Get the stars and take care of the rest later. That is the conventional wisdom on how to build an NBA team. But for every Magic Johnson, there’s a Michael Cooper; for every Michael Jordan, there’s a Dennis Rodman; and for every Tim Duncan, there’s a Bruce Bowen. Stars define teams, but role players elevate them.
“I’m a great role player,” says Memphis Grizzlies’ utility man Tony Allen.
Allen’s role is to be your favorite player’s least favorite player. He makes his living by shutting down his opponent’s best scorer. It is his one job and he does it better than anyone in the league.
“I’m sticking your elite two-guards in the league,” he says. “Not even just two guards: I check the Durants, the Joe Johnsons, the Lebrons—the best player every night.”
When the Kings and Grizzlies play, Rudy Gay is often the focus of Allen’s unshakable attention. “When you’re playing him you have to have your ultimate focus,” says Gay. “He never stops. When you think you got it going Tony Allen will shut that water off.”
Others are less willing to lionize the “Grindfather”. Earlier this week Kevin Durant took a subtle shot at Tony Allen, calling him an “OK” defender on twitter.
@waldorfsfinest yea that means U got cooked while playing ok defense— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) March 10, 2015
“Guys can try and deny it but they know,” says Allen.
Allen has made a career out of getting under the skin of the league’s star players.
“I like being a pest to the top scorers in the league,” he says. “Not just [Kevin Durant]. You look at my career and I’ve locked up with just about everybody. Caused havoc too.”
'Never met anybody in my life like Tony. Never have,' says Grizzlies center Marc Gasol.
He denies the ball, clogs passing lanes and gives up his body for loose balls. He’s relentless fighting through picks and is rarely deterred from his assignment. He does all this while often giving up a few inches and getting screened two to three times per possession.
“Never met anybody in my life like Tony. Never have,” says Grizzlies center Marc Gasol. “His determination to not get screened, his elimination of not letting his man score by any means. Those things and that pride that he has is unique.”
When defended by Allen, NBA players shoot 8.3 percent worse than they normally shoot (the biggest differential in the league). His steal percentage is 4.1 percent (the highest in the league). With Allen on the floor, the Grizzlies outscore their opponents by 10.9 points per 100 possessions (most on the team). And with Allen off the court the Grizzlies are outscored by 3.5 points per 100 possessions (most on the team). None of that matters to him though.
“I really don’t understand analytic type stuff,” he says. “I know it’s got me in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion so I’ll take it.”
Allen has been awarded All-Defensive team honors in three of the last four seasons—first team twice. Last year he was left out.
“They robbed me last year,” he says. “The only reason they didn’t put me in there is because I missed a lot of games, but this year I’m for sure first team.”
First team all-defense is a given for Allen, who has solidified his reign as the league’s best perimeter defender. This year though, Allen strives for an accolade that has eluded him.
“Before the season started I said I want to be Defensive Player of the Year,” he says. “They be hating on me, man. I mean, you look at the guys who’ve won it; they don’t have the job I have. I respect centers for clogging up the paint and altering shots, but it’s gonna take a miracle for a guard to get it, I guess.”
A guard has not won Defensive Player of the Year since Gary Payton captured the award in 1996. As the league’s premier on-ball defender, Allen may have the best chance to sway voters from their big man biases.
Allen traces skills as a one-on-one defender back to his days of playing high school ball in Chicago’s “Red West” division.
“I take it back to my pro-am days in Chicago,” he says. “It’s like an isolation game the whole time. You get put out there on that island and if you get crossed over and you get enough buckets, put in your behind with the whole city watching, trust and believe you gonna be the topic of discussion. I’m talking every barber shop.”
In those days, Allen wasn’t a defensive specialist: “In high school, I thought I could jump over just about anybody; I thought I was a scorer. All of this stuff didn’t change until I got to Oklahoma State.”
When you watch Allen’s game today, it’s hard to imagine a time when he was a scorer. He averages just 8 points per game and shoots just 26 percent from three for his career. His out-of-control drives to the baskets usually produce head scratching results. His only offense usually happens in transition after forcing a turnover on defense. Despite his inadequacies, Allen has maximized his skill set to become essential to his team’s success. He praises two coaches for shaping his basketball identity.
“I credit Coach Eddie Sutton (Oklahoma State) and my sensei Doc Rivers,” he says. “Those guys just gave me the mindset of finding my niche in the NBA because they saw my talents early.”
