A concentrated effort was made to resign Tony Allen this offseason, even before the offseason started. Both the Marreese Speights trade and the Rudy Gay trade took significant salary off of the books, allowing the Grizzlies to retain Allen without crossing the salary tax line as Memphis was able to ink him to a $20 million contract over four years.
Of course, Allen is a very important piece of the Grizzlies’ identity. He embodies “grit and grind” as much as anyone on this team does. His offensive game is easily dismissible, but he’s one of the top perimeter defenders in the league (if not the best) and he works his ass off. One could call him the heart and soul of the team.
Allen’s defensive rating of 98.4 is 4th in the NBA, and the highest of any perimeter player beside Paul George. He tied for 14th in Defensive Win Shares with 4.1. There’s a reason why the advanced stats peg Allen as such a talented defender–Allen’s ability to put a body on and hound even the most talented scorers is truly elite. He’s tough, he’s scrappy, and puts a load of effort into staying in front of his man and contesting the shot.
The pairing of Allen with Mike Conley in the backcourt gives the Grizzlies one of the most dangerous pairing of guards defensively league-wide, and one of the most adept at creating steals (Conley averaged 2.2 per game, 3rd in the league). Slap on the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Marc Gasol and capable wing defenders in Tayshaun Prince and Quincy Pondexter, and the Grizzlies have a very talented group of defensive talents. Because Allen can defend practically any type of perimeter player, the Grizzlies are able to take those different players and have flexibility in their defensive matchups.
One thing Allen does really well is stay on his man through a screen. He’ll aggressively chase through screens to stay on his man, on or off the ball. Allen will typically go over the screen, which allows him to contest the shot or play the passing lanes. This type of defense typically puts him at risk of losing his check if they curl or drive off of the screen. What Allen noticeably likes to do is hover on their outside shoulder, and either pick the ball off from behind or time the opponent’s shot so that he recovers in perfect time to contest the shot.
Allen’s most recognized skill on the stat sheet is his ability to create steals. Allen averaged 2.0 steals per 36 minutes and had a steal percentage of 3.1%, which were 8th and 6th in the league respectively. Interestingly, not many of his steals come while directly guarding the ball-handler. He’ll pick some passes off that are coming towards his man, or he’ll come from the blind-side as a help defender from the wing to pickpocket from behind. In fact, he’ll do this very aggressively and it does come back to bite him at times. Allen won’t, however, reach for steals often while directly guarding the ball.
The steals TA creates often feed into one of his largest sources of scoring: fast break layups. It’s really easy for him to pick a pass off on the wing and keep going without breaking stride, leading to a (typically) wide open and easy layup for him on the other end. He’ll botch even those every once in a while, his offensive game clearly more than just a few steps behind his defensive game. Still, it’s not like anyone (least the Grizzlies) would say no to those kinds of shots.
The rest of Allen’s offensive game is pretty dismissible. However, he can take advantage of this as a backdoor cutter against a defense that ignores him. The Grizzlies often place Allen far on the weak-side, especially opposite Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the high-low offense. This takes the eyes off Allen, and provides him with easier opportunities to slip to the rim unnoticed and get an easy shot.
In this play, Allen starts out on the strong side of the ball after inbounding it to Conley. However, multiple defenders get mixed up on the Conley-Gasol pick-and-roll and as the action shifts to the opposite side of the floor, Allen is left completely alone. The defense is clearly honed in on Conley, Gasol and Randolph, and TA takes advantage by cutting to the rim for an alley-oop dunk.
Also worth mentioning is Allen’s offensive rebounding. He averages 2.3 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes, which is second in the league among guards according to Hoopdata. Like with his defense, Allen isn’t afraid to bruise around and he also has the athleticism to get up for an offensive board among big men. He won’t always go back up and finish through the size, but it does happen on occasion.
However, it’s clear that Allen is a minus offensively. He’s an infamously poor shooter from outside. If you want to look at the shot chart, brace yourself because it isn’t pretty. Allen generally knows better than to take the jumper most times, and will often cut backdoor or crash the boards.
However, it still doesn’t help that he’s such a bad shooter. It allows teams to sag off of him when he’s out on the perimeter, and this is only compounded further by Tayshaun Prince’s own subpar shooting ability. The Spurs took full advantage of this in the playoffs when they ignored those two entirely, instead using those defenders to clog up the paint against Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Mike Miller was brought on this offseason and Quincy Pondexter figures to see more playing time, so three-point shooting is certainly on the mend.
With that said, if the Grizzlies intend to roll with the same starting lineup as last season (which seems to be the plan at the moment), Allen’s inability to shoot will be a problem again. He has a safe grip on his starting position, but his minutes could be cut back with increased depth and more available three-point shooters on the bench to fulfill the need in the starting lineup. Given that he averaged 26.7 minutes per game last season, which is already a bit less than your typical starter, more scaling back of Allen’s playing time would put him in a timeshare (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for him or the team).
Now 31, Allen is definitely on the decline. As hard as he plays, that fuel and energy is going to start to fade away. It might be this season, or it might be the next season or the season after that. However, it will happen eventually.
In other words, let’s take full advantage of that grit-and-grind energy while we can.