Philadelphia 76ers: Matisse Thybulle is making defense fun again

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

When the 2020-21 NBA season opened up, Matisse Tybulle looked like the Philadelphia 76ers‘ odd-man-out.

Call it an unfortunate byproduct of being a holdover from a previous administration – though, I feel like we sometimes forget that technically Elton Brand is not only still employed by the Sixers but is still their general manager – but Thybulle’s defense-first style of play with a shake-y offensive game rapidly looked like a misfit in Doc Rivers‘ new-look offensive scheme.

Sure, Thybullle did spend much of the preseason nursing an injury, which limited the amount of time he could spend on the court with his teammates learning said scheme, but when a former rotation player only recorded a single point in 24 minutes of preseason action as a deep bench reserve, it left far more questions than answers.

In theory, the idea made some sense.

Even during his exemplary rookie season, Thybulle showed an unwillingness to shoot the ball when open – only putting up more than four threes in a game five times versus 65 appearances – and could rapidly devolve into a one-way, defense-only player on a team that already had a non-shooter in their starting lineup at point guard.

While Thybulle 100 percent was still a lock to make the roster – as you don’t outright release a first-round pick a year into his contract even if they are Anthony Bennett bad – some wondered if he’d ever be more than a spot-performer occasionally subbed in for an offense-defense swap or worse.

Could Thybulle be… traded?

Well, in a way, he almost was, as Thybulle was by all accounts to be packaged with Ben Simmons in Daryl Morey‘s doomed trade bid for James Harden. Things progressed so far that the team even informed Thybulle’s reps that he was potentially on the move, before the Rokctes ultimately opted to accept an incredibly risky package from the Brooklyn Nets that could ultimately define the two franchises for the next decade.

Do the Sixers regret not getting things down with Houston? I’m genuinely not sure, but I can say without a doubt that if Thybulle keeps playing at this level moving forward, it’ll ease any ill feelings in no time.

Matisse Thybulle is a defensive gamechanger for the Philadelphia 76ers.

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Since that non-trade two weeks ago, Matisse Thybulle has been one of the Philadelphia 76ers’ most impactful players.

Is that a pretty bold statement for a player averaging 6.5 points and 1.5 rebounds a game? Sure, but as they say, what Thybulle brings to the table doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet.

Already one of the best defensive shooting guards in the NBA at the tender age of 23, Thybulle has a pension for locking up opposing players 1-3 on the defensive end off the court. He has an innate ability to block a would-be shot just after the moment of release and gets visible joy out of snatching a rock right from the hands of a negligent ball-handler, with the ability to slam it down for two when given a chance to run it coast-to-coast.

It doesn’t matter if Thybulle is deployed on a smaller point guard like Kemba Walker or guarding up a position against a 6-foot-8 small forward; the former Washington Huskie hasn’t found a matchup he doesn’t like and has remained committed on the defensive end of the court even when he’s struggling with containment a la Jayson Tatum in the Bubble.

And in the first part of a Wednesday Night Double-Header on ESPN, Thybulle’s defensive veracity was on full display when he took LeBron James to task in front of a national audience.

Now again, if you just look at the stat sheet, that sounds like a foolish statement. Thybulle finished out the game with a single point and a +/- of +1 – albeit with an incredible three steals – whereas James finished ou the game as the high-an on the night with 34 points, six rebounds, and six assists, but those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

No, Thybulle kept with the 16-time All Star like no other player the Sixers could throw at him – not even Ben Simmons – and even intercepted a pass in the waning moments of the third quarter that ultimately proved fruitless but still generated a pretty impressive pop from the virtual crowd.

In the 15 minutes Thybulle was on the court, King James was limited to 11 total points – five of which came via free throws – and had to fight up and down the court without so much a second to rest and recalibrate. While that isn’t, like a generational defensive performance, it’s certainly getting the second-year guard noticed by his peers and coaching staff, as Doc Rivers indicated in his post-game media appearances (via Sixerswire).

“That’s what Matisse does,” said coach Doc Rivers. “We told him, ‘You’re a seven-footer, all the way until it gets to about the 3-point line, and then with LeBron, you get really small. So you just be aggressive.’ I thought he did that.”

Huh, I thought Rivers wasn’t a fan of Thybulle, and he was obviously the odd-man-out in his rotation? Well, if that ever was the case, it certainly isn’t now, as Thybulle recorded the seventh-most minutes of any Sixers player versus the Lakers and heald his own for every second of it.

dark. Next. Turns out Tobias Harris just needs to Trust the Process

When news broke that Matisse Thybulle was potentially headed to Houston on a one-way ticket, very few fans were particularly upset about losing the second-year University of Washington product. ‘He was a one-way guard, his shot is busted, and he will never become more than a roleplayer on a really good team.’ Could all of those assertions be true?  Most definitely, but after watching Thybulle go toe-to-toe with LeBron James on national television and come out on the right side of a few highlight-reel plays, maybe that trade chatter was just what the 23-year-old needed to step his game up a level and become the league’s preeminent pick-pocketing pest? That’s certainly a solid consolation prize for a team that’s “Championship or Bust.