Tony Allen: Seldom Unmasked Potential

How do you even begin to write about Tony Allen?  Seriously, how can you even begin to put into words any coherent thoughts about a guy whose career has - whether viewed at a macro or micro level - displayed about as much coherence as this paragraph?  Which is to say, hardly any.

Surely the only way to broach the subject, when that subject is so maddeningly inconsistent, dangerously erratic and, on a good day, effectively wild, is to pattern my article in the same manner.  Perhaps if I start to make a good point and then lose focus and fly off at a wild tangent, peppering my article with disappointingly formed analogies and paragraphs where I contribute nothing of value whatsoever, but then every now and then I write something good and start to get on a roll, only then can I capture the true spirit of Tony Allen.

However you feel about Tony Allen right now, it's likely you have run through the full gamut of emotions towards him over the course of his perplexing career.

In his rookie season, fans warmed to Allen immediately, after his athleticism stood out during Summer League play.  During the season, he was a part-time starter and contributed hard-nosed defense and fast break finishing to a team that went on to win the Atlantic Division.  Despite being rendered useless in the playoffs by Reggie Miller's kick out and flop jumper and the fact that he kept getting hit with ridiculous rookie calls, hopes were high that he could be a consistent contributor for years to come.

Despite being slowed by a knee injury, his role progressed slightly in year two, but it was halfway through his third season when he looked set to make the leap.  Capitalizing on a series of injuries, Allen had the best month of his career, averaging almost 20 points per game and shooting 57%, but then blew out his knee on an ill-advised dunk attempt after the whistle in a game against the Pacers and was lost for the year.

With Ray Allen and James Posey joining the squad in 2007/08 and Tony still recovering from that knee injury, his role diminished, but he still had his moments during the championship run.  For example, with Rajon Rondo out, he started at point guard against the Lakers in LA, scoring 16 points in a key win.  Also, in a dreaded Admiral Ackbar Game ("It's a trap!") against the Memphis Grizzlies, his 20 points helped ensure that the Celtics overcame an 0-for-9 shooting night from Ray Allen and headed into Detroit on an 8 game winning streak for one of their biggest wins of the year (a.k.a. the Big Baby Game).

In the postseason, he didn't play much, but nobody expended more energy in terms of behind-the-shooter-psyche-outs and when called upon right in the middle of the comeback against the Lakers in the finals, he didn't let the Celtics down at a time when a momentum-stifling turnover (his trademark) could have significantly damaged their title hopes.  He even turned in a solid performance in game five, where Boston almost clinched the title and put the exclamation point on game six with a spectacular last minute dunk when they finally did.

Heading into last season, the hope was that Tony would step up and replace some of Posey's production.  He started the season reasonably well, perhaps showing signs that he had put his knee injury behind him, but the more he played, the more it became apparent that those poor decisions and routine errors that were forgivable when they could be classified as "rookie mistakes" had not disappeared from his game.  His late-season thumb surgery maybe explained the downturn in his play over the second half of the season, but his return during the last few weeks of the season and his postseason contribution to the injury riddled Celtics did little to restore confidence in him.

Clearly, he's been up and down over the course of his career.  So how do we feel about Tony Allen?  Let's play emotion association: I name a player and you tell me the first emotion that springs to mind...

Rajon Rondo - Excitement?  Optimism?

Let's try another:

Kevin Garnett - Are you fired up?  Ready to run through a wall?

How about this one:

Tony Allen - You're shaking your head, aren't you?  I bet you sighed too.

You see, at some point over the course of his Celtics career, which - believe it or not - is about to enter its sixth season, Tony Allen reached saturation point.  It wasn't always that way.  At times he has shown real promise - remember how depressed we all felt when he blew out his knee during the best run of form of his life?  I'm not sure it's possible to pinpoint exactly when he wore out his welcome, because his career arc displays more characteristics of a seismology reading than a learning curve.  (That was one of the poorly formed analogies I warned you about earlier.)

I, like many of you, really want to support Tony.  He's an infectiously enthusiastic guy that isn't expensive, came through the system and has, at times, seemed to be progressing towards becoming a productive and talented NBA player.  However, even during his better performances, he can suddenly make an inexplicably bad decision and even during a solid run of games, he can suddenly lay an egg at the worst possible time.  You just can't trust him.

That's why, as I try to reason with myself that he could live up to the potential he has flashed in the past on a more consistent basis if he maybe stayed healthy for long enough to earn a steady spot in the rotation, or if his focus became less intermittent as the soon-to-be-28-year-old matured, there's always a devil on my shoulder trying to get me to go with the flow and just make fun of him like everybody else seems to.  (I almost did there, but I flinched as I decided against it.  Despite being 4,000 miles away, Tony bit on the hesitation.)

Taking the devil-on-my-shoulder theme a bit further, you can sum up Tony's game.  Don't tell me you can't picture him dribbling up the floor while the angel on his shoulder says, "That's it, drive towards the lane and then kick it to Eddie House when the defense collapses, just like last time," and the devil on his shoulder says, "Don't listen to her, you can make it to the basket easily!  There's only four of them in the lane.  If the worst comes to the worst, you can always throw up that ugly, off-balance running hook shot off the high glass.  That occasionally goes in."

We now find ourselves in a situation where the Celtics couldn't give Tony away this offseason.  The Pacers decided that, in terms of compensation for Marquis Daniels, nobody was better than Tony Allen (six words you're unlikely to hear too often.)  No other team wanted to get involved and the Celtics appear to be left with the option of using him (which could theoretically open up the possibility of a trade later on if he does well enough) or not using him.

It's difficult to believe that nobody will trade for him later on in the season, especially with his contract set to expire.  One good thing about the erratic nature of his career is that you can put together a decent résumé for him.  When healthy, he's been productive and efficient, at least in terms of the numbers.  He's been among the league leaders in terms of steals per 48 minutes.  He has a reputation as a solid defensive player - even if he hasn't always lived up to that reputation.  His field goal and free throw percentages are acceptable.  Sure, it's not all about the numbers, but they have to mean something, right?

Assuming he is still here in a few months, it's difficult to project how much he will play, if at all, next season. Although I don't expect Marquis Daniels to play much point guard, there should still be some minutes available backing up Pierce.  Bill Walker and JR Giddens were not ready for the NBA last season, but they'll be gunning for Tony's spot.  Will they get priority because they have a chance of being a part of the team's future or will the Celtics look to showcase Allen?  It may all come down to whether the team has given up on him like many of the fans.

Maybe a dim hope remains in some of us that Tony could return next season and contribute something more than towel waving, garbage minutes and deadline trade-bait.  It is a contract year for him, after all.  However, while the injuries can be taken into account when analyzing some of his poor play, there comes a time when you have to accept that being injury prone is just another negative trait to go along with all the other ones.  While you may try and see past the off-court issues (as I deliberately have to this point) and hope that they won't impact his on-court play, there comes a point where they are a distraction or affect your reputation around the league.

I want to be positive about Tony, I really do, but even among the most measured of fans, patience is wearing thin.  Nevertheless, it seems like he's going to get one more chance to prove himself.  Let's at least hope that if Doc Rivers can't turn him into something useful next year, perhaps Danny Ainge can.

More Player Articles: Kevin Garnett | Ray Allen | Paul Pierce | Rajon Rondo | Kendrick Perkins | Rasheed Wallace | Brian Scalabrine | Bill Walker | Lester Hudson | Eddie House

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