If a friend and I were to pick schoolyard teams from all NBA players in history, to battle head-to-head, and I had the first pick, I wouldn’t pick Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain. I’d pick Dennis Rodman.
It’s counter-intuitive, but I think it’s the best pick that one can make. It’s not because Rodman is the best player in history – in fact, he’s far from it – but it’s because it’s the best way to build a winning team.
Rodman was a much better rebounder and defender than the next best player in history, even if he wasn’t a primary scorer that made him productive, which makes him the best player to construct a team – even when accounting for the fact that rebounding is only about a quarter of the game in basketball, he was so much better than the next best rebounder in history than Jordan was better than the next best scorer, it means that my team is more likely to win, even with my friend picking the GOAT Jordan with pick 2.
Another way of thinking Rodman’s inherent value is how the game of basketball is constructed – only one player can have the ball and shoot. So if every team has two primary ball handlers and scorers, who take up most of the possessions anyway, who do you want as your third-best player – someone who is a good scorer, but won’t get opportunities to shoot because he’s only the third best shooter, or the best rebounder because there’s always rebounding opportunities? In other words, Rodman was the by and far the best 3rd best player on the floor of 5 players in an NBA team, relative to the other 3rd best players in NBA history, more-so than Jordan was a better primary scoring option than, say, Kobe Bryant was a primary scoring option.
Don’t worry, I’m going to segue this into footy. It has got me thinking – if I were to do an all-time draft for footy, who would I pick first? How is our game constructed in such a way? Would I pick Wayne Carey, Ted Whitten or Leigh Matthews first? One was the best key forward in history, one was the best player in history given his versatility, and one was a player with scarce production types, an elite goal-kicking midfielder – so how do decide between the three to increase your likelihood of winning?
If I were to do it for currently active male AFL players, I’d pick Alex Rance or Cyril Rioli as the first player to pick – not that they’re directly the most productive players in the competition, like a Patrick Dangerfield, but they are player who rare in that they’re good in multiple categories – Rance is a lockdown defender, structural anchor, and rebounder all at the same time, and Rioli is an overhead, ground and pressure threat in the forward line all at the same time.
The issue with playing games like this is that it’s all hypothetical – there’s no way that, in reality, that the AFL will be blown up, all players redistributed we’ll be able to see a draft like this occur or to test my theory here that passing over Dangerfield for Rance for pick 1 in a “dispersal draft” would play out in the real world. It happens in fantasy footy or in American sports when single folded franchises have dispersal drafts, but it’s not really the same thing, is it?
This is why, from a footballing perspective, the AFL Women’s competition is so fan-bloody-tastic. It’s fan-bloody-tastic because socially it’s a provision for a fully national and professional competition for the female footballers who didn’t previously have the opportunity to play at this elite level, but that’s not what I’m writing about here. It’s so fantastic because it’s an opportunity to see how these mad scientist theories about the game play out in reality.
The competition provides opportunities to analyse and compare the philosophical approaches to list management and to see how different clubs are building their lists, and to give opinion on which clubs are gaining talent in ‘marginal’ areas, where the drop off in positions, and how clubs can shape lists to build their tactics.
I’ve come up with four philosophies that I think the clubs are taking in building their list:
The Engine Room Philosophy:
One school of thought is that by having gun midfielders, you can influence the play.
It’s certainly not a bad philosophy. Midfielders are around the ball more and can influence the play more often. If you win the tough balls, tackle, harass and win the clearances, and have goal kicking midfielders, the game can certainly be broken open.
It raises two fundamental questions however – what is the marginal value of midfield talent, and what’s the drop-off from adding more midfielders?
The first part is, if you recruit a handful of the best midfielders in the competition, there’s still plenty of good midfielders left. Teams such as the Western Bulldogs who went for Ellie Blackburn and Emma Kearney perhaps gave up the opportunity to recruit an outside player, forward, back or ruck, to cement the first opening bounce combination. However, that still leaves midfield talent on the table, who might not be that much worse, such as Karen Paxman who signed as the final priority pick of any of the Melbourne-based clubs.
The other aspect is the marginal drop-off. Does a player who is good in isolation have the same impact if she’s the first, second or third best midfielder? Consider Melbourne with Daisy Pearce, by and far the best midfielder in Australia. If she gets tagged and defensively minded, it might mean that the other midfield players for Melbourne play better with less attention. Pearce and a player who was picked up in the second or third round of the draft could, as a duo, have the same midfield impact as a Kearney and Blackburn inside midfield duo – however Melbourne didn’t burn two of their first three signings on the midfield.
Clubs with the Engine Room philosophy: Western Bulldogs, GWS, Fremantle
Positional Versatility philosophy:
I love this theory. In signing the marquees and priority players well before the draft, there’s still a lot of uncertainty as to how the draft will play out (unless, you know, a club’s draft board was to be published online property was to get out…). The worst thing that could happen to a club is to approach the draft targeting a specific position, only to see those players go just before their picks, because the players that they’ve already signed doesn’t have any versatility to the positions that they can play.
For example, say the Dogs with three midfielders (if Katie Brennan plays more midfield than forward like she did in the All-Star game), are clearly not going to target a fourth inside midfielder with their first draft pick. But what if the draft pans out in such a way that the best talent available just so happens to be inside midfielders – all the gun defenders or outside midfielders like Steph Chiocci or Hannah Scott go before the Dogs get an opportunity to select them, leaving them in picking up more inside midfielders even though they’re not the best inside midfielders at the club?
Carlton in my eyes took this approach – in signing Brianna Davey, Lauren Arnell and Darcy Vescio, they picked players who are flexible in their ability to play various positions giving them more leverage in the draft.
