Can Grizzlies afford to lose Tony Allen?
NEW YORK -- Tony Allen occupies a unique place in the NBA.
He's on any short list of the league's top defenders.
And he's on a similar length list for the most ... let's call it unreliable offensive players, too.
On one end of the floor Allen is a menace, a body-bumping, in-your-face defender who can stay step-for-step with any 2-guard in the NBA. Need examples? Ask Dwyane Wade, who averaged 15 points on 38.7 percent shooting in two games against Memphis this season. Or Brooklyn's Joe Johnson, who scored 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting against Allen in January. Or Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant or Manu Ginobili, players Allen has historically had success against.
"He never quits," said Bruce Bowen, an ESPN analyst who knows a thing or two about defense. "He has that 'go after 'em' attitude that not a lot of players have. You can tell he looks at the guy he is guarding and says 'No matter what you do, I'm going to come at you just as hard.'"
Added Knicks coach Mike Woodson, "I like what Tony Allen does. I'm sure players don't like him, in terms of how he gets after them. But it's part of the game."
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Allen isn't just physical. He is a student of defense. Before every game, Allen sits in his locker, iPad in his hands, laptop right beside him. Both devices are showing edited clips of the players Allen will have to defend that night. Allen takes them everywhere. To the training room. To the shower. To the bathroom.
Yeah, to the bathroom. It's part of a carefully planned routine that Allen will never break.
"I tell people that don't know him that he is one of the most consistent, disciplined people," said Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins. "Every day he does the exact same thing. I don't care if he is tired, when he comes in he watches film, he stretches the same way, he has to listen to music to shoot. It's been that way since he has been here. I think that helps him defensively because he can focus in and lock on one thing."
Offensively ... well, that's a different story. Allen's numbers this season -- 8.9 points and 4.7 rebounds on 44 percent shooting -- aren't great, but when you consider his value defensively, you can live with them. In Wednesday's loss to the Knicks, Allen was a catalyst early, scoring six quick points in the first quarter off a steal, a post-up and a putback.
What's hard to live with are the quick jumpers, the wild drives and the recklessly run fast breaks. Seriously: Watching Allen operate in transition is akin to putting a teenager behind the wheel of a Ferrari and telling him to step on the gas.
For Memphis though, Allen has been a perfect fit. The Grizzlies don't need his scoring. The entire offense runs through Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, with Mike Conley creating on the perimeter. The loss of Rudy Gay cost the Grizz a chunk of points -- Gay averaged 17.2 points per game -- but improved ball movement has helped Memphis stay in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.
Would Allen fit in everywhere? It's a question many teams will wonder this summer. Allen, 31, will be a free agent in the offseason and will be looking to improve on the three-year, $9.7 million deal he signed in 2010. Multiple rival team executives told SI.com that Allen is likely to get a slight raise -- "Three years at $4 million per year sounds right," said an Eastern Conference GM -- and that he will have plenty of suitors.
"I like him a lot," said an Eastern Conference executive. "He adds instant toughness and a defensive mentality to your team. He's a leader on the floor and he isn't going to back down from anyone. I think everyone in the league would love to have him."
Memphis does, but at what price? The Grizzlies have some big contracts on the books and no interest in treading into luxury tax territory. Top defensive specialists have proven to be difference makers -- Bowen, Ben Wallace and Dennis Rodman are just a few who have won championships -- but if Allen becomes too pricey -- and a strong postseason could jack up his value -- Memphis could move on.
As the Grizzlies motor toward a third straight playoff appearance, Allen's role has never been more important. The loss of Gay has put more pressure on Memphis's defense to deliver. To win, they must make games physical, low-scoring slugfests. Just the way Allen likes it.