Tony Allen is one of the best defensive guards the NBA has, but the 35-year-old is still on the market despite being able to help a handful of teams.
Tony Allen just finished his 13th year in the league, and, even though he’s getting up there in age, that hasn’t stopped him from making an impact. He made the All-Defense second team this year with the Memphis Grizzlies, the sixth time he’s received that honor in his career. Allen has spent his entire NBA tenure as one of the best perimeter defenders, and that rings true as he approaches his 36th birthday.
He’s got all of the tools to be effective, even during a time where hyper-athletic guards dominate the league. At 6-4, Allen can seamlessly transition between the two and the one, and there are a handful of playoff teams who could use his proficiency on the defensive end.
Last year with Memphis, Allen averaged just 27 minutes a night. He embodied the grit-and-grind style to the fullest, earning the nickname “The Grindfather.” He picked off 115 steals in 71 games and led the NBA in steal percentage (3.1), an estimate of how many possessions by an opponent ended in a steal. Age hasn’t taken away Allen’s quick hands or anticipation, and I’d be willing to bet money that he’ll deliver at least two more seasons of playing at a high level on the defensive end. That, of course, is contingent on where he lands. Some teams will maximize his effort by keeping his minutes low, like how Memphis was able to do. If someone signed Allen expecting him to log between 30-35 nightly minutes consistently, they’d be in for a rude awakening.
Memphis has had an elite defense all but two years of Allen’s tenure; their lowest came in 2011, where they finished 13th in points allowed per game, one of two times in seven years they weren’t in the top-10 in that category. Was Allen single-handedly responsible? No, but he had a big part. In 2017, the Grizzlies finished third in points allowed with 100.8 a night, and limited opponents to 35.4 percent from three (11th overall). Memphis also had an advantage that no other team had — owning the best defensive backcourt in the league. Concerning ability, no two guards were better than Allen and Mike Conley.
The Grizzlies would benefit from bringing back Allen, but I don’t know if that ship is docked any longer. If ownership wanted to keep the Grindfather, I think they would’ve made a deal by now. Regardless, someone could swoop in and steal Allen for the minimum or just above it. The ideal organization is one that’s a low-seeded or borderline playoff team who needs help on the defensive end. Allen comes and immediately brings a toughness that that team might not have had before, and that’s what has made him such a fantastic defender. After spending so many years with the Boston Celtics and Grizzlies, Allen doesn’t know anything else but hard-nosed defense.
If I’m the Denver Nuggets, that reputation is catching my eye. Statistically, they had the second-best offense after the All-Star break last year, but the other side of the ball didn’t improve. Furthermore, all of their impact players leave a lot to be desired on that end. Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray — three guys expected to breakout this year — aren’t as good on defense as they can be on offense, and that’s an issue when your playoff trek could match you up against James Harden, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson or Russell Westbrook. Signing Tony Allen won’t stop any of those guys, but it will slow them down.
Curry averaged 24.0 points against Memphis this year but only shot 35.7 percent from three; the Grizzlies limited Paul to 40.5 percent shooting and 18.3 points. It’s a small sample size, but Allen’s able to throw stars off of their game just a bit, and that could pay dividends for a team like Denver who already has the arsenal to shootout with anyone in the league. They also signed Paul Millsap this offseason, so they have someone who can anchor the interior. Pairing Allen with him fortifies their defense just a bit more. Additionally, it gives valuable rest time to the other guards who wouldn’t have to expend themselves chasing around the West’s most dazzling scorers.
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The Portland Trail Blazers are similar to Denver, and that means Allen would be able to assist them as well. Portland built their system around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. However, they’re two of the worst-defending guards in the league. We can attribute some it to their usage because they need to direct all of their energy on creating offense. With Allen, the Blazers get a bit deeper, and also more respectable at stopping opponents. It wouldn’t be a huge improvement, but instead an excellent start. Allen could help establish an identity on that end.
It’s bizarre that no one has taken a shot on Tony Allen yet. Outstanding defenders for cheap don’t come along often, and the Grindfather is exactly that. I get that age is an issue, but he hasn’t digressed much over the years, and that’s an encouraging sign; if he had taken a few steps back, I could see why teams would be apprehensive. At 35, Allen could consider himself the best defensive guard in the league, and I don’t see him being on the market deep into the season.
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