Davey is a key defender who is flexible enough to play as a lock-down player, rebounder or even stints through midfield. Arnell is a mid-forward who is equally adept inside or outside in midfield, or as a small forward, and Vescio’s agility, pace, and goal-sense makes here capable as an under-sized full forward, as a small forward next to a spearhead (like she played alongside Moana Hope in the All-Star game) or even as a high half-forward or an outside midfielder. Carlton can now approach the draft with flexibility, depending on how other clubs draft – if gun forward players are on the table, they can take them, knowing that they’ll move Vescio and Arnell to more of a midfield role. If there’s still plenty of inside midfielders in the mid to late part of the draft, they’ll be able to keep them in the forward line.
However, I think that this philosophy falls down in two ways – because of the free agency period, and because of recruits from other sports.
Firstly, the free agency period allows clubs to sign three players after the draft is concluded. This allows them to select unlisted players from any state (and those that are willing to relocate) – which means that clubs that the flexibility leverage benefit in the draft is limited if there’s a free-for-all anyway after the draft. The Dogs, for example, could draft even more midfielders and sign key defenders or key forwards when the draft is all said and done – clubs are not going to be out of the lurch because of an imbalanced draft, because they can rectify a badly balanced list in the free agency period.
The signings from other clubs also diminish the benefit. These athletes, from a range of sports stretching from Athletics, Basketball, Netball, Soccer and so on, are generally athletic, but relative to the rest of the competition, haven’t played a heap of footy. That means their development can be shaped in such a way that they can play in a position of need, or they can be moulded in such a way that they’re a utility. It’s similar principle to how Mark Blicavs has operated at Geelong – as a player who had been not been “cemented” in any given position when recruited, he’s played as a 1st, 2nd, 3rd ruck, key forward, key defender and big-bodied midfielder in the entirety of his career. With every club having players from other sports, the same philosophy applies – these clubs are able to pivot around their recruiting by placing their other-sport poached players into positions of need.
Clubs with the Positional Versatility philosophy: Carlton, Adelaide.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket philosophy:
This is also sound logic – if you sign your early marquees and priority picks across various positions, they make the whole of that position balanced.
For example, a gun key defender can anchor the structure of the defence and allow others to play less critical roles. A good ruck can influence the stoppages and make weaker inside midfielders better. A very good key forward can attract double-teams and allow teammates to get off the leash.
Collingwood, for example, are taking this strategy. They’ve got the best forward in Moana Hope and the best ruck in Emma King, which means that their stoppage and forward line start off better than any other team in the competition. They also have a mid-sized defender/midfielder in their operations manager Meg Hutchins signed, which again plays a different position to the other two.
This allows for there to be at least a base level of ability in all positional areas of the game – Collingwood will at the very least be competent up forward with Hope and at stoppages with King’s influence. I’ll bet my bottom dollar that Collingwood will not be the among the worst teams in pure forward efficiency or clearance effectiveness.
The issue with this strategy is that the specifically good players can be limited without support. Imagine if Collingwood took one three strategies to the draft: Improve forward line to support Hope, improve the midfield to benefit from King’s ruck dominance, or to have a balance between the two.
If either of the first two strategies are taken, Collingwood will have major problems – without a midfield to deliver the ball to Hope, she’ll get terrible delivery and defensive structures will be able to stop her. If Collingwood’s forward line (apart from Hope herself) is the worst in the competition because of Collingwood not wanting to waste King’s stoppage ability, teams will be able to zone off, double-team and sit on Hope for the entire game and limit the space she has to work with or one-out opportunities against defenders.
At the end of the day, however, Collingwood do have the best forward and ruck in the competition – the match winners in the All-Star game – and surely that counts for something
Teams with the “don’t put all your eggs in the one basket” philosophy: Collingwood, Brisbane (to a smaller extent), Carlton (to a smaller extent)
Structure, structure, structure philosophy:
Teams that force other teams to worry about their tactics, structure and limit the effectiveness of their opposition’s strengths could be an effective way.
Imagine a team forward planning a meeting with Brisbane – “how the hell can we get our relatively weak defence to compete with the duo of Tayla Harris and Sabrina Frederik-Traub up forward”
Brisbane might not have picked up the gun inside midfielders, rucks or key defenders. But by picking up the two best, tall overhead and contested marking threats in the country in Harris and Frederik-Traub, clubs are certainly going to be worried about their marking threat. Get it to them enough times and they’ll convert.
In fact, Brisbane’s threat with tall forwards could be a bigger threat than any one team in any one position – no team’s inside midfielders, defensive unit, or forward unit, as a collective, is as good as Brisbane’s forward overhead marking threat.
That might result in opposition diverting resources into trying to stop them to their own detriment.
Melbourne are also doing this, by recruiting Mel Hickey in defence as a rebounding centre-half-back, as are Carlton with Davey.
Structure behind the ball defensively can influence your opposition’s decision making and limit their effectiveness. Engine room midfields are no good if you’re turning it over to the defence because of better opposition structures.
In other words, it isn’t all about building the best pure talent or productive players, rather, giving the opposition plenty to worry about structurally due to being dominant behind or in front of the ball.
Clubs with the structure, structure, structure philosophy: Brisbane, Melbounre (to a lesser extent), Carlton (to a lesser extent)
It certainly will be interesting to see how clubs pivot around these initial philosophies in their future drafting and recruiting.
Also: my AFL Women’s predicted ladder:
Given the above philosophies and what I think will be the most effective, here are my thoughts on how the ladder might shape up:
- Western Bulldogs