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Trading for trading's sake is why Port Adelaide have tread water for five years

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Expert
3rd September, 2019
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Today my list analysis and offseason preview series continues with Port Adelaide, a team which has now come achingly close to finals only to miss out for the second year in a row.

Five-year strategy

The last five years covers a period that begins with Port’s highest watermark this decade and under Ken Hinkley, when they were just one goal away from playing in the 2014 grand final.

The four seasons following that one however saw them make finals only once, and they’ve missed again in 2019. That finals campaign came in 2017, Port bowing out in the first week thanks to a Luke Shuey goal after the siren, in extra time.

Port’s strategy over that five year period has revolved heavily around trading, though not necesarilly in each individual year. They’ve directed just short of half of their resources to securing mature players from other clubs in this time, and the second-highest amount, proportionally, of any club.

It’s worth noting here that this analysis includes an approximate DVI for signing free agents – although it doesn’t technically cost clubs draft currency to sign these players, an approximation is made here to show where a club’s priorities have lain.

Port sold themselves almost entirely out of the 2014 draft to secure Paddy Ryder and then did much the same in 2015 to bring Charlie Dixon, and to a lesser degree Jimmy Toumpas, to the club.

2016 saw a sudden pivot towards the draft – not just ignoring trade options, but actually bringing forward their first-round pick from the next year to take two in ’16, Sam Powell-Pepper and Todd Marshall.

In the space of the next two years Port flipped back to a mature recruit focus in 2017, signing Tom Rockliff, Steven Motlop and Jack Watts, then went in reverse by trading out mature players last year to invest heavily in the draft once again.

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Port Adelaide Power Draft-Trade Analysis 2014-18
Source Spend
Year Organic Trade Draft Trade
2014 1751 0 13.9% 86.1%
2015 3329 0 24.9% 75.1%
2016 3199 0 100.0% 0.0%
2017 2958 608 28.8% 71.2%
2018 2528 3369 70.2% 29.8%
Total 13765 3977 53.2% 46.8%

Drafting

Something of an odd quirk when it comes to Port’s drafting over this period of time is that they’ve still taken five first-round selections in five years, but those picks come entirely from two of those five drafts.

The end result is that only three clubs have spent less at the draft than Port Adelaide over the last five years. Those three clubs are Hawthorn, Geelong, and Richmond – and unlike Port, they have regular finals campaigns, even premierships, to show for it.

Even though their investment in the draft has been limited during this period of time, Port have done well for it. They’re on par for the expected return in just about all five of their drafts – lagging a little in 2016 – and even ahead of it, in many cases.

For example over the 2014 and 2015 drafts, even though they had very little to play with they’ve managed to find some really solid players in Dougal Howard, Riley Bonner and Dan Houston.

Sam Powell-Pepper is so far their best performer from that 2016 draft, and while the group as a whole are slighlty behind the pace, expect that to change in the near future as Todd Marshall and Peter Ladhams come of age.

They’re yet to get much traction out of the 2017 draft, but their crop of three first round picks in 2018 – Connor Rozee, Zak Butters and Xavier Duursma – is performing extremely well after just one year at the level.

Connor Rozee

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Port were one of only four teams in the league this year to have a first-year player earn AFLCA votes, and got 61 AFL games out of this trio. Great value here so far.

Port Adelaide Power Draft Analysis 2014-18
Year Drafted Spent Games Votes
2014 7 243 93 10
2015 6 830 118 40
2016 8 3199 112 32
2017 6 1026 28 0
2018 9 4140 61 24
Total 36 9438 412 106

Trading

Poaching mature players across from rival clubs has been a key part of Port’s strategy over the last five years.

2014 saw them bring across Paddy Ryder from Essendon, 2015 Charlie Dixon from Gold Coast and Jimmy Toumpas from Melbourne.

2017 was a busy one – not just the touted trio of Rockliff, Motlop and Watts, but also Jack Trengove and Trent McKenzie as delisted free agents, plus Lindsay Thomas and Dom Barry via the draft.

