My series of posts on Grizzlies players as year-end-award contenders continues with Tony Allen as a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year (or, more realistically, the league's all-defensive team).
ESPN's John Hollinger beat me to this with a terrific — albeit Insider-restricted — piece yesterday naming his own all-defensive team. Hollinger has Allen as the starter at two-guard and asserts that Allen would have a case for Defensive Player of the Year if he had been starting all season. (Hollinger also lists Rudy Gay among his honorable mentions at small forward, recognizing Gay's generally under-appreciated defensive improvement this season.)
But I'll elaborate a little on Hollinger's case for Allen:
His individual defense: As good as James Posey was during his one great year for the Grizzlies, I don’t think this team has ever had as destructive an individual defender as Allen has been this season. And though he built his reputation as an off-the-bench stopper for a brilliant defensive-team in Boston, including doing strong work on Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals, I doubt Allen has ever been as good defensively as he's been for the Grizzlies this season.
We've seen Allen have possessions where he's dismantled elite offensive players ranging from 6'0" point guard Chris Paul (switching over and forcing a desperately needed turnover late in an eventual home loss in early March) to 6'10" forward Kevin Durant (bottling him up completely on a crucial late-game possession during a rousing road win in early February). And we've seen the kind of help defense where it feels like he's guarding the entire other team.
There are so many elements that make Allen special: length, athleticism, toughness, relentlessness, preparation, craziness (getting under his opponent's skin by praising himself in the third-person — "Good D, TA!" — among other colorful gambits). But what's most impressive is perhaps his ability to go for steals while still recovering to contain his man. With Allen, his ball-hawking tendencies rarely feel like a gamble.
Allen's on-court/off-court rating this season has been very good — second to Darrell Arthur (and underrated defender) on the team and in the same ballpark as other elite wing defenders such as Andre Iguodala and Lebron James. And his steal numbers this season have been astounding.
Allen ranks fifth in the league in steals per game at 1.8 — but that's in only 20.5 minutes per game. Only one other player in the top 22 averages even fewer than 30 (Ron Artest — 1.5 steals in 29.1 minutes). Per minute, Tony Allen is far and away the league's steals leader this season, with 4.21 per 48. (Chris Paul is next at 3.17.)
His defense impact on team: As great as Allen has been individually this season, the best argument for him might be the way he's helped transform the team's defense. Until a late burst of roster activity (acquiring Shane Battier and Leon Powe at and after the trade deadline), Allen was the only significant new addition to this year's roster. (The others were rookies Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez.)
And, yet, this season the Grizzlies improved from seventh to first in steals per game, from 17th to first in opponent turnovers, and, most impressively, from 23rd to eighth in overall defensive efficiency. Allen certainly doesn't deserve sole credit for this defensive sea change, but he's at the top of the list, the entire team taking on his defensive personality and raising its collective effort level to match him. This impact has been seen the most in the career-best defensive efforts of primary scorers Zach Randolph and, especially, a pre-injury Rudy Gay. But Allen's aggressiveness has also rubbed off on Sam Young and Mike Conley, who have joined him in getting steals at a high rate.
My Defensive Player of the Year rankings:
1. Dwight Howard: Obviously. Almost single-handedly has Orlando ranked third defensively.
2. Kevin Garnett: The most important component of the league's second-best defense.
3. Tony Allen
4. Andrew Bogut: Leading the league in blocks. Centerpiece of the league's fourth-best defense.
5. Tyson Chandler: Tough call here, but a rejuvenated Chandler has been a force in the middle for the Mavericks and has made Dirk Nowitzki less of a defensive liability as a result.
Honorable Mentions: Andre Iguodala (second best on the wing), Kyle Lowry (probably best at the point), the Grab Bag of Bulls (Luol Deng, Ronnie Brewer, Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, Omer Asik — such a team effort on the league's best defense), and, forever and always, Tim Duncan.