record-setting eight steals for the Grizzlies, exploiting the flimsy Cavaliers offense in every fashion imaginable:

Allen drapes opponents through every step and every dribble, but where he—much like James and Iguodala—differs from his no-stats predecessors is in his off-ball work.

The likes of the on-ball stopper may be going extinct merely because more is demanded of today's top defensive stars; it's one thing to be able to check Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade with regularity, but another to do so while also being an active off-ball force.

Allen, Iguodala, and James are standout defenders because they fully embrace defense in all of its forms. They never stop, and thus the reach of their on-court impact is far more extensive than could ever have been said of Battier or Bowen.

For players so persistently aggressive in their defensive effort, D takes on an entirely new life. It prevents opponents from scoring in the same ways it always has, but also functions as something of an offensive force in itself. Defense like Allen's isn't merely preventative, after all, but actively restrictive.

Players are doing new and exciting things on the offensive end every year, but defense is evolving, too.

The defensive specialist still exists, but in a far more expansive form than he's ever been accustomed. That archetype lives in James, who moonlights as a defensive stalwart when he's not acting as the top offensive player in the game.

It comes through in the game of Iguodala, who also includes a wide variety of defensive skills in his incredible repertoire. And it may shine brightest through Allen—a slightly more conventional specialist who nonetheless puts the old guard of defensive stoppers to shame with his audacity.

Allen isn't just all heart, grit, and grind; he's the epitome of on-ball splendor and off-ball fury, true to specialist form while completely redefining its function.