On a recent episode of the Bill Simmons Podcast, the topic of Tim Duncan came up.
Specifically, the hosts discussed him as the archetypal team player. Duncan was a transcendent superstar – a two-time league MVP, widely regarded as the greatest power forward in NBA history – but also a player happy to share the spotlight and cede touches on offence to star team-mates Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
Duncan sublimated his phenomenal talents into a quieter, more versatile and effective role at a time when he could have easily demanded the Spurs organisation revolve around him.
Luke Hodge sprung to mind as the exemplar of this rare sporting template in the AFL. Most athletes are egotistical, and the very best players have a natural thirst for both the spotlight and accolades that isn’t always conducive to sharing.
If you’re wondering what a 210-centimetre power forward from the US Virgin Islands and a 185-centimetre halfback-turned-midfielder from Colac have in common – beyond an uncommonly daggy dress sense – allow me to explain.
They were both coached by ornery oddballs in Gregg Popovich and Alastair Clarkson: two men who have prickly relationships with the media and a penchant for outsmarting the league.
The synergy they shared with these coaches resulted in duumvirates that came to define San Antonio and Hawthorn during their respective eras.
Both were, and in Hodge’s case still are, exquisitely skilled but as much renowned for their defensive ability as their attacking prowess. Both were highly touted and unassuming first overall draft picks.
They both won their first championship/premiership with teams nominally led by someone else – David Robinson for the Spurs and Sam Mitchell for the Hawks – but were always the spiritual leader at their respective clubs.
Hodge’s uncompromising, unsociable play set the tone for Hawthorn’s dynasty and Tim Duncan’s dour, self-effacing consistency provided the same for San Antonio’s 20-plus year reign.
This luxury is only available to great teams – organisations who have accumulated so much talent that they are able to experiment with roles until they stumble upon the right formula.
Looking at the versatility these two men offered to their teams, I can’t help but cast my eye to this year’s premiership contenders.
Richmond, Brisbane, Collingwood, West Coast and Geelong are in it up to their eyeballs. I’ve discounted GWS because injuries look set to cruel their chances – not for the first time in their short history.
The clear option for Geelong and Richmond is to throw Patrick Dangerfield and Dustin Martin forward more permanently. Both players have been a shade below their Brownlow best this season and it could be a chance to spark them into top gear.
With the return of Jack Riewoldt and Tom Lynch stationed inside 50, Martin will have the luxury of bullying a mid-sized opponent that is unlikely to be able to match him for strength or power.
With Kane Lambert back in the side and the need to give Sydney Stack more midfield time, this move could change Richmond’s forward and midfield mix for the better.
Geelong have the same sort of set-up: Esava Ratugolea and Tom Hawkins are more than enough of a threat to draw the tall defenders. Their midfield is as deep as any, and they have the option of giving young gun Gryan Miers more minutes in the centre when Danger pushes forward.
Gary Ablett’s presence on the half forward line is as much a product of age and injury troubles as anything and isn’t in the category of positional switch I’m referring to – he’s simply best suited to playing forward in the twilight stage of his career.
Brisbane and West Coast’s options appear to be more limited. Dayne Zorko already plays a half-and-half forward-mid role. Charlie Cameron could be thrown into the midfield for short bursts, but this could be a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul as Cameron is Brisbane’s best and most consistent forward threat.
Given Brisbane are an emerging young side, I’d persist with what they’re doing, hoping to ride the wave all the way like the Bulldogs in 2016. Chris Fagan likely wants to totally embed their game style and teach his players to handle expectations and pressure before he starts worrying about positional flips, which are football’s icing on the cake.
West Coast do not have an obvious candidate to move to a lesser role. Elliot Yeo started his career at half back but West Coast has the best halfback line in the league in Brad Sheppard, Jeremy McGovern and Shannon Hurn. More to the point, Yeo’s grunt and size are required in the guts to match the beasts running around in the competition’s elite midfields.
And that brings me to Collingwood – the side with the most compelling option to employ the Duncan/Hodge strategy.
Scott Pendlebury is the obvious candidate. Nathan Buckley used Pendlebury on a half back flank at times earlier in the season but injuries to Taylor Adams and Dayne Beams forced Pendlebury back into the centre.
That the skipper returned to somewhere near peak form made it even more difficult to continue with the half back experiment.
Pendlebury’s injury and Adams’ return is an obvious swap, but when Pendlebury comes back he should move to the half back line. He’s capable of being a different version of Hodge: less kamikaze, but equally adept at reading the play and better at moving through traffic.
The move has the added benefit of allowing Jordan De Goey more midfield time. De Goey looms as the trump card that can separate Collingwood from the rest of the pack. He burts through stoppages like he’s been shot from a cannon, bullying his way towards goal.
There isn’t a player in the league who can match his combination of brute strength and flair when he’s on. It seems Collingwood have been holding him back from the midfield due to fitness concerns but his extended stretches there against West Coast swung the game in Collingwood’s favour.
With Pendlebury on the sidelines, possibly until finals, it’s time to unleash De Goey. Buckley has broken in the young colt and it’s time to let him leave the paddock. It just might make the premiership a cakewalk.