The Value of Ray
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

“You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

These cliches point to the idea that the true value of a possession cannot be determined until it is no longer owned. Not so with Ray Allen.

Allen missed 25 games before returning against Phoenix.
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty
Instead, when the All-Star guard was lost to the Seattle SuperSonics at the start of the 2003-04 season because of arthroscopic surgery on his right ankle, Allen’s value was, if not forgotten, then reduced. Aiding in this process was the Sonics staying afloat without Allen, winning six of their first eight games and going 12-13 overall. Ronald “Flip” Murray stepped into Allen’s spot in the lineup in November and provided a fair impression, averaging 18.6 points per game during Allen’s absence.

Suddenly, the question was not, “When will Ray return?” but, “How will Ray fit in when he returns?”

There was also the theory that Allen could only do so much to improve a team already strong on the perimeter, as vocalized by ESPN commentator Tom Tolbert in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article on the morning of Allen’s Dec. 23 return.

“They'll be better,” Tolbert said. “You have one of the better guards in the entire league coming back, a great all-around player.

“But his strength is their strength. So it's not like some guy who's a dominant power forward is coming back and they're missing that. The thing that they're missing right now, they're going to be missing the entire regular season.”

Even Sonics Coach Nate McMillan pursued a similar line of thinking, if only to avoid making excuse for the team’s inconsistency in December.

“Giving up 30-point quarters is not Ray Allen,” McMillan said. “Not rebounding the ball, is not Ray Allen. Until we get better in those positions, those situations, we're still going to struggle.”

Eight games and six wins later, a different view of Allen has emerged, one that gives him a large share of the credit for the performance of the Sonics since his return. It is a difficult position to argue against. Over the last two seasons, the Sonics are now 23-14 (.622) with Allen in the lineup, 35-43 (.449) without him.

Though Allen has looked rusty at times after not playing any basketball for nearly two months, most notably a 4-for-12 shooting, eight-point performance at Sacramento, his overall performance has been outstanding. So far, Allen is averaging 24.5 points, 5.8 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game on sizzling 47.7% shooting – numbers reminiscent of his superstar effort over the last 29 games of last season in Seattle. That would put Allen fifth in the league in scoring if he had played enough games to qualify.

Allen’s value, however, lies not in his individual statistics but how he has changed the Sonics on the court. True to McMillan’s words, the Sonics are not rebounding better and have not significantly improved their defense. What they’ve done, instead, is find a way to improve on what was already one of the league’s top offenses.

Sonics Offense Breakdown
w/o Allen
w/ Allen
The complete breakdown of the Sonics offense with and without Allen this season is at right, but several numbers jump out. The team’s scoring average with Allen in the lineup jumps to better than 103 points per game, a mark topped this season by only the Sacramento Kings. The Sonics 45.3% shooting with Allen would tie for fourth in the league, and the 10.0 three-pointers per game would shatter the current NBA record of 8.96 per game, set last year by the Boston Celtics (overall, the Sonics are on pace to break that mark).

Everyone knows that Allen is one of the league’s best shooters, so the improvement in scoring is no surprise whatsoever. What might be a little more surprising, especially to anyone who did not see Allen’s maturation last season in Seattle, is the improved ball movement the Sonics have had with him in the lineup. Their assists have increased from a shade under 20 per game to 23.6, again one of the league’s top marks. The Sonics have assisted 61.2% of their made shots with Allen in the lineup, as compared to 57.1% without him.

Allen scored 27 points during the fourth quarter and OT against Portland.
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty
Even team statistics, alas, are not enough to capture just how important Allen is to the Sonics, because they fail to give proper weight to where Allen really shines – clutch situations. Post-Intelligencer columnist David Locke first quantified Allen’s fourth-quarter prowess last season, reporting that Allen averaged 6.5 points on 48% shooting in the fourth quarter of “close” games.

This year, he has been even more amazing down the stretch. Allen has scored 10 points or more in the fourth quarter three times this season, coming up with 12 as the Sonics rallied against Memphis, 14 to outduel Kobe Bryant and the L.A. Lakers and topping those performances with 20 points in the fourth period and seven in overtime as the Sonics overcame an 18-point deficit to beat Portland. Allen hit the game-winning shot against the Lakers and put the Sonics ahead by two with seconds to play in regulation against the Blazers.

The Sonics won all three games, as well as a one-point victory at Houston where Allen came up with a steal as Houston inbounded the ball in the final seconds, hitting a free throw to seal a one-point win. In the seven fourth quarters he’s played (he sat out the fourth in a blowout loss at Sacramento), Allen has rung up 62 points, an average of 8.9 points per fourth quarter.

The closer the game has been, the better Allen has played. According to the website, Allen has played 35 minutes in what they define as “clutch” situations – five-point margin or smaller, fourth quarter or overtime. In that span, he has scored 42 points on 17-30 shooting (56.7%) and handed out six assists against two turnovers. In those 35 minutes, the Sonics have outscored their opponents by 32 points.

Despite the unpleasant memory of consecutive one-point losses to Denver and Phoenix during December, the Sonics actually fared reasonably well in close games without Allen, going 9-7in games decided by ten points or less. With Allen, however, they’re 3-0 (that doesn’t even count the Blazers game, as the Sonics crushed Portland in overtime to win by 11), bringing their two-year record in such games to 15-8 (.652) with Allen, 22-25 (.468) without him.

That Allen is truly a superstar-level player, that he is critical to the Sonics chances of success, is evident in the confidence he and his team feel when he takes a shot. It is evident in the dejected mood in the opposing locker room (“Jesus (expletive) Shuttlesworth beat us tonight,” one Portland player was quoted as saying, referring to Allen’s character in the movie “He Got Game”). It is evident in the knowledge by every fan, coach, player, and media member that he is going to take the last shot – and make it anyway.

The Sonics are now quite certain of Allen’s value – and they don’t need his absence to demonstrate it.