Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Fallacy of the Anti-Priority Pick Brigade

Even casual AFL fans would be aware of the recent controversy over priority draft picks. In its original form, the priority pick rule meant that teams that won less than a certain amount of games in a season would get an extra pick in the first round of the draft. Nowadays you have to be really crappy over two years to be eligible for a priority selection. The AFL says the rule is here to stay, while opponents claim it encourages ‘tanking’ in the hopes of getting a ready-made star. In his column in The Australian on August 30, Collingwood coach Mick Malthouse wrote:

‘Andrew Demetriou has a short memory. The AFL chief executive recently declared no side receiving a priority [draft] pick had won a premiership. Actually, the Eagles won last year's flag and fell short by a point in 2005 with a side containing one of the greatest players many of us have seen. Yes, Andrew, Chris Judd was a priority pick.’

And, on August 11, Patrick Smith of the same newspaper wrote:

‘In 2001, West Coast picked up Chris Judd as a priority selection and won last year's premiership by a point. Without Judd the Eagles would not have won. He had 28 possessions and kicked a goal. In the 2005 grand final, which West Coast lost by four points, Judd had 29 possessions. He has been critical to the club's success.’

All seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? Without Chris Judd, the Eagles would not have won the 2006 premiership, so Judd’s selection is proof that having a priority pick can get you a flag. In fact, this argument is fundamentally flawed. Sure, West Coast did use their priority pick (and the third pick overall) in the 2000 AFL Draft to select Chris Judd. But even if there were no priority picks, they would have been able to pick Chris Judd anyway. Regardless of whether priority picks existed or not, West Coast would have had the third pick that year because they finished third-last. What the priority pick did enable West Coast to do was to pick third and sixth that year, whereas without the priority pick they would have had to wait until selection number 19 to pick again. So who did West Coast get with pick number 6? Anyone remember Ashley Sampi? It’s fair to say that he wasn’t quite as critical to West Coast’s premiership success.

Instead, opponents of the priority pick should turn their attention to the year before, when Fremantle had picks numbers 2 and 4, whereas if they didn’t have the priority pick they would only have had selection number 2. The Dockers used pick number 4 that year to get one Matthew Pavlich. Other helpful additions over the years that have resulted from having an extra pick include Justin Koschitzke (St.Kilda, pick number 2), Lance Franklin (Hawthorn, pick number 5), Brock McLean (Melbourne, pick number 5) and Scott Pendlebury (Collingwood, pick number 5). But none of these players have been part of a premiership team.

Now, under the new system, things are a little different this year because Carlton will have the No.1 and No.3 picks, when in the absence of a priority pick they would only have had No.2. So Carlton’s advantage is really pick No.3 and the difference in talent between picks No.1 and No.2. In any case, it may still be a few years before one of these picks carries the Blues to a flag.


Brett said...

An excellent post, Wheatley - although we could be here all day picking holes in things Mick Malthouse has to say. Regardless of whether or not a player selected with a priority pick has ever played in a premiership, it cannot be disputed that the system does reward underachievement and creates a perverse incentive for a team without finals prospects to finish as low down the ladder as possible. What I'd be interested in, is some sort of analysis (similar to What Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?)to test for evidence of tanking. I guess the question is whether the moral incentive to play well and the associated joy of winning is stronger than a team's incentive to drop a match for a payoff that won't be realised until years into the future (if ever).

Troy Wheatley said...

I agree - even if the incentive for 'tanking' is not quite as strong as is usually made out (i.e teams haven't necessarily gained the number one pick, they've gained the number four pick, or whatever), it's still pretty strong. I like the suggestion of following Levitt's study on corruption in sumo wrestling to see if tanking takes place. I became fairly convinced that it does after reading an article by Mark Stevens of the Herald-Sun on the subject. He pointed out that over the six years in which you got a priority pick if you won five games or less, these were the amount of times that teams won the following number of games:

FOUR wins – five times.

FIVE wins – six times.

SIX wins – ZERO times.

SEVEN wins – six times.

EIGHT wins – four times.

It could be that teams 'on the cusp' of winning six games have happened to play a lot of tough opponents, but I doubt it. Maybe I could have a look at it during the boring parts of the Brownlow Medal count.