Matisse Thybulle Is the Key to Everything
Inspector Gadget with a reliable corner three?
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Matisse Thybulle is the reason I'm starting to believe the Sixers can actually win a championship this year.
That's part exaggeration (he's certainly not the only reason, and in reality probably not the main reason), and that's part metaphor (the recent transformation in the team's DNA that Matisse Thybulle's improved play represents is perhaps the biggest thing of all). But it's also in large part the way I feel, straight up: When Matisse Thybulle is playing as well as he has been since the All-Star break, there's not much that the Sixers aren't capable of. He allows them to become who they are.
It's a wild thing to say about a player that a lot of fans were putting into fake trades for borderline difference-makers as recently as the first half of this regular season. At that point, Matisse was a marginal prospect, a guy who could thrive in specific circumstances, but wasn't a proven NBA contributor, let alone a likely NBA star. He was miserable for most of the Celtics series, he was out of the rotation for much of the opening months (partly as he was catching up to speed with Doc & Co. after missing most of training camp), he was an uncertain part of the Sixers' future plans as folks started prognosticating about what this year's trade season might bring. But as the trade deadline approaches this Thursday, it's tough to imagine Matisse being included in any deal that isn't for an All-Star-caliber player. And maybe not even for one of those.
That statement can be kinda hard to justify, since even as these past two weeks have been close to Matisse Thybulle's hottest two weeks as an NBA pro, he's still available on over 95% of ESPN league waiver wires right now. The numbers in the seven games post-All-Star Break: 6.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.4 APG, 2.1 SPG, 1.3 BPG. He went totally scoreless against Milwaukee, and he hasn't attempted a free throw since March 1. But the shooting percentages are exceptional -- 57.6% from the field, 52.6% from three (10-19 total, after going 17-63 for the season to that point) -- and he's only turned over the ball twice in those seven games. And the most important numbers of all are the Sixers' wins and losses in those seven games: They've gone 6-1, despite playing three of those games without Ben Simmons and six without Joel Embiid.
It's my opinion that the main reason the team has had such success recently, even in games lacking one or both of their two stars, is because a) Tobias Harris is playing at a level that allows him to provide a reasonable facsimile (against most teams) of Joel Embiid's production on offense, and b) Matisse Thybulle is playing at a level that allows him to provide a reasonable facsimile (against most teams) of Ben Simmons' production on defense. Matisse may not have the size to provide Simmons' world-swallowing 1-through-5 switchability, but he's at the point of being equally devastating on backcourt assignments -- and with his combination of anticipation, length and springiness, he can be nearly as effective simply denying bigger opponents the ball in their comfort zones, or swiping it away from them once they get it. Adding his supernatural playmaking activity on D has been the single biggest difference-maker in the Sixers elevating from a very-good-to-great defensive team to an elite-to-historic defensive team -- which is what they've been since the break, holding opponents to 99.4 points per 100 possessions (s/o John Schumann) at a time when the Lakers' 106.0 Defensive Rating on the season is far and away the league's best.
The fact is that the statistical margin between Matisse being on the fringes of the rotation and Matisse being an essential part of the team's core is almost comically thin. I asked on Twitter the other day if the difference between Matisse being unplayable and untradeable might be a mere two made field goals a game, and friend of the Ricky Sean O'Connor replied that it might be as simple as the difference between him going 1-3 from beyond and going 1-4 from beyond. Really, it might just be the "1" in the made column, regardless of attempts -- that's all it takes to ensure that Matisse needs to be taken some degree of seriously in his floor-stretching, which means he can be a functional member of the team's offense, which means the Sixers can access his Now You See Me-implausible sleight of hand on D for 20-30 minutes a night. One three might not sound like a lot, but it's something Matisse managed in only 14 of his first 33 games this season, before doing so in five of his last seven.
That's the really good news about this stretch for Matisse: He doesn't even have to stay this hot. He won't shoot 52.7% from three forever -- in all likelihood not even for another week -- but he can comfortably shoot 10%, 15%, maybe even 20% lower than that on average and still be valuable enough on defense to be a key member of the rotation. A Matisse who hits a third of his threes, moves the ball, attacks when driving lanes are available, gets the funk out in transition off turnovers -- and causes more of those than he gives up -- is a thoroughly acceptable Matisse, even if he contributes nothing absolutely else on offense. As long as he's not actively being a minus, he's a plus.
And what he adds to the Sixers could make all the difference. It's pretty impossible to imagine the Sixers as currently constituted matching up against the Nets in a playoff series for six or seven games without needing his defense -- in rather large quantity -- to help contend with combined 80 minutes of Kyrie Irving and James Harden, particularly as Ben likely finds himself occupied with Kevin Durant for much of the time. Same with Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton on Milwaukee as Ben helps tend to Giannis. If we want to mostly be able to keep Joel doing what he does best around the basket, and we don't want to give Danny Green too challenging a one-on-one matchup responsibility (if he's even still around after the trade deadline), Matisse is the player who allows us to not get totally buried under an avalanche of mismatches.
But it's more than just a who-guards-who issue with Matisse: The real thing he brings to this team is identity. I’ve brought this up before, but when I think of Matisse, I always think of the MLK Day game without Embiid in Brooklyn last year, when the Sixers hadn't beaten a half-decent team on the road in a month and were trailing by double digits late in the third. Then Ben and Matisse locked in on defense, scrambled all over both ends of the court, and applied so much pressure to the Nets' ball-handlers that it felt like they were trying to score against a Sixers power play the rest of the game. They combined for five steals in the fourth alone as the Sixers grabbed the lead and the victory. They didn't even have Joel for backup in that stretch, and it still felt like their defense was close to impenetrable. I've believed since that game that no matter what our offense looked like, the championship-caliber version of the Sixers would begin with our defense looking like that on a regular basis -- as it has the past few weeks. And then as now, getting there has meant Matisse, and lots of him.
I don't know for sure that this team can, as constructed, win a championship without a big move at the trade deadline. As much as I like what I've seen out of all of them this season, when the games matter most, I don't know if Joel will be healthy enough, if Ben will be productive enough, if Tobias will be reliable enough, if the bench will be disciplined enough. I don't know that this team will be able to face down rosters with more seasoned, accomplished playoff performers and be the better-executing, steelier-balled squad. But I can see it now. I can see the version of this team that is that talented, that methodical, that fearsome, that in control of who they are and what they want to do. That's the team I've seen since the All-Star break -- and if Matisse can survive the trade deadline and continue to hit enough shots to stay on the court, that's the team I finally believe we have a pretty good shot of seeing in June.