Tony Allen might not be a high-impact offensive player, but his elite defense makes him a venerable star. The Memphis Grizzlies' lead grinder is sadly facing a do-or-die point in his career. He’ll soon come to a time in his career when what defines him as a great defender will drag down his defensive play.
Allen made his name from the beginning as a grinding defender. In an interview with Zach Lowe of SI.com, Allen explains how he found his identity in the NBA as a high-energy defender amidst the many shooters on his Boston Celtics team:
Listen, when I got to Boston, Paul Pressey [then a Celtics assistant coach] told me, "Look to your right, and there's Paul Pierce. He's making, what, $80 million? Then, look the other way, and there's Antoine Walker." Those guys could score and they needed someone who could defend. So I decided to go ahead and be one of the best defensive players in the world.
Allen was a recognizable rotation player in Boston. He supported the Celtics’ title run in 2008 by jumping in and making defensive plays. He also allowed a career-best 99 points per 100 possessions that year.
After playing in the background for years in Boston, he became the definitive player of the Grizzlies after signing a three-year deal with them in 2010.
Allen did more than just fit Lionel Hollins’ blue-collar defensive scheme. He became the defensive leader from the start of his tenure in Memphis. According to the Wall Street Journal, he schooled teammates, coaches and Wallace in defensive theory—in addition to pushing his teammates to force turnovers.
The grinder quickly put the league on notice that skilled ball-handlers and scorers would be in trouble when time came to face the Grizz. In 2010-11, Allen averaged 1.8 steals per game. The Grizzlies led the league in steals and turnovers forced.
For stepping up as a premier defender and making the Grizzlies the “Grindhouse,” Allen received fair praise with an All-Defensive Second Team mention.
Last season, it was business as usual for Allen. He once again propelled the “grit‘n’grind” defense that led the league in steals and turnovers forced. Allen averaged 1.8 steals per game and placed second in steals percentage (3.6 percent).
For those results, Allen earned a much-deserved spot on the All-Defensive First Team.
What’s ironic is that Allen just made his mark on the NBA in his late 20s. Almost all of today’s offensive stars reached stardom early in their careers. However, since Allen doesn’t excel on that side of the court, he had to work through the mud before he came to a place where he didn’t play behind someone who did.
The league isn’t fair, nor is the career arc of someone who plays like Allen does. Guys who make their names as high-energy defensive specialists like Allen peak in the middle of their careers and face a slow drip downwards before dropping off hard a couple years after leaving the prime of their careers.
A prime example of this is Ben Wallace. The four-time defensive player of the year enjoyed two solid years after peaking. He allowed 95 points per 100 possessions in 2005-06 and 2006-07 at player ages 31 and 32. Then, his production rapidly diminished. In 2007-08, he allowed 103 points per 100 possessions.
His defensive win shares went from 6.6 in 2006-07 to a human 3.5 in 2007-08.
Allen could face a similar path due to his style of play. He goes hard at ball-handlers, sprawls out to make plays on loose balls and isn’t afraid to get physical.
That said, the “grit‘n’grind” defensive centerpiece could have just a couple of years of solid play left before he drops off.
Allen needs to make the most of what he has now. He’ll have to grind harder than ever to shut down opponents. He needs to ensure that he remains consistent in stopping opponents. In some games, he fails to stop opponents because he’s gambling based on what the ball-handler might do instead of calculating his chances to force turnovers.
Allen also needs to continue his efforts on the boards. As Lowe noted in his interview with Allen, he led shooting guards last season in defensive rebounding percentage. Staying alert on the defensive boards helps his defensive reputation that much more.
Allen needs this year as much as almost anyone else on the Grizzlies roster. Not only is he right around his playing peak, but he’s in the final year of his contract. He’ll need to push the team to be great defensively again in order to convince Wallace that he deserves a new contract.
To a large extent, this low-scoring team’s chances of winning a title hinge on its grinding defense. That defensive flash is largely dependent on the performance of its leader. Allen needs to shine this year to make the most of his team’s finite championship window, as well as his finite window of defensive greatness.