Philadelphia 76ers: Veteran Help Wanted?

Sam Hinkie and the Philadelphia 76ers have largely ignored the conventional wisdom that sprinkling in veterans might help further a rebuild. Is that the right approach?

Jahlil Okafor was reportedly involved in an altercation outside of a bar in Boston | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Jahlil Okafor was reportedly involved in an altercation outside of a bar in Boston | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

After the Philadelphia 76ers lost to the Boston Celtics, the 4th game in their last 6 where they’ve held a 4th quarter lead but still came up empty in the win column, Sixers rookie Jahlil Okafor was involved in an altercation outside of a bar in Boston, according to TMZ Sports.

(Note: violence and hard language occur in the linked video. If you are uncomfortable with that, please don’t watch it).

TMZ spoke with a representative of Okafor’s who said that somebody got physical with a fellow Sixers player, and Okafor responded by protecting his teammate.

Later that afternoon, the Sixers sent out a brief statement about the incident.

“We are aware of the report and we are currently working to gather additional information. Until that time, we will have no further comment.”

As of now, Boston police say that no investigation is planned, according to ESPN.

We’ll likely learn more about what led up to the incident in the coming days and weeks, but it’s not a good look for the Sixers 19 year old rookie, and one that could very well end up with the league, or team, handing down a suspension.

While the video itself is bad, Sixers fans are now left in wait-and-see mode, as there’s not a whole lot to analyze. Instead, it’s been the reaction to the video that is interesting to look at.

The Sixers’ rebuilding plan is so polarizing, and challenges conventional wisdom at so many turns, that people who oppose what they are doing are likely to use incidents like this as proof of an oversight which threatens to derail the rebuild. There’s then frequently an equal, but opposite, reaction by those who support the plan to denounce the value of what the opponents are stating.

When the Okafor news broke, many connected the logical dots: the unprecedented losing that the Sixers were going through was getting to Okafor, a veteran mentor could help his transition to the NBA, and all of this could have been avoided.

And perhaps the pressure from the mounting losses did contribute to Okafor losing his cool that night. Maybe a veteran could help him better cope with handling the pressure of publicity and fame that goes along with being an athlete.

But mistakes by 19 year old athletes aren’t exactly new. Young, and even old, athletes have gotten into altercations in the past, almost irrespective of their situation, of the construction of the team, and of the success of the team. The thought of, say, Kevin Garnett at a club with Okafor and actively whispering into his ear the exact words to prevent a situation from escalating is somewhat out there.

While it’s possible a veteran mentor could have prevented what happened Wednesday night from happening, it’s also just as, if not more, likely that this is a mistake that young kids make with alarming regularity, and some are instead just connecting the dots they want to connect in order to fit a viewpoint they’ve always believed. Confirmation bias abounds when discussing what the Sixers are doing.

But the thought that the team, and Okafor specifically, could use more veterans, while perhaps being liberally applied to the cause of this instance, is still one worth inspecting.

It’s a concept that seems very intuitive. Young men and women in virtually every profession stand to gain valuable insight into what it takes to perform their jobs at a high level from people who have already experienced what they’re about to experience. From computer programming, to accounting, and, most definitely, to professional sports, mentors who can turn their own experiences into feedback for willing apprentices can be invaluable.

Yet the Sixers have almost completely abandoned such a system. Heading into the season, newcomer Carl Landry, who is working his way back from a wrist injury and is still at least a month away from making his first appearance with the team, came into the season as the only player with more than three years of NBA experience.

To put that in another perspective, if every player on the Sixers were first round draft picks, 15 out of 16 would still be on their rookie contracts.

The reasoning behind this is that the Sixers have used the end of the bench as essentially an open tryout for young players who may have otherwise not gotten a shot in the NBA. The method has been used to uncover hidden gems such as Robert Covington, a young player who was able to use the opportunity given to him by the Sixers to prove his worth in the NBA, and who the Sixers were able to get on a cheap, long-term deal because of it.

But in order to find guys like Robert Covington, you have to cycle through a lot of fringe NBA talent. Covington’s success story likely doesn’t happen without guys like Elliot Williams, Jarvis Varnado, James Anderson, Drew Gordon, and Malcolm Thomas coming first. No front office is going to be able to find hidden gems like Covington with a high degree of accuracy, so the Sixers overcome that by the sheer volume of tryouts they’re willing to provide.

The other main theory behind the lack of veteran presence on the team over the last three years is that veterans who have established their value in the NBA are less likely to accept the volume of losing that the Sixers are going through. Whereas young players can be kept in line with little more than the carrot of playing meaningful NBA minutes and be appreciative of the chance to prove they belong, many veterans require more than that.

“That would be about the only positive [to inexperience] that I can think of,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown quipped at practice earlier this month. “[But] that is a big one.”

But while not every veteran may accept being on a team that is losing at the volume the Sixers are, that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. Luc Mbah a Moute, for example, was clearly a positive member of the Sixers’ clubhouse last year, as was Jason Richardson, especially towards the end of the season when he began participating in practices and games and wasn’t just an old(er) man standing in the corner on an elliptical machine.

Some will argue that the coaching staff replaces much of the need for veteran presence. Certainly guys like Brett Brown, who grew up around basketball as the son of a coach, or Sean Rooks, a 12 year NBA veteran, have a wealth of knowledge that they can pass down to young players. But coaches are still authority figures, and having a peer — a guy in the trenches with you, who is running the same wind sprints you are, who can provide the same message as the coaches but from a different perspective — has the ability to prevent the a coaches message from falling on deaf ears.

Add in nuances that only experience can provide, such as how to train in-season, how to deal with travel, how to mentally prepare on the second half of back to backs, how to handle media attention, and so much more, and I think it’s clear that there is wisdom to be gained from having lived the life of an NBA player.

This is a rebuild that, we’ve all acknowledged, is almost universally tied to their ability to identify, and develop, elite talent at the top of the roster. For as much as finding the next Robert Covington has value, finding the next Anthony Davis is their true goal. And, ultimately, a supremely talented player might reach those heights even without the benefit of a mentor there to guide him.

And there is no veteran presence that can prevent each and every mistake. Even with Mbah a Moute on the roster, the Sixers, as Brett Brown acknowledged, struggled at times with Joel Embiid last season. And none of this is to suggest that having an elder statesman would have prevented Wednesday’s event from occurring.

But the existence of problems, even with veterans on the roster, doesn’t mean the presence of veterans has no value. It’s that difficulty in quantifying the exact value of veteran leadership which makes some so quick to dismiss it, but something being difficult to quantify doesn’t mean the value isn’t there.

That’s not to say finding those guys are easy. Not everybody is willing to go through what the Sixers are going through, and not every veteran is willing, or capable, of being a leader and transferring that wisdom in a meaningful way. Bringing in the wrong veterans could be detrimental as well. But for a team that has placed such a priority on turning talented young kids into elite NBA players, and for a team that has stated a desire to play the margins to find any competitive edge they can, it’s surprising that more of an attempt hasn’t been made.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s new Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.