Then, last year, they signed Scott Lycett as a free agent from West Coast, while also receiving Ryan Burton in the Chad Wingard trade, and Sam Mayes from Brisbane.

Broadly speaking, these recruiting moves haven’t delivered the expected returns – not necesarilly because the recruits themselves haven proven to be duds, but because the price Port Adelaide paid was always going to be too high for them to deliver on.

For example, Ryder has been a fine player in his time at Port – enduring a few absences, but generally producing quality form, to the point of being All Australian in 2016.

But after trading both their first and second picks in the 2014 draft to get him, the expected return was always going to outpace him. He’s fallen well short of it, through no real fault of his own. The same can be said of Charlie Dixon.

The Rockliff-Motlop-Watts trio is something of a different case. They’ve played roughly the right amount of games by size of investment, but have been well below the mark in terms of level of quality – not exactly a result we couldn’t have seen coming, given their careers prior to joining the club.

Steven Motlop

(Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

The 2018 trade-ins so far look like a winner. Scott Lycett had a great first year the club (despite strangely being dropped late in the season), while Ryan Burton played solidly when fit.

Port Adelaide Power Trade Analysis 2014-18
Year Gained Lost Spent Games Votes
2014 1 1 1508 73 69
2015 2 1 2499 80 89
2016 0 0 0 0 0
2017 5 6 2540 97 34
2018 3 4 1757 34 39
Total 11 12 8304 284 231

List profile

A strong investment in the draft over the last three years, taking five first-round picks in this time, has unsurprisingly seen Port Adelaide’s list skew towards being more youthful than average.

However, also noticeable is that the Power possess an above-average number of veterans, and ultimately, it’s the ‘prime-age’ group that is lacking – much of their talent is either not quite there yet, or already past their peak.

This is shown further in their selection policy where their prime-age players took up just 32 per cent of games, and accumulated about two-thirds of the league average number of AFLCA votes.

Their youth and veteran groups instead dominated selection, and also both significantly outperformed the expected vote returns – the veterans in particular thanks to star players Travis Boak and Robbie Gray.

Port Adelaide Power list profile
Age Players Games % of total Votes % of total
18-22 24 184 39.83% 72 21.11%
23-27 14 150 32.47% 122 35.78%
28+ 9 128 27.71% 147 43.11%

Under or over?

Port Adelaide fielded a team this year that was, on average, the seventh-most experienced side in the league, and the tenth oldest – roughly in the middle for both categories.

They only managed to win about half the time when more experienced than their opponents, but when discounting those games where their experience advantage was only marginal, this jumps to a more impressive two-in-three.

Port won 44 per cent of games when they were less experienced than their opponents – a better than average result in this category.

The Power had the fifth-worst EUR of any side in the competition this year, able to use about 63 per cent of their list experience on a weekly basis, four points below the league average.

Verdict: On par. Port’s finish was a little low for their average experience, but about accurate for their age, and their poor EUR and ability to win against the odds gets them over the line.

Ken Hinkley Port Adelaide Power AFL

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Contract watch

Out of contract
Karl Amon, Matthew Broadbent, Tobin Cox, Billy Frampton, Martin Frederick, Sam Gray, Cameron Hewett, Aidyn Johnson, Trent McKenzie, Kai Pudney, Paddy Ryder, Cam Sutcliffe, Jack Trengove, Justin Westhoff.

Pre-agents
Brad Ebert, Robbie Gray.

Port have more players remaining out of contract at this time of year than most, and are surprisingly yet to announce any delistings, even though their season has been over for more than a week now.

Karl Amon, Sam Gray and Paddy Ryder are all players who’ve been linked to moves away from the club so far. Port have confirmed in a statement that Gray and Ryder would explore opportunities, but haven’t made the same concession regarding Amon.

Justin Westhoff is probably the other big question mark for Port Adelaide from this group. He was their best-and-fairest winner just a year ago, but had an indifferent 2019 season where he was dropped to the SANFL at one point.

Westhoff is versatile and durable enough that there’s little reason to worry about giving him a one-year extension. At the same time, an argument could be made that it’s better to let him go with a little left in the tank.