With the Celtics under Doc Rivers, Allen was part of the 2008 championship team. He only played in 15 of 26 playoff games and averaged less than five minutes in those games, but his time in Boston was instrumental in his development.
“He’s won a ring. He’s been around great players,” says Gasol. “He applied everything he learned from them to his game. If you look at Paul Pierce, you’re not gonna try and learn the step back because that might not be part of your game; but you might get Paul’s work ethic or determination to do certain things, or his confidence.”
'He just a guy who puts his heart into it,' says Memphis forward Zach Randolph. 'He’s not no fake guy. He’s 100.'
Being on a championship team helped Allen figure out how to contribute to a winning team. For most players, transforming into a role player is difficult, but Allen understood the importance of playing to his strengths.
“You get in where you fit in and I‘ve been doing that my whole career,” he says. “I mean, you gotta look at your surroundings. You got guys that are shooters, you got guys that are scorers, so what I have to do is look at it like I’ll do the intangibles. I dive for loose balls. I play the passing lanes. I deny the best scorer the ball as much as I can.”
His understanding of his function and purpose on the court has been his greatest asset as role player.
“He found what his niche was when he came into this league,” says Wizards head coach Randy Wittman. “He’s flourished in that role without trying to be or do something that he’s not. A coach always loves to have a guy like that.”
For Allen, taking on this role is not a concession. He’s a blue-collar guy who likes doing the dirty work.
“I get a thrill out of it,” he says. “I signed up for wearing the hard hat.”
Allen’s team-first mentality could seem disingenuous to skeptics. The NBA is crowded with me-first players valuing personal glory over collective success. That’s not the case with Allen. In mid-January the Grizzlies acquired Jeff Green from the Celtics and eventually gave him Allen’s starting spot. Despite the costly effect of the move (the Grizzlies starters were outscored with Green in the lineup), Allen embraced his new role off the bench.
“The starting spot don’t mean nothing to me because we collectively do it together as a team anyway,” he said. “Don’t matter who started as long as we bond together and get the wins. It really don’t even matter.”
This gesture was not lost on Allen’s successor.
“For him to do that, man, was beautiful to watch,” said Green. “I’ve never had that done [for me], so for him to do that [shows] the confidence he had in me and the team and what we can accomplish. That really grew our relationship and I’m gonna do whatever it takes to help this team win because of stuff like that. You don’t see that too often in this league.”
Despite playing off the bench, Allen remained as engaged as ever. This weekend, he was reinserted into the starting lineup for a Mavericks/Blazers back-to-back that the Grizzlies swept.
“He goes a little extra sometimes but that’s him,” says Gasol. “I remember the first time I saw Tony in the Finals, when Boston was playing L.A., and I thought, 'Who the hell is that guy with the towel and 42 on the back, just screaming and yelling and moving? Just tell him to sit down.' But you see him doing the same things here, so it’s his nature. We not gonna change him. We gotta embrace Tony, because he gives you so much things that are so special that are hard to find. He has a special talent he really does and he works. You gotta love him for that.”
As a teammate, Allen isn’t perfect. Earlier this month he was suspended for a physical altercation with Grizzlies’ guard Nick Calathes. Despite this, Allen’s character and commitment to the team earns his teammates' unwavering respect.
“He just a guy who puts his heart into it,” says Memphis forward Zach Randolph. “He’s not no fake guy. He’s 100. He’s honest. He’s not gonna be the type of guy to shake your hand and smile in your face and then talk behind your back. He’s a great teammate, hard worker, and a leader.”
'Everyone in the league knows when Tony Allen comes into the building, it ain’t gonna be an easy night. Get your rest.'
Since his arrival in Memphis five years ago, Allen has put his stamp on the Grizzlies. His tenacity on the floor inspired the “Grit and Grind” persona that the team, and the city, has embraced.
“It’s all based around his grit and grind,” says Green. “You can’t just have one teammate like that. The way he plays just trickles down to each teammate and it makes you want to play that much harder. Just like he plays.”
Allen's style isn't the most refined. In today's sped up, spaced out, and star-studded NBA, it’s not the best primetime TV.
“You don’t see no Gatorade commercials for defensive players, but I’d rather have respect than the fame anyway,” he says.
Allen knows who he is on a basketball court. He knows his role and he knows it won't bring him the glory of a LeBron or a Durant. He doesn't care. He's just fine clocking into work every day and making the guys who have the stardom earn it.
“Everyone in the league knows when Tony Allen comes into the building, it ain’t gonna be an easy night. Get your rest.”