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Tough defender Allen plays perimeter but is at the center

POSTED: Oct 22, 2013 12:35 AM ET

By Fran Blinebury, for


The grit-and-grind game starts with Tony Allen and Marc Gasol.

Franchise players come in all shapes and sizes and styles. There was Magic Johnson with his megawatt smile and beaming personality that fit perfectly into the role of a leading man in Hollywood for the Lakers. There was Michael Jordan with his transcendent talent that made him a logical fit to lead a Bull market in Chicago and the NBA. There is LeBron James with a body and an all-around game so physically imposing as to make it look at times so easy.

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Then there is Tony Allen.

In a league where so much of an individual's worth -- and star power -- is based on an ability to score points, Allen's value is in stopping them. While Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley get the All-Star consideration, it's the perennial All-Defensive First Team member who gives the Grizzlies their sharp claws and teeth and sets them on the path to contending again in an increasingly contentious Western Conference.

The 6-foot-4 guard is not only the one who coined the Grizzlies with their "grit and grind" motto, but is the living embodiment of everything that it means.

In three seasons in Memphis, Allen has never averaged double figures in scoring, and only once in his nine-year NBA career has he done it. While his inability to knock down any kind of an outside -- or even mid-range -- shot is often seen as the gaping hole in the Grizzlies offense, it's his defensive aptitude and overall attitude gives them their identity and their fundamental center.

That's why for all the concern and worriment over the departure of coach Lionel Hollins after a 56-win season and playoff march to the conference finals, it could have been the loss of Allen as a free agent that would have more immediately taken the Grizzlies down.

"Milwaukee was ready to take me out of Memphis, period," Allen told Ron Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "We talked and Memphis was like, 'Yo, we need you.' I said I don't want to leave you. I was talking to (Bucks) coach Larry Drew a lot. He was on my heels.

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"He was picking my brain about defensive schemes and we really had good conversations. It feels good when somebody wants you. But I told him my heart is in Memphis. I love my fans. I built a lot in Memphis."

Allen built it without the obvious contributions that show up in the box score and attract notoriety. He is one of those players who rarely, if ever, takes a play off at either end of the floor. He craves the challenge of defending the best wing players in the league, thrives on the hustle plays and clearly puts the only team goal that truly counts, winning, ahead of any individual acclaim.

That's the reason why while teammate center Gasol was given the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Award by a poll of media, Allen was actually voted All-Defensive First Team by the league's head coaches. Gasol was on the second team.

"It's one of the better moves any team I've been involved with has ever made," Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace told the Commercial Appeal. "When you look at what he has meant to the organization, not just in production, but he has meant a lot in an effort to recapture the passion for the fans of the Grizzlies. He's been huge. There are very few players in this game who can move the needle in terms of coming to the games and turning on the television to watch your games. There's even fewer of them in the non-superstar variety."

With assistant Dave Joerger taking over as head coach and saying he wants to maintain the core defensive identity in Memphis while juicing up the offense to play at a faster pace, Allen sees maybe a chance to get a few offensive rewards.

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"It'll be hard to tell you that I want to be one of the main pieces on offense," he said. "But throw a dog a bone every now and then. I'm not trying to do anything different than what's made me. Just open that door sometimes.

"There's a difference between taking ill-advised shots and good shots. But don't get me wrong. I'm a defensive-minded person first. That's what got me that longevity. But if opportunity presents itself (on offense), I'd like that opportunity to make a play."

Before the growth of Gasol allowed him to blossom into one of the league's elite centers, in those seasons when Hollins was trying to make defense, hustle, scrappiness and hard work the calling card of the Grizzlies, it was Allen who took the baton and ran with it, showing his teammates the way to establish the FedEx Forum as the "Grind House."

"I love the grit and grind aura," Allen said.

Three points

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1. In an increasingly up-tempo league, the Grizzlies have to find a way to put some pop in their offense. They ranked dead last in pace of play last season.

2. Can the return of 33-year-old veteran Mike Miller cure what ails the Grizzlies in lack of 3-point shots made, where they also ranked 30th in the NBA a year ago?

3. No coach in the league will be under more scrutiny than rookie Dave Joerger, who has to follow up the best season in franchise history by Lionel Hollins.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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