A major consideration for Port – and no doubt part of the reason we’re yet to hear solid news on this group – is cashflow. The Power are known to be having trouble paying their players, and have deferred some 2019 salaries into 2020.

Given that situation, Port will probably be looking to minimise the amount they spend on player salaries next year, which might be holding up some contract negotiations.

Free agency

Six of the out-of-contract players mentioned above are free agents: Broadbent, Hewett, McKenzie, Sutcliffe, Trengove and Westhoff. None seems likely to move to another club, although Westhoff could be the type Gold Coast explore depending on if other ‘valuable vet’ options fall through.

Port seem unlikely to sign a free agent for reasons of the financial difficulties listed above. They have plenty of room in the salary cap, but if they are deferring player salaries to next year it suggests they are not making space for a big recruit in that period.

There also doesn’t appear to be a free agent available who makes a lot of sense for them anyway. I’m not convinced they’re in the list position to be getting much value out of free agents – Jamie Elliott is the only one who, let’s be honest, I’ve mentioned for most clubs, but seems unlikely to leave Collingwood.

Trade period

Port seem more likely to see players leave the club this offseason than to have them come in, so let’s take a look at those first-up.

Paddy Ryder is probably the biggest name on the move – the former All Australian sparked rumours of a potential exit when he was dropped mid-season, and that is now coming to fruition.

Paddy Ryder Patrick Ryder Port Adelaide AFL

(AAP Image/Ben Macmahon)

He’s been linked to both St Kilda and Essendon, and while he hasn’t nominated a preferred destination just yet, it’s believed St Kilda is probably more likely to acquire his services.

Ryder will be on the verge of turning 32 when the next AFL season starts to the reality is that Port aren’t going to get much in the way of a return for him. Expect some late picks to be shuffled around, nothing more.

Sam Gray is the other player who Port have openly confirmed is going to look at other opportunities. The 27-year-old averaged 17 touches and a goal per game in 2019.

Carlton are the only club who have been linked to him so far, they’re known to be on the hunt for a small forward or two – but we also know they’ve been linked to Jack Martin, Tom Papley and Eddie Betts.

Gray is probably the lowest priority of those four so whether or not he lands at the Blues probably depends on which, if any, of those potential deals falls through.

Should Carlton pursue other options then it’s not clear if any other clubs will look to pick Gray up, so there may be a strong chance he continues at Port Adelaide again last season.

Amon is clearly the most contentious of these three as unlike Ryder and Gray, Port have not publicly confirmed his interest in a trade.

While it’s understood Amon now has a three-year deal on the table from Port Adelaide, former player Kane Cornes publicly criticised the club for not offering him a deal until late in the season.

The result, it appears, is that Amon has had to consider life beyond Port Adelaide and isn’t entirely against the idea, he’s being pursued by Melbourne and St Kilda.

Amon’s just had a career-best season, averaging just shy of 20 disposals and five score involvements per game. Port should be looking to do anything they can to keep him at the club, as he possesses traits they don’t have a lot of on their list, and they won’t get a great return for him in a trade.

Two others who are a bit lower on the radar are Dougal Howard and Sam Powell-Pepper.

Sam Powell-Pepper

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

199cm swingman Howard was reportedly garnered interest from a number of Victorian clubs including the Western Bulldogs.

He had something of a strange season – spending time in the SANFL, and finishing the season there, but actually captaining the club at one point when others were injured.

Howard has another three years remaining on his contract and Port will be reluctant to let him go, so it may come down to whether or not a club can offer the Power an appealing deal.

I would say their best result would be to keep him, but if there is a team out there willing to put a pick in the top 25 on the table for him, that may be worth making the deal.

Powell-Pepper’s name being on the table is one that, to be honest, I find baffling, given what a remarkable debut season he had just two years ago.

The root cause of the problem appears to be his role in the team – Port have a lot of players on their list looking to play the inside midfield role, and Powell-Pepper has struggled to get a crack at it because of this.

He’s got some good traits, being a hard and tough player but also one with a very nice burst of speed, but a lack of versatility and some heart-in-mouth kicking has meant he spent time in the SANFL this year.

