The Memphis Grizzlies had missed the playoffs four consecutive seasons before signing Tony Allen in the summer of 2010. It would take only a few months for Allen to make his greatest contribution to the franchise to this day, having nothing to do with his signature brand of unrelenting defensive pressure or contagious infusion of energy. Instead, it was an unassuming phrase that would become a team motto, even a way of life, in Memphis.
Print the T-shirts, make the signs, sprawl it across every billboard in the city. Every underdog needs a working thesis, and Allen's incidental rallying cry did the trick better than anyone with a marketing degree ever could have.
There's so much to Allen that goes beyond the quantifiable. He's vital to the fiber of Grizzlies, an essential influence on and off the court for a team that won a franchise-best 56 games last season while advancing all the way to the Western Conference Finals. In a league full of colorful characters, Allen exists as one of the most entertaining. Whether he's doing a masterful karaoke version of "This Is How We Do It", live-tweeting 'Disney on Ice' or embracing his teammates as only he can, Allen's contributions extend to the Grizzlies' culture just as much as his on-court play.
But if Allen feels like a relic of another era, it goes beyond his infectious personality. Allen is a one-way player in a league that is progressively weeding them out. He's the Grizzlies' guard dog, an unbreakable clamp rightfully considered the NBA's best perimeter defender this side of LeBron James. Allen's resonance was important enough to earn him a new four-year, $20 million contract this offseason at age 31, but Memphis already has seen the very real problems leaving him on the floor can create for the rest of the team.
Because this is one of the game's true treasures, we'll focus on the good before the bad. With Allen on the bench, the Grizzlies gave up 101.1 points per 100 possessions last season. With him in the game, they gave up 94.3 points per 100 possessions. The Grizzlies made the league's Final Four last season in large part because they boasted the NBA's second-best defense, and Allen was a major reason why.
His versatility was on full display in the first two rounds of the postseason. Though he's listed at just 6'4, Allen hounded Kevin Durant as well as anyone can do it in the playoffs. Durant has at least a six-inch advantage in height and reach, but Allen's ironclad will and renowned dedication to studying tendencies on tape helped him hold Durant to just 31.6 percent shooting from the field when he was guarding him, per ESPN.
It's the type of performance that reinforced Allen's reputation as a defensive terror. Allen earned his third straight All-Defensive nod last season and made it back-to-back appearances on the first team. He was the only player under 6'6 to finish in the top 10 of Defensive Player of the Year voting.
And now, the bad. Allen cannot shoot at all on a team desperately lacking outside threats. The San Antonio Spurs were smart enough to recognize this and sagged off Allen when Memphis had the ball in a way the Thunder never did. Suddenly, driving lanes for Mike Conley were clogged and defenders double-teamed on Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the post with no one to make them pay from three-point range. After dispatching the Clippers in six games and the Thunder in five, the Grizzlies were swept out of the Western Conference Finals by the Spurs.
Whereas Allen symbolizes everything wonderful about Memphis when they were winning, he also epitomizes the team's flaws when they're losing.
Even still, Memphis and Allen are a necessary fit, the type of symbiotic relationship that makes you think one can't survive without the other. It's fair to wonder if Memphis will come to regret Allen's new contract in the back half of the deal for a player turning 32 years old this season, but there was simply no way the Grizzlies could lose him.
"He's clinically insane," Conley once said of his backcourt mate. "He's so loud, it can be obnoxious. It'll be 7 o'clock in the morning, and he'll be babbling about something."
Even when the clinically insane shoot 12 percent from three-point range on the season, they can still be more necessity than luxury. That's the story of both Allen and his Grizzlies to a tee.