Boston is one of the few places in the NBA where Tony Allen attracts a lot of attention. It was his first NBA home, the organization that gave him an opportunity out of Oklahoma State.
Now, Allen is finally receiving the respect he deserves, emerging the last three-plus seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies as one of the league’s top defenders. He was also a stopper with the Celtics, but overshadowed by Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.
Chicago born and raised, Allen has swagger, bravado, and an ego. And in the summer of 2010 when he was a free agent, that ego told him that perhaps his talents would be appreciated more elsewhere.
The Celtics didn’t make signing Allen a priority and he slipped away to Memphis because the Grizzlies offered a fully guaranteed third year at $3 million. It was a decision the Celtics regret. Team president Danny Ainge’s stubbornness allowed the Celtics’ best on-ball defender to depart, despite the team’s desire to compete for the championship.
Allen said he didn’t take the decision personally, but the fact he remains one of the league’s best defenders and he returned to Memphis on another contract is a testament to his maturity and staying power. Allen will turn 32 in January, has recovered from an anterior cruciate ligament tear, and has emerged as a team leader in Memphis, something that was nearly impossible in Boston with the presence of the Big Three.
“I look at it like this: Every project is like a puzzle and you just have to be a piece,” he said. “Obviously [in Boston], they didn’t believe I was that piece. I moved on, didn’t have no hard feelings. I really respect the organization for them giving me the opportunity just to play in the NBA. But I just took the talent down to Memphis and took everything that was instilled in me [in Boston], to a team that had just as much talent, a younger group, just needed a little guidance, and we were able to do some big things down there.”
With most of the players in the NBA entering the league before their 22d birthday, there are many examples of players such as Allen who are slow to develop or experience growing pains before flourishing. When Allen became a free agent, there were questions about how he would handle a multiyear deal for more money than he had ever earned. Maturity questions peppered Allen since his days at Oklahoma State, but the Grizzlies offered him an opportunity to start and the added responsibility of leadership, and Allen was up to the task.
Allen agreed last summer to stay in Memphis on a four-year, $20 million deal, one of the bigger bargains in the league for a player capable of scoring in double figures and shutting down opponents.
“This is where I wanted to be, I didn’t want to go nowhere else,” he said. “I had offers on the table but the money about evened up when you take the taxes and all that stuff out. It was about the same. I didn’t want to make it a money issue. I wanted to make it a winning issue.”
The Grizzlies didn’t make many major moves in the offseason, acquiring Kosta Koufos from the Nuggets for Darrell Arthur, and signing Mike Miller after he was amnestied by the Heat. Allen was brought back to join Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Tayshaun Prince.
Memphis has gotten off to a shaky start under new coach Dave Joerger, but Allen has been better than last season offensively, entering Wednesday night’s game against the Celtics averaging 10.1 points on 54.6 percent shooting. In the Grizzlies’ 100-93 win Wednesday, Allen scored 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting and had a game-high three steals.
“This was basically the core that got me here that they sold me on,” he said. “I was sold on that, so I just wanted to be around winning. We got to the Western Conference finals, so it didn’t make no sense to go somewhere else and have some money and lose. I wanted to stay on the radar.”
Experience has made Allen a better player. During his younger years, he admitted getting by strictly on athleticism. He used to laugh at teammates such as Kevin Garnett who would stretch before games or have intense massages afterward to preserve their bodies.
Allen tore his ACL in January 2007 and returned 10 months later, perhaps losing a step of explosiveness. He took a couple of years to get back to 100 percent, and the Grizzlies have been the beneficiaries of Allen in his prime, something the Celtics could have used during their playoff runs in 2011 and 2012.
“For the most part, every day I dedicate myself to try to strengthen myself, so I won’t have that accident again,” he said. “I had a lot of injuries while I was [in Boston]. I thought I was Superman, never stretched, never did none of that.
“I just came out and hooped. I put a focus on my body and make sure I do things to prevent injuries, just trying to stay around for as long as I can.”