He’s by no means perfect, but he’s also 21. He’s one of Port’s best young prospects and they must play him to his strengths – if that means older players leave the club instead, so be it.

What about players coming in? As with our discussion of free agency, this seems unlikely because of Port’s financial pressure. They’ve been linked to two, but neither seems likely to happen this year.

The first of these is Orazio Fantasia. News broke during the season that he was likely to request a trade home at some point during his career, and that Port would probably be his preference if so.

Fantasia recently said in the media that he is a certainty to be at Essendon next year, but was less committal when it comes to the future beyond that. Port are ahead in the race here so they can afford to leave this one until they’ve got the cashflow to make it happen.

Orazio Fantasia Essendon Bombers AFL 2017

(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The other is Jack Lukosius, who Port said even before the 2018 draft occurred that they would be targetting in time if he landed at Gold Coast.

Lukosius is probably the only player I would advise them to have a serious crack at trading for this season – he’s only been in the system one year so is practically the same investment as a draftee, and is very much what they need.

Charlie Dixon missed most of the season through injury and will be 29 by the start of next year. Even if he recaptures his peak form, which is doubtful, it’s unlikely to be for more than, say, another two seasons.

Beyond him Todd Marshall is Port’s only other real key forward option – they need more, and with not many coming through the draft at this point, Lukosius should be a priority.

What kind of deal could they make to get him? Probably they would be looking at both their first-round pick this and year and next year, unless there’s a player of value on their list they can convince to take a move to the Suns.

Draft

Picks inside 30: 9, 27.

Assuming their picks remain where they lie currently, Port are in a really good position to do well out of this draft.

It’s widely acknowledged that the field is pretty open after the first two picks, and with pick 9 in hand, the Power are probably going to be able to get someone who could just as easily go at 3 or 4.

For mine, a young key forward ought to be their top priority – the problem for them is, there simply isn’t one in this draft you could justify picking this early.

The closest thing would be Josh Worrell, who can play both ends, but is probably more proven as a defender, which isn’t really an area where Port need players.

With that being the case I’d say their focus should instead be on continuing to add classy and skillful players to balance out what we’ve already noted is a overly grunty midfield.

They went some of the way towards this with their picks last year, but it’s worth continuing to invest in these traits. No one ever groaned and said “Ugh! My midfield is too classy and skillful.”

Dylan Stephens to me looks like a perfect fit. He is a hard-running wingman who’ll be able to move the ball for Port. Best of all, he’s a local boy, so there won’t be any go-home factor.

Brodie Kemp and Sam Flanders might also be worth a look at this pick, but personally, if Stephens is on the board for them, I wouldn’t think twice.

Dylan Stephens

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Port also have their first father-son option coming through in this draft, which will be exciting for the club. Jackson Mead, the son of Darren, is a midfielder/forward who made the under-18 All Australian team.

The good news for Port is that a bid on him is not likely to come until well after their first pick, probably around the pick 20 mark or so, meaning they can likely get him cheaply.

Beyond pick 27, Port have cleverly acquired four picks in the fourth round this offseason, giving them a bevy of points with which to match a Mead bid.

What I would look to do is swap pick 27 this year for a future selection next year so that is isn’t swallowed up by a Mead bid, then match the bid with that swag of later picks.

Port could then trade back into this draft live after the bid comes if there’s a player on the board who they want, or hold over the extra currency for the 2020 draft.

What I said last year

“When Ken Hinkley arrived at Port Adelaide the team enjoyed a classic new coach bounce and that, combined with the early promise of elite young draft talents Chad Wingard and Ollie Wines, convinced the club they were poised to strike at a flag.

“The moment they felt they were on a good wicket they went hard at bringing in mature players in pursuit of immediate success – but they botched it…

“What Port should’ve done instead after the early successes of Hinkley was double down on the potential of their most elite talents, Wines and Wingard, by continuing to invest in the draft and bring in quality players to strengthen that age group with an eye to when they would become the mature core of the team.”

