Kawhi Leonard was recently named NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and he deserved it. Leonard is a fierce defender who can shut down the top offensive threats in the league. Lost in the shuffle of Leonard, Draymond Green and to a larger scale, lost in the shuffle of the Spurs and Warriors is Tony Allen and the Memphis Grizzlies.
Everyone knows the “grit and grind” Grizzlies. At points throughout the year, the Grizzlies were regarded as the best team in a loaded Western Conference. The Grizzlies have been described as “boring,” and to a degree, their half-court offense might be boring. The defensive end is where Memphis is an absolute blast to watch. No disrespect to former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol, but Tony Allen is the most fun guy to watch on that end and is an absolute defensive menace.
Every game Allen does something incredible on the defensive end, and he loves it! Tuesday night he (and Mike Conley) spearheaded the upset of the Warriors at Oracle Arena. Allen almost broke Twitter and Vine with two plays:
For the record, that steal came in transition, on an All-Star who was disrupted all night by Allen.
Then Allen one-upped himself. Watching live I thought he fouled Stephen Curry and I thought Curry knew it, hence the shot. Replay showed Allen didn’t foul Curry, he schooled him:
Underrated here is the fact that Allen gets past the screen while being blanketed by two men much larger than he. He gets right into the grill of Curry, recovers from the pump-fake and frazzles the best shooter in the league.
Yes, Allen is enigmatic. Yes, he’s arrogant. Yes, he was First Team All-Defense. (As he likes to remind people!) Most importantly, yes, he’s the heart and soul of a great defensive team.
The on/off splits tell the story of Allen on defense. When Allen was on the court in the regular season, opposing teams had an offensive rating of 94.9, per NBA.com. Comparatively, when Allen was off the court, opposing teams had an offensive rating of 103.6. Allen started 41 of the 63 games he played this season, so it’s not like he was just beating up on opposing benches. It’s actually the opposite, as he’s normally tasked with guarding the best offensive player on the court.
Not much has changed in the playoffs. On Tuesday, per SportVU, Curry and Klay Thompson shot 9-21 on contested field goals. Contesting a field goal consists of a defensive player being within 3.5 feet of an offensive player. In other words, Thompson and Curry had a defender on their hip all night. Now, not all of the credit can be passed to Allen, as Conley did a nice job as well. Allen switched from Thompson to Curry towards the end of the game as Curry was expected to heat up, but for the record, guarding either of them isn’t a fun task.
To put Allen’s defensive numbers in perspective: His 94.9 defensive rating led the league among players who played at least 25 minutes per game, per NBA.com. Leonard had a 97.1 defensive rating, which is phenomenal, but Allen was almost a full three points per 100 possessions better in terms of defensive rating. There are other factors that come into play with these numbers, but it’s still impressive.
Allen is a lunatic as the primary on-ball defender, and he posted some insane numbers, per SportVU. Allen held the offensive player to 6.9 percent below their average field goal percentage in the regular season. Allen’s numbers were consistent while defending two and three-pointers. On threes, Allen held opponents to 4.0 percent below their season average. On two-point attempts, opponents shot 7.4 percent below their average against him. Again, the numbers have been just as impressive in the postseason.
Not only is Allen a fierce on-ball defender, but he’s also among the best at jumping the pass lanes. He did it Tuesday against the Warriors during a pivotal possession. Golden State clawed to within nine with about five minutes remaining. It was peak time for the Splash Brothers to feed off the Oracle crowd (which was waiting to go insane all game) and go on a patented run. Except Allen quickly debunked that plan by jumping the pass lane:
Allen has a history of jumping passing lanes:
The havoc Allen causes on defense isn’t new to the league. He was a defensive linchpin for the 08-09 Celtics team that won the NBA championship. Granted, that team had defensive guru Tom Thibodeau on their bench, and the Celtics ranked second in defensive rating in the NBA that year.
But since joining the Grizzlies for the 2010-11 season, Memphis has morphed into a defensive juggernaut with Allen on board. This year, the Grizzles finished fourth in the league in defensive rating, per NBA.com.
This isn’t to say that Allen is the sole reason the Grizzlies enjoy success on the defensive end, because obviously Gasol is great and there are other strong defenders littered across the roster. However, while watching the games, it becomes obvious that he has his hand prints all over the defensive end of the floor.
Also, Allen is wildly hilarious, a trait that cannot be undervalued:
Keep being you, Tony Allen.