Thanksgiving has a pretty set series of F's for most Americans -- feasting, family and football. Jahlil Okafor evidently saw fit to bring an addition to the table, with his fight in Boston putting basketball in the headlines on a typically dormant day.
The response from most of the masses has centered around, what else, the Sixers rebuild and its effect on Okafor and his teammates. This isn't new territory, but it's certainly a different and more unique situation in which the repercussions of the roster makeup have to be considered.
Rather than dismissing the value of veteran presence -- which I think happens too often in Sixers circles, even if I think it's an overstated concept -- let's have an open conversation on some specifics, and what it actually means to be a leader.
First things first: juxtaposing Okafor's outburst off the court with the team's losing ways, passively suggesting there is a direct correlation between the two, seems a little rushed from where I sit. It's certainly possible, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Going off TMZ's report, Okafor allegedly got involved after a bystander got aggressive and physical with a teammate (or because someone yelled "The 76ers suck"). I know what it's like to be a drunk 19-year-old dude, or a college-ish age person generally. That someone would challenge behemoth NBA players isn't as shocking as it seems on its face; kids generally believe they are invincible, and that principle goes doubly when alcohol enters the picture. This applies both to someone with the gall to challenge enormous pro athletes and to public figures lacking awareness of how scrutinized every one of their actions are.
Don't confuse understanding this with condoning what happened -- Okafor is 300 percent in the wrong here. He is a handsomely-paid public figure, and needs to know he'll encounter hordes of people who want nothing more than to bring him down to their level. Let's just say that from a surface perspective, the dynamics here aren't unique to the Sixers situation.
It feels as though the incident has been used to re-raise a common criticism rather than bring any sort of new contribution to the table. Could a few extra adults in the room help steer the kids away from these sort of events? Theoretically, sure. But I'm a little uncomfortable with suggesting that peers masquerading as chaperones would be the guiding light that stops a drunk kid from getting into a dust-up outside a nightclub.
The Sixers have been firmly and repeatedly compared to other teams with high picks over the last few drafts in terms of who they have to help or push their young guys. Collective fawning over the Minnesota trio of Kevin Garnett-Tayshaun Prince-Andre Miller is the most frequent example, but they're far from the only group being propped up. Some national writers have gone so far as to suggest D'Angelo Russell benefits from the presence of Kobe Bryant, in LA, or that Kristaps Porzingis is the beneficiary of old, wise sage Carmelo Anthony in New York.
Let's start with the former. Suggesting Russell is currently benefiting from Kobe's presence looks totally ridiculous at the moment. The Lakers are an absolute garbage barge, and Russell has consistently gotten the shaft as a result of Kobe's shot-jacking and Byron Scott's horrific coaching.
Look at this and tell me that Kobe is helping Russell out (or helping Jordan Clarkson out, for that matter):
Of course, Okafor's incident invokes concerns about what happens away from the court, and I would imagine that Bryant and guys like Anthony have valuable advice to give on that front. You don't last in the league for a long time, particularly not at an elite level, without dedicating yourself to the craft.
But how soon we forget that a young Anthony was chastised for his appearance in a Stop Snitchin' DVD, or that Bryant's legal trouble generated one of the biggest NBA storylines of the mid-2000s, despite both players being flanked by plenty of veterans during their formative years. Funny enough, Anthony's rookie season came alongside the exact same Andre Miller being pointed to as a steadying presence in Minnesota (who was already 27 and firmly in his prime at the time). Young men are not great decision makers, period.
My primary issue with the heavy-handed, "Need to bring in veterans!" talk is that it's applied selectively as it suits the argument that people have pushed for the last few years. The team has had guys here who could provide leadership and mentoring by virtue of being older and more experienced. Admittedly, there are less candidates this year than last year's unit that boasted Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Jason Richardson, but it seems Carl Landry is being dismissed too easily in terms of this specific incident.
Yes, Landry is unable to have any sort of on-court impact at the moment, but dismissing what he can contribute in totality is ridiculous. He is perfectly capable of sharing tricks of the trade with the young guys on the team, and perhaps more capable, given the natural talent he's had to work with versus the other names being pointed to as pillars of leadership.
The Anthonys and Bryants of the world don't have to worry about pristine off-court behavior or doing things perfectly because of the slack they're afforded by their natural gifts. Landry, on the other hand, climbed from playing JV as a high school sophomore to a junior college product and second-round selection who etched out an eight-year, six-team career. That sounds like the profile of a man who probably has a lot of wisdom to share about staying power, given that a misstep in his early years could have easily meant the end of his career.
Guys like Bryant and Michael Jordan carved their names into history because they were competitive maniacs and freak athletes who told their teammates to follow them or get the fuck out of the way. Each is more infamous for crushing the souls of young teammates -- aging veteran Jordan was said to have "ritually reduced Kwame Brown to tears in front of the team" during his Wizard tenure -- than they are for guiding the type of players we're concerned with here. The truth of the matter is that health, on-court context, natural tools, and drive to improve will probably have the most impact on a player's long-term trajectory.
Being a great player or even just an older player does not mean you are a great leader, even if we like to call every successful player one. We readily point out the need to separate skill sets when speaking on ex-players failing in management and coaching roles, but are often unable to apply the same logic to leadership during their playing careers.
It's no different in other sports or walks of life. You can slap the "C" on a hockey player's jersey because he's your most experienced player, but that doesn't make him a leader in anything more than name. Schools of all qualities and styles produce productive, sometimes exceptional citizens despite differing wildly from one another in delivery of message. It's worth noting that this franchise's analogue to Garnett's return to Minny would be bringing back Allen Iverson (again), whose last reunion tour with the Sixers was cut short because he was unable to accept the role that his diminished skills afforded him.
Making the leap from "teenager makes poor decision" to "it's the fault of the rebuild" is dangerous. Yes, it would no doubt be helpful to have experienced voices on-hand outside of the Sixers coaching staff. Frustration boiling over may very well have contributed to Okafor jumping into a nightclub fracas, and there's a middle ground to be found between the super-young roster and the NBA retirement home some would suggest the Sixers run to help these guys.
But when you start ascribing traits to people based on little more than age, and do it inconsistently to bolster your case, it shows a hollowness in what you claim to believe in the first place. Okafor and his teammates have some growing up to do, and as with most young people, time will be the biggest factor in self-improvement.