Tony Allen enters his new contract with the Memphis Grizzlies at a turning point in his career, putting into question how much longer he can be a helpful starter for the Grizz. Before long, the 31-year-old will start losing the explosiveness that partly makes him a great defender.
The dilemma that the Grizzlies face is whether having Allen's defense in the starting lineup benefits them more than Jerryd Bayless' or Quincy Pondexter's shooting.
For now, keeping Allen in the lineup gives the Grizz the greatest edge. Having Allen start means sacrificing scoring for defense. Conversely, they score much better with Bayless in the lineup, but fall flat on defense.
Pondexter brings the perimeter shooting to alter the offense's capabilities and physical tools to defend well, but the results last year didn't support this idea.
Having Allen as an everyday starter isn't absolutely required. But when push comes to shove, being able to defend superbly at all five positions is more important than extra scoring.
Allen's defensive value vs. offensive cost
Allen holds a high stature as a defender. He made the All-Defensive Team the last three years and was fourth in defensive rating last year.
Opponents must account for all the ways in which Allen crimps their scoring avenues. He breaks down leading scorers one-on-one, patrols passing lanes, plays help defense and attacks stray balls.
The former Boston Celtic grabs steals with ease. He has twice placed fifth in steals per game. The past two years, he was in the top six in steals percentage.
Also, Allen is a solid defensive rebounding guard. He had career highs with 4.1 rebounds per 36 minutes and a 13.8 percent defensive rebounding rate in 2012-13.
Even though he depends on quickness to make some plays, Allen should be able to maintain tenacious defense. His voracious appetite for steals belies his incredible instincts and 6'9" wingspan.
That he lowered his defensive rating while picking up 0.3 fewer steals per 36 minutes portends well.
On offense, the nine-year pro has problems. Allen only produced 102 points per 100 possessions. He shot 44.5 percent from the field, the second-worst mark of his career. He sometimes botches fast breaks.
His play can drag on the team's offensive production. When he was on the court, the Grizzlies scored 0.8 fewer points per 100 possessions and had an effective field-goal percentage 0.9 percent lower than when he was on the bench.
That's not nearly as significant as the 6.6 additional points per 100 possessions the Grizz give up when he steps off the hardwood.
Hence, Memphis doesn't suffer a tremendous net loss simply by taking Allen out of the game.
Weighing alternative starters
Bayless is the primary counter to Allen as the starting 2-guard. The 25-year-old is a more capable shot creator than Pondexter, a spot-up shooter who doesn't initiate his own or others' scoring. Bayless had 5.4 assists per 36 minutes, three times as many as Pondexter.
Lineups with Bayless scored much more than those with Allen. Four-man lineups (since five-man groups including Tayshaun Prince boosted ratings involving both players) with Allen scored between 100 and 105 points per 100 possession. Those that used Bayless, but not Allen or Rudy Gay scored between 111 and 124.
Pondexter didn't have a significant impact when inserted in place of Allen. The quartet of Pondexter, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph—the only group with him and three others still on the team after Gay was dealt that played 100 minutes—scored 102.9 points per 100 possessions.
Four-man lineups with Pondexter and Bayless fared much worse defensively than those including Allen. Quartets involving the "Grindfather" allowed between 89 and 93 points. Pondexter, Gasol, Conley and Randolph allowed 102.9 points per 100 possessions. Lineups with Bayless, but not Allen, allowed 102 to 104.
Interestingly, lineups with Bayless shoot much better than others, even though he isn't an overwhelming shooter. Four of the five four-man lineups that had effective field-goal percentages of 50 percent or better involved Bayless.
This may be because having Bayless on the floor opens up more shooting possibilities since he can both hold the ball and take a variety of shots. Pondexter, who took four fewer shots per 36 minutes and had usage rate 6.9 percent lower than Bayless', doesn't force opponents to consider his presence as much.
The defensive gap isn't surprising. Bayless, who allowed 103 points per 100 possessions, was never a good defender before joining the Grizzlies. He allowed 106 or more in each prior season.
Pondexter is developing on defense as well as offense. He has the tools to defend well, with good quickness and awareness to go with a seven-foot wingspan. In his third year, he allowed 104 points per 100 possessions. That's ordinary, but he has a higher ceiling than Bayless due to his size and ability to defend multiple positions.
One offensive issue with Bayless is that while Allen makes numerous mistakes, Bayless makes more. Partly, that's because Bayless gets more touches and shots.
Bayless shoots worse than Allen. He shot 41.9 percent last season, 2.6 percent below Allen's mark. Even after the Gay trade, Bayless shot 42.8 percent, 3.9 percent worse than Allen.
Bayless turned it over more often, holding a 15.1 percent turnover rate, 3.6 percent higher than that of Allen.
Dividing starts by matchups
A third way that would optimize the skills of both Bayless and Allen sees them appearing as platooning starters.
During the Western Conference Finals, SI.com's Rob Mahoney hypothesized that the Grizzlies could maximize Allen's usefulness by playing him "only when he has a specific perimeter threat to smother."
While Mahoney seemed to play down Allen's defensive contributions in order to make a broader point about Memphis' needs in the series, he makes a congruous point. In saying it would diminish Allen's "less effective minutes," Mahoney likely implied Allen's play on the other end.
Starting Bayless in some games could add fluidity to the offense. In another piece during that series, Mahoney noted that Bayless and Pondexter's shooting opened opportunities in the post. Four-man lineups with Bayless generated two more possessions per 48 minutes than those with Allen.
Dave Joerger can maximize lineup possibilities by starting Allen when more defensive energy is needed from the start and Bayless when higher scoring is required. This would ease their chances against efficient scoring teams like the San Antonio Spurs, which limited the Grizzlies' scoring in that series.
In those games, Conley and Gasol would have a greater responsibility to lead the defense. Conley may need to help Bayless. Gasol would be called upon to stop more attacking ball-handlers.
Allen's defensive prowess would still be tapped often. He would play roughly 30 minutes in games he starts and 20 to 25 when he comes off the bench.
Thus would he keep the grind of the league's best defense.
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