One thing jumped out at me in the Grizzlies’ 95–93 win over the Suns yesterday afternoon—one thing besides the perfectly-executed Courtney Lee to Jeff Green lob dunk with .8 seconds left in the game to win it. Tony Allen played a total of 8 minutes, starting both halves. In the first quarter, he played 4:31 before Dave Joerger subbed Courtney Lee for him (Allen and Jeff Green started at the 2 and 3 respectively) and in the third, he played 3:29 before the sub came.
While he was on the court against Phoenix, Allen struggled to contain Eric Bledsoe, a matchup he usually gets up for. On offense, Phoenix did what every other team in the league does against the Grizzlies now: they put four guys in the paint at all times and barely avoid as many defensive 3-second calls as they can, and the Grizzlies really struggled the whole game to punish them from beyond the arc for it.
One rough game wouldn’t be worth talking about in this context—guys have rough games all the time. It’s a long season. But we’re 21 games into an 82 game season now—a quarter of the season is gone—and teams are doing this regularly now, taking away the offensive skills that Allen has: cutting to the basket, grabbing rebounds, making effort plays within 5 feet of the rim. Maybe bigger than that, when was the last time we saw Tony force a turnover and make a big “first down” signal for the FedExForum crowd? When have we seen him make a big play and holler “First team All-Defense” loud enough for the club level to hear him?
Where is the Tony Allen who wanders around during timeouts because he’s so clearly in the zone that he doesn’t need to (or maybe can’t) sit down and listen to what’s being talked about?
I’m not sure whether the change in demeanor is stemming from the way he’s struggled on the court this year or vice versa, but Tony Allen is the Grizzlies’ spirit animal, and his role as the team’s hype man is hard to overstate.
But about those struggles on the court: they are real.
According to the NBA’s media stats site, Allen’s net rating—points per 100 possessions scored with Allen on the court minus opponent points per 100 with Allen on the court—is –3.5. For a guy who (1) is known as an elite perimeter defender and (2) predicates his whole game on how he’s playing on defense, it’s not a good sign for him to actually be a net negative in those minutes.
Of course, the caveat with these stats, as with every Griz stat this season, is that the 50 point loss to the Warriors has its thumb on the scale, but I think the point is still valid, if only because Allen only played 12 minutes in that loss.
In the second game of a back to back, Allen seems to be himself. In those games, his net rating shoots up to +13.8, his eFG% is 48.6%, and he’s playing a lot of minutes. If he’s not able to keep up on defense, his offense suffers, and his offense isn’t the main reason he’s established himself as such an important player on this team to begin with.
I don’t want to speculate about the causes for Allen’s change in demeanor. In the first place, he’s clearly frustrated by how he’s struggled, and that makes sense. The word “passionate” isn’t strong enough to apply to Tony. But he’s just different. He doesn’t seem as engaged, like he’s playing worried. He’s gambling more trying to make big plays, staying home less, and getting burned as a result.
I’ve said for a while now that when age finally catches up to Allen, things would probably go quickly for him—that his style of play is dependent on his body holding up and when he’s hurt it’s hard for him to go out and do his thing. I hope that’s not what we’re seeing here; I hope Allen is just in a funk. But after missing 20+ games to injury the last two years, maybe he’s finally starting to lose a little bit of his edge, not getting over screens effectively, not able to beat guys to their spots anymore.
If that’s really the case, though, I’m not sure what the Grizzlies can do about it. He’s not in a contract year this year—next year is the last season of his 4-year deal. He’s not particularly tradeable; even when he’s playing his best his skill set is pretty uniquely suited to the Grizzlies and the way they play. You can’t just bench him, because his play and his connection to what’s happening on the court will suffer, and then you’ll probably lose his motivational ability, too. He’s always been sensitive about his minutes. When they get cut, he gets unhappy. In the past, when he’s gotten moved out of the starting lineup, it’s bred discontent. So it’s kind of a tight spot—Joerger clearly doesn’t feel like he can play him much at the moment, but they can’t make a move because (1) a large percentage of the Grizzlies’ fanbase—maybe a large percentage of the population of the Memphis metro area—would show up at the offices with torches and pitchforks ready to burn the place to the ground and (2) there’s not really anything they’d get in return that would be worth the beating they’d take in public opinion.
I get why nobody has written this piece yet. Tony is pretty much universally beloved in Memphis, and no one wants to rain on the parade. Nobody wants to damage the Memphis economy by taking the bootleg t-shirt market down a peg, either. It’s a hard thing to do, considering that a guy you love watching play basketball might not be right this season. It hints at mortality and loss, the avoidance of which drives us to sport in the first place.
Listen: the best case scenario here is that Tony reads this column (Hi, Tony!) and it makes him mad that I’m talking about his bad games as of late and he goes out and gets 72 steals in the Grizzlies’ next game. I’m sure that’s what he wants, it’s what the Grizzlies organization wants, and it’s what the mass of Griz fans in the stands with their Grindfather t-shirts on wants. But that Tony hasn’t shown up yet this season, and the guy playing in his place seems to be missing some of the unbounded joy that makes him so breathtaking to watch when he’s controlling a game. That lack of enthusiasm, coupled with the fact that he’s just not getting it done basketball-wise right now, is hard to watch, and is probably just another signpost that this year is the start of the transition from the Core Four era to the Big Two era.
I’d rather have another season of first downs and “First Team”s instead. At this point, I’m not sure that’s what we’ll get.