When on the discussion of the NBA’s greatest perimeter defenders of all time, who first pops to mind?
Kawhi Leonard? Micheal Jordan? Scottie Pippen? Maybe, Gary Payton?
All are very strong contenders. However, Tony Allen is a name the average NBA fan might not throw into the mix. A champion with the Boston Celtics and a defensive anchor on the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans. He wasn’t a household name, but the greatest scorers of the past two decades knew it was going to be a tough night ahead when they saw Tony Allen’s name on the scouting report.
The late, great Kobe Bryant gave Allen some trainers as a gift, in 2016, during an LA Lakers vs Grizzlies game. A message written on them read: “To Tony, the best defender I’ve ever faced.”
That wasn’t all Kobe had to say about Allen’s abilities either. In an interview with Mark Medina in 2014, he said this:
“He’s fundamentally sound defensively and he plays harder than everybody else defensively. He has a competitive desire to compete individually. That’s very uncommon. Most defensive players I face want help all the time. I’ve never heard him ask for help. He likes taking the challenge.”
To have Bryant, arguably the best scorer in the league’s history, openly declare you the best defender he’d had to match up with, that’s some high praise. It’s a praise he’s also received from Kevin Durant, who, in 2019, told the team on ESPN’s Get Up! that Allen was the “greatest defender [he’d] ever played against by far.”
Jump to 2:05 on this clip below to hear for yourself.
Being held in this high regard by some of the modern games greatest scorers is all well and good, but Allen has a crucial stat to back it up.
FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR plus/minus offers an insight into the best perimeter defenders of all time. To put it simply, it’s a statistic that tells you how many points a player contributes to his team’s total per 100 possessions. So players with a RAPTOR rating of 1.1 on defense, improves his team’s defensive performance by 1.1 points per 100 possessions.
Micheal Jordan, who was an elite perimeter defender during the Chicago Bulls’ 1990s dominance, has a 2.2 RAPTOR rating on defense, which ranks him fourth all-time for NBA guards. Danny Green and Alvin Robertson sit in second and third, respectively, both on 2.3. Allen sits in first place, swamping his competitors with a RAPTOR rating of 2.8. TWO-POINT-EIGHT!
Anyone arguing that this stat only goes back to the mid-1970s, go watch the defense they played before this stat and tell me that anyone in that era that played defense at a level that would be effective in today’s league.
Allen also has six All-Defense selections (three first-team and three second-team). Compared to other guards, regarded as all-time greats, this may not sound so impressive. Kobe Bryant has nine all-defensive first-team selections, a record he shares with Jordan, Gary Payton and Kevin Garnett, but it could be argued that these players won votes because they had a name for themselves on the offensive end too (which defeats the point of it being an All-Defense award, I know, but that’s a subject for another day).
Tony Allen won defensive team selections because he was a great defender, not just good, like some of these great offensive players were. He knew it too, see below this iconic clip from 2015 when he was on the Grizzlies.
He had heart and a determination to impact the game in non-glamourous ways. He got in his man’s face, harassed ball-handlers and always got a hand up on a shot.
Tony Allen may not be your dad’s favourite defender (bECaUse joRdAn IS thE BeSt), but he should be yours.