Dave Joerger's announcement prior to the Memphis Grizzlies' Tuesday meeting with the Utah Jazz that shooting guard Tony Allen would miss the game while serving a one-game suspension for "violating team policy" came as something of a surprise, engendering plenty of speculative conversation as to what sort of transgression led to Allen's benching. The answer came Wednesday morning, after the short-handed Grizzlies' 93-82 loss to the visiting Jazz, from Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
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After more digging into the issue, Allen’s physical confrontation was apparently with [reserve guard Nick] Calathes during practice. Frustration clearly is building with the team playing poorly and the starting unit lacking consistent and forceful play.
Allen was on the team’s flight to Houston last night and is expected to play against the Rockets. How Joerger and the players, not just Allen, rebound from this brush with turmoil bears monitoring.
ESPN.com's Marc Stein later soft-pedaled the nature of the skirmish:
ESPN sources say practice confrontation between Grizz teammates Tony Allen and Nick Calathes, while heated, did not rise to "physical" level
— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) March 4, 2015
Sources say Tony Allen's one-game ban largely stemmed from fact he waved off coaches' attempts to calm him down after tangle with Calathes
— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) March 4, 2015
Whether the principal issue is a beef with Calathes or a beef with Joerger and his staff seems somewhat immaterial; either way, there's an issue, a beef and some static surrounding the Grizzlies' emotional centerpiece and primary perimeter stopper.
As I wrote on Tuesday night, while Allen's minutes and production have stayed relatively consistent over the course of this season, his role has changed, as he's moved from the starting lineup for the first 36 games of the season to the bench over his last 14 appearances, following the mid-January acquisition of forward Jeff Green from the Boston Celtics.
While the Grizzlies continued to roll after making the swap, going 13-2 trading for Green and continuing to stake their claim on the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference behind the Golden State Warriors, as the Commercial Appeal's Chris Herrington noted Monday, the new-look starting five of Green, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Courtney Lee hasn't performed nearly as well as the fivesome featuring Allen in Green's place.
The Allen starting five has outscored the opposition by 9.2 points per 100 possessions in 395 shared minutes this year, according to NBA.com's stat tool, while the Green group has been outscored by 2.5 points-per-100. (Interestingly enough, the dropoff has come entirely on the offensive end, which you wouldn't necessarily expect, given Allen's famously trick-or-treat nature on that end of the ball.) It can be difficult to accept a move to the bench if it's making the team better; it would, you suspect, be even harder to handle if both the numbers and the eye test seem to be making things a bit worse.
Primarily, though, the problem seems to center on the prestige that comes with being a starter, and having that taken away; that's a significant shift for any player and, apparently, it's especially hard for Allen, as Kevin Lipe of the Memphis Flyer wrote Wednesday:
The worst-kept secret the Grizzlies had last season was that Allen was very unhappy about coming off the bench once he returned from his mysteriously long hand/wrist injury. There was some question about how he’d handle being demoted to the bench again, and it seemed like things were fine, but even if his suspension was just (“just”) related to some kind of physical altercation in practice — which anyone who has played a sport knows is a thing that happens sometimes — it bears watching to see what’s going on with him attitude- and chemistry-wise.
All this puts Joerger in a tough spot. With Memphis having flagged a bit lately, dropping three of their last four, and their offense looking ragged, especially during first quarters, does he reverse course and reinsert Allen into the starting lineup? If he does, does that come off as something of a capitulation, a sign of weakness, or perhaps even a reward for bad behavior coming off the practice scuffle? If he doesn't, does it make him look stubborn, perhaps resistant to doing what might be best for the ballclub in the interest of maintaining a strong hand on the Grizzlies' rudder? And if the status quo persists, do the Grizzlies run the risk of having what Joerger termed an "isolated incident" on Tuesday turning into something more persistent if Allen's displeasure grows?
Those are some tough questions for Joerger and company to answer. With just six weeks remaining in the regular season, the Grizzlies' lead over their Wednesday night opponents down to just 1 1/2 games and Memphis perhaps staring down its best chance yet to make the first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history, though, all parties involved have got to find solutions, and soon.
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