Outlook

I went on a pretty lengthy rant about Port Adelaide in last year’s analysis, mostly because I’d been criticised – even made a meme of! (which I loved) – for saying their 2017 offseason was poor, and felt like their 2018 results vindicated my perspective there.

The short version of it is the same way I feel now – when they had an early peak under Hinkley in 2013 and 2014, this team was impatient to be successful, overrated where their list was at, and hit the throttle on the assumption they only need one or two more pieces to win a flag.

You can understand why Port would have felt that way after only barely losing a prelim to a side that went on to comfortably win the premiership, but more level-headed and prudent list management would have known the time was not yet right to push all the chips into the table.

Even then, the frustrating thing for Port is that much of their mature recruiting has seen them trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

They brought in Paddy Ryder to work in tandem with Matthew Lobbe, but instead he pushed him out of the side. Then they brought in Scott Lycett to work with Ryder, who is pushing him out of the side. Now they look set to have the same uneasy time combining Lycett and Peter Ladhams in 2020.

Tom Rockliff is another great example of a player who is not a poor recruit in isolation, but has only caused headaches at Port. He’s too similar to the likes of Ollie Wines and Brad Ebert, and trying to fit all three of them together in the side somehow has only stunted the development of Sam Powell-Pepper, to the point where they might lose one of their best young talents.

The decisions Port made last offseason, however, have put them back into what I feel is a good position. 12 months ago they had taken just two first-round picks in their last five drafts, now they’ve taken five from five and more importantly, nailed all of them.

Xavier Duursma

(Photo by Will Russell/AFL Photos/Getty Images)

That’s managed to salvage what was a dire looking situation for them, but they cannot make the same mistake now that they did then and assume that their 19-year-olds are ready to be the core of a premiership-winning team. That’s not the case, and you’d be mad to ever think it!

I’d love to see an alternative reality where Port say no to trade possibilities and instead have continued to hit the draft hard over the last five years. I think they would have an elite group of youth that’s on par with sides like Brisbane or the Western Bulldogs.

Instead, they have what I would say is probably an above-par group of young players. Not what it could’ve been, but certainly still enough to build the core of a very good team around, if they commit to doing that rather than chasing quick fixes.

24 and under on their list you have: Tom Clurey, Ollie Wines, Karl Amon, Dougal Howard, Darcy Byrnes-Jones, Ryan Burton, Riley Bonner, Dan Houston, Sam Powell-Pepper, Peter Ladhams, Todd Marshall, Connor Rozee, Xavier Duursma, Zak Butters. That’s a pretty good group, but still has a few pieces missing.

The issue is that five years of frustration has not made the impatient any less impatient. Making big trade moves only increases the expectations on a football club, and Port have fallen woefully short of the benchmarks their big spending set for them.

Ken Hinkley has been backed in for next year but has basically admitted he needs to make finals or he’ll lose his job. It would be understandable if he then seeks out list changes and selection decisions that prioritise success now rather than the future, but that’s not the direction the club should be going in.

What just might be Port’s saving grace is that their lack of cashflow puts them in a position where they can’t afford to go chase mature players, and may invest in the draft for the sheer reason of not having the resources to do anything but. A good result for the list, if it happens.

Beyond that though they need some kind of pressure release to allow real longterm growth to take place. Hinkley would hope that doesn’t wind up happening the form of his axing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case either next year or not long after.

My advice would be that there’s no need to make a splash this offseason. Definitely keep Sam Powell-Pepper, and do hopefully also keep Amon and Howard, unless a club is willing to offer something of real value for them. Take sneaky advantage of having a father-son in the draft. Keep tabs on Orazio Fantasia and Jack Lukosius.

Most importantly, be patient. Recognise the excellent talent of the players who joined the club by the draft this year, and prioritise building towards the time when they’ll hit their peaks, rather than trying to squeeze a flag out of the list now.

Port over the last five years have been great at drafting, not so great at trading. Play to your strengths!

Thanks to Stats Insider, the AFL Coaches Association, and Draftguru for providing data and tools to make the analysis in this article possible.