He can be an unwieldy player to deploy. For every great play he makes, there can be a bad one right after to offset it. Blown layups. Ill-advised defensive gambles. A cult hero though he may be, we've all heard the criticisms of Tony Allen, who can draw the ire of his Memphis supporters as much as he can be showered in their praise.
"Trick or treat," the saying goes. The idea is that you never know what you're going to get with the Grindfather.
How about this, then: of the ten most-played Grizzlies lineups with Tony Allen in them this season (a sample that spans a lineup with 434 minutes played to one with 27 minutes), all but two of those lineups allow less than 100 points per 100 possessions. In fact, only three of those lineups with Allen have a worse defensive rating than the 97.4 figure put up by the league-leading Golden State Warriors this season.
I'd call that remarkable consistency – perhaps not on a micro, play-to-play sense, but definitely in that he's a reliable plus. Like most other players, he comes with flaws. Some matchups are less favorable to him than others, and some plays (even if easy ones for many other players) are harder for him to make than others.
To be as good as Allen is, though, it generally takes the ability to blanket most types of attacks. We know he has that: he notably clamped down on the five-inches-taller scoring maestro Kevin Durant in last season's playoffs, leading to rare, pedestrian percentages posted by the reigning league MVP. By now we're well familiar with Allen's hallmark bump-and-bruise defense – the volatility in the shoving, reaching, grabbing, and often, fouling. It was that which bred the Grizzlies' "grit and grind" motto and immortalized Allen in the franchise's culture. Less the mechanical efficiency with which he locked down elite scorers, but more the primal ferocity in how he accomplished it.
When I previewed Allen heading into this season, I mentioned that Marc Gasol's presence in the paint was something of a failsafe for him that enabled his tendency to gamble. It was meant less as a critique and more as an anecdote of Allen's play in that December stretch without Gasol in the lineup (although it may not have come off that way). A reminder of his limitations, I figured at the time.
Somehow, Allen caught wind of the article and hit my Twitter mentions in a way as only he would:
@KevinHFY lol. 1st team suka— Tony Allen (@aa000G9) September 10, 2014
OK. He has two All-Defensive first team and one second team selection to his résumé, all from 2011 to 2013. Pride, similar to something technical like 'locking and trailing' his man around a screen, was part of Allen's game. It was part of what made him an iconic figure in Memphis. All the same, however, he'd missed out on an All-Defensive team selection in 2014. Like the rest of the Grizzlies, he depended on the former Defensive Player of the Year to anchor the back line – not unreasonable at all.
But from parsing the lineup data for this season, it looks an awful lot like Allen, not Gasol, has been the key to a great Grizzlies defense. Even after a move to the bench which separated him from Gasol, Allen has remained the player du jour among the Grizzlies' best defensive lineups. Among the Grizzlies' nine-most played lineups, Allen appears on the six best units in defensive rating. The number one lineup? A frisky all-bench platoon without Gasol, which has allowed just 81.8 points per possession.
Of course, Nick Calathes and Kosta Koufos are deserving of praise too. Together with Allen, they've formed an elite defensive core off the bench. However, Calathes and Koufos aren't the ones constant in each of the Grizzlies' best defensive lineups. That'd be Allen, who has now also proven that he doesn't need Gasol to thrive. Valuable in a year where some rhetoric has formed that Gasol's defense has fallen off ever so slightly amidst a greater offensive workload (with some support from advanced metrics – Gasol's defensive real plus-minus of +5.23 last season, tops among centers, has dropped to a merely above average +2.09 this season).
The argument here isn't Tony Allen versus Marc Gasol. (Though, Allen's defensive real plus-minus has practically swapped places with Gasol's, having gone from +2.74 last season to +5.12, which ranks second in the NBA, this season.) Gasol appears on most of those same lineups with Allen that are tops in defensive rating for the Grizzlies, making multicollinearity (Ed. Note: Bravo! -Youngblood) a problem with interpreting those numbers. There may not be a definitive way to know who's been the better defender of the two this season (but yeah, gun to my head, I'm picking Allen).
The easier premise is that Allen is good. For all of the layups he misses that even you or I could make within the unimaginable fervor of a NBA game, he'll blanket a shot or force a steal that you or I could only dream of pulling off. Don't let the aesthetic distaste of blowing a freebie subtract from the good of consistently accomplishing the difficult.
Grizzly Bear Blues friendperson Joe Mullinax once extensively profiled the roller-coaster ride that is following Allen through his ups and downs. And certainly, he does have his blemishes from game to game – guys like Jodie Meeks, Wesley Matthews, and Kevin Martin, guys without the reputation of a Kevin Durant, are the ones that most often put up big numbers against him. Pride can be a flaw, sometimes.
Here's a reminder that the ups and downs with Allen are mostly ups. If Memphis is content to live or die with Allen, as Joe put it, then I say embrace the fact that Memphis will more likely live than die.
In a recent feature by Complex, Allen mentioned that even after missing out on an All-Defensive team selection last season, he's gunning for the Defensive Player of the Year award this year. It's one of the few accolades that he can't attach to his résumé. Non-bigs rarely win the award (the last being Gary Payton in 1996), and Gasol would be the more likely winner of the two Grizzlies if only because voters attach defensive success to big men by habit. It's the age of the rim protector, after all.
Those positional conventions elude Allen. Pride is what makes him whole, and for him to think himself the best defender in the league is just another part of his game. Winning Defensive Player of the Year would ascertain the fact that Allen is better than Gasol, returning us to that otherwise pointless and impractical debate.
If there's one good thing about arriving at that debate, it's that it puts Allen's play this season into scope – he hasn't just been good, but he's been 'award consideration' good. He's been on the level of his teammate who is a former Defensive Player of the Year, and possibly above that.
Allen returned to the Grizzlies' starting lineup three games ago, on March 20th against the Portland Trail Blazers. The Grizzlies have won all three of those games, although using just that to talk up Allen's impact reeks of the correlation-not-causation fallacy, which some Grizzlies commentary has already struggled with this season. But the next time Allen throws up a few 'tricks' in a stretch of play, remember the 'treats'. The nature of his play may border upon temperamental, but it definitively adds to good.
Defensive Player of the Year good, even. Allen set his sights on that award before the season began, and now he's made his case to win it. What else would you expect from an icon of the team that coined its home as the (We Don't) Bluff City?