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The Secret Life of Nick Calathes, Defensive Superstar

Who is Nick Calathes and what does he think he's doing, forcing all those turnovers? A look at the world's best Tony Allen impersonator and defensive force in his own right.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis' Roster AKA their Short-Term Disabled List

In case you haven’t noticed, the Grizzlies have been limping around on the court lately. Nearly every member of the team’s starting roster has suffered an injury in one form or another – just in time for playoff season. One of the lengthier and most recent injuries has been Tony Allen’s hamstring. His absence has been felt since March 28th when he left the Golden State game as a result of that injury. That’s 16 games Memphis has been without their defensive rock, and many believe his absence is the primary cause for the team’s .500 record over that stretch. For the less Grizz-minded, Tony Allen is Memphis’ iconic defensive presence which has provided the team with innumerable vital steals and big-time impact plays on the defensive end. The man is perpetually in the running for NBA All-Defensive Team and gets overlooked for Defensive Player of the Year on an annual basis.

The contrast of J.J. Barea's confusion and TA doing his thing in the background = easily my favorite Grizzlies moment.

But lurking in the shadows of the Grindfather is an up-and-coming defensive presence in his own right: Nick Calathes. For just two seasons of work in the Association, Calathes has already made a name for himself in certain circles. Fans-in-the-know have realized that Calathes provides another source of key stops and endless energy on the defensive end. If Tony Allen is Memphis’ Energizer Bunny then Nick Calathes is the team’s fresh-out-of-college Defense Intern, content to play third fiddle but ready to put in 110% whenever the boss gives him an assignment. Like any eager, young intern, Calathes has been absorbing everything Allen does on the court and attempting to replicate it during the short 14 minutes he’s provided per game.

His minutes are actually down compared to his debut season with Memphis last season (16.5 min/game last year to 14.1 min/game this year). Despite playing off the bench and behind Mike Conley and Beno Udrih, Calathes has been turning in exceptional defensive play. He’s much improved over last year in the face of fewer minutes and more bodies ahead of him in the rotation. ICYMI, in the month of February Calathes went berserk and had eight straight games of 2+ steals and led the league in post-All-Star Break steals per game at that point.

What’s Been Missing?

At face value, losing Tony Allen was going to be a major blow to the struggling Grizzlies in terms of on-court production but also to their energy levels and ability to rally when a stop was needed. The team has struggled- just .500 since his injury- but in the void Allen’s hamstring injury left, Nick Calathes stepped up as a top-notch replacement. The stats show just what his work has done for the team:

Time Frame

Win %

Rebounds

Steals

Blocks

Def RTG

Opp eFG%

Pre-TA Injury

67.6

42.4

8.6

4.2

100.3

49.3

Post-TA Injury

50

42.5

6.9

4.3

97.7

48.2

Rebounds, Steals, Blocks are all per game.

Def RTG – Number of points allowed per 100 possessions

Opp eFG% - Opponents’ effective field goal percentage (a more useful field goal % that accounts for 3’s)

A few obvious changes but the first one that stands out is how much Memphis misses Allen in terms of steals/game. There’s no doubt that Allen is the Grizzlies’ best ball hawk and overall disruptor, responsible for the most steals by a wide margin. But the Grizzlies have managed to maintain, and even improve, in some other areas. They’re giving up 3 fewer points per 100 possessions and are holding opponents to poorer shooting since Allen began began rehabbing his hamstring. I believe that’s due in large part to Nick Calathes’ efforts and desire to prove himself.

Now, it’s not a contest between Calathes and Allen, and I’m not trying to argue that Calathes is a better defender. But I will argue that he has yet to receive the credit he deserves for how he affects what the Grizzlies do defensively and how close in skill the pupil has become to the master. Another look at what Nick Calathes has done this season compared to Tony Allen:

Def RTG

Overall FG% Impact

3P% Impact

2P% Impact

6ft FG% Impact

>15ft FG% Impact

Tony Allen

94.9

-7.5

-4.6

-8.0

-1.1

-4.6

-5.4

Nick Calathes

92.4

-7.0

-9.8

-6.0

-11.1

-10.8

-4.0

Def RTG – Defensive Rating, points allowed per 100 possessions with player on the floor

Impact- Change in opponents’ shooting percentages from their average, in that area, when guarded by player

So with Calathes on the floor, the Grizzlies have given up 2.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than when Allen is out there. Part of that might come from the shutdown 3-point defense Calathes has developed. In fact, he disrupts opposing shooters to a greater degree than Allen in every area except long midrange jumpers. There’s (currently) no accurate measure for tenacity on the court, but I’m willing to bet that Calathes is nearing Allen in that regard as well.

A Grindson

The biggest difference between the Grizzlies’ top defenders is steals per game. But once you account for the fact that Calathes plays almost 15 fewer minutes per game than Allen, the discrepancy is nearly insignificant. Per 36 minutes of play, Tony Allen has recorded 2.8 steals while Nick Calathes has nabbed 2.6. Among Grizzlies with significant minutes under their belts, Allen and Calathes stand head and shoulders above the rest (Conley is next in line at 1.4 steals per 36 minutes).

In the end, the Grizzlies are absolutely missing Tony Allen, who is unquestionably the team’s most disruptive defender and one of their most important pieces overall. But slowly growing to fill those currently vacant shoes is a young and feisty guard with a similar tenacity and defensive skillset: Nick Calathes.