Before the 2013-14 NBA Season Tony Allen re-signed with the Grizzlies for $20 million, at the time of the signing he was 31 and will turn 35 when the deal expires. The reaction to the deal was a mixed bag. Some people thought it was a great deal, and that Allen was such a crucial part to the teams identity that they couldn’t let him go. Others were less happy, pointing to the fact that Allen had been made almost unplayable by the San Antonio Spurs in the western conference finals, and that the deal was too long for a player of his age, especially considering that he would never be the type of player who could fade into being an effective floor spacer at the end of his career
Obviously Allen is not a particularly skilled offensive player, he can’t shoot, has a questionable handle and can’t really navigate pick and rolls. Despite his mediocre skill set, Allen is not a stupid offensive players, he stays within himself and is a great offensive rebounder for his position, leading all guards in the NBA with an offensive rebounding rate of 7.3%, per NBA.com. He is a smart cutter, for both rebounds and scores, and is able to use the fact that he isn’t guarded properly on the perimeter against his defender.
In the video above Russell Westbrook loses Allen on the cut just for a second, which gives him enough time to turn into the lane and make a nice pass to Randolph for a finish. Allen has limitations, but he is smart and knows what he can do to keep the offense flowing. He can make the next play and it’s not like his presence alone destroys your offense. Shawn Marion doesn’t space the floor either in Dallas, but you can get away with that if you’re crafty enough. Yes, the Grizzlies got taken out of the 2013 western conference finals by the Spurs, but they didn’t have Courtney Lee or Mike Miller to space the floor with Prince and Allen. This year Prince and Allen were separated for much of their playing time, and were almost exclusively played with either Lee or Miller . The spacing of the offense went from “wow we can’t do anything” to “just enough if we are smart about it”.
But of course we all know that Tony Allen’s primary function is being a perimeter defender and stopper. Wing/guard defenders are an interesting player type in the NBA and it’s quite difficult to quantify how valuable they are. Being a great perimeter defender is something that doesn’t necessarily show up on the stat-sheet, as you can be elite even without getting basically any steals or blocks. Most of good things that you do aren’t obvious at first glance like dunks or massive blocks. Things like, forcing the ball handler baseline or away from the screen in pick and rolls, denying the ball by having a hand in the correct passing lane or pushing your man away from the post, not getting caught on screens, keeping your man in front of you, bumping the roll man from the weakside and recovering to your own man and rotating correctly are just a few of the things that a great perimeter defender does that doesn’t directly show up on the box score but impacts winning. Obviously offense is just as nuanced as defense, but the difference is that statistically the most value is creating actions are ones that don’t show up in stats, an example of this being that Roy Hibbert blocks 2.5 shots which is one of the best in the league, but an NBA team is going to take 70+ shots a game and 2.5 doesn’t impact that much. What you are actually interested in Roy Hibbert’s defense are the 13-17 shots he impacts at the rim.
Just based on the “eye-test” we know that wing/guard defenders can’t impact the game as much as centers and power forwards, and rim protection is probably the number 1 key to a championship caliber defense. The statistics back this up, most adjusted plus-minus systems, defensive win shares and other “advanced” stats feature only a few perimeter players in the top 50, and for example in ESPN’s real plus minus, those players are Andre Iguodala, Eric Bledsoe and Tony Allen. So basically it is almost impossible to be as valuable as a big guy for your defense as a wing player, but also if you are in the top few perimeter stoppers, you can be extremely impactful and you’re among the rarest player-type commodities in the NBA (something you should point to in contract negotiations).
Allen is one of the those elite and rare defenders, and it’s hard to equate that with offensive players and how much value they create. James Harden is an all-offense and no-defense(the truth is actually worse than no defense) type of player, how much value does Tony Allen bring to a team with his defense, energy and intangibles, and how much value is that compared to what James Harden does? Especially in the playoffs where teams do more cross-matching and Allen is always on the top scorer on the other team.
No one is saying that Tony Allen is better than James Harden, but catch them at the right moment the difference between them might not be as large as you would think. Fit and situation is everything in the NBA, and look, if you are able to force Kevin Durant to shoot under 44% from the field and 32% from three, while stopping Durant from getting to the line constantly and making him work for everything in a playoff series, is insanely valuable and something we probably tend to under appreciate.