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Naming Matisse: In Which We Bestow A Proper Moniker On Our Young Hero, Matisse Thybulle

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NBA: Utah Jazz at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

At the start of the season I wrote a piece in which I made some crazy claims about how good Matisse would likely be defensively. He has exceeded even my over-the-top expectations. Consider:

  • The best system we have right now for ranking players is 538’s RAPTOR, which is based on adjusted-plus-minus which it then supplements with data on how well players created poor shooting percentage from those they guarded. According to RAPTOR, as of this writing, the best defender in the entire NBA on a per-minute basis is... Matisse Thybulle. That is absolutely astonishing performance for a rookie. RAPTOR calculations say Matisse is adding 5.7 points per 100 possessions at the defensive end. That’s ahead of Kawhi and Jimmy Butler, the two elite wings in the top 10, it’s ahead of Rudy Gobert, the top center, and it’s... well, it’s ahead of everybody. There is volatility in those numbers and no doubt he’ll fall out of the top spot at times, but it would be extraordinary for a rookie to be top 30 in defense come season’s end, let alone anywhere near #1.
  • As I have noted for years, I believe the best single way to measure player performance is with adjusted plus-minus. Since adjusted plus-minus stats, like all stats, are subject to random variation, I am open to methods for trying to squeeze out some of that randomness. Of such methods the easiest to obtain in recent years has been ESPN’s RPM. As of this writing RPM is not yet available for 2019-20, and moreover 538’s newly-released RAPTOR has a) greater transparency, b) an easier-to-use and more blind-accessible website and c) what I suspect to be a superior methodology. Plus as I say the RAPTOR numbers are out there now and the RPM aren’t! When RPM shows up I will reference it for continuity with my past writing, but expect to see more and more weight on RAPTOR over time. For those who don’t like adjusted plus-minus stats, well, you should keep reading about adjusted plus-minus until you properly understand the approach, because basically every criticism I have seen of them is either trivial, more true of other methods than of APM, or wrong. A good primer is buried inside this long-but-in-my-opinion-entertaining piece by, um, me. Anyway, the best method that doesn’t use actual in-season +/- data is probably Box-Plus-Minus or BPM, since past +/- info was employed in its design. And, guess what, Matisse dominates in that too! He’s at +3.7 defensively, which is absolutely exceptional. Sometime soon I’ll do a deep dive on just how good Matisse’s defense is. On the offensive end, his stats so far are mixed, as his terrific three-point shooting (44% on good volume) has been counteracted by a very high turnover rate and other weaknesses. But almost all those turnovers occurred in the first 10 games or so; Matisse’s offensive trend line points way up.

The upshot of all this is: Matisse is going to spend the next decade somewhere in the range between Covington-style unheralded star and Kawhi-style megastar. Probably much closer to the former than the latter, but you never know! Point is, if he’s anyplace on that spectrum I’m going to be writing about him an enormous amount. And if I do that, I’m going to become awfully tired of typing the words “Matisse” and “Thybulle.” We need nicknames! We are blessed, as rarely in sports history has a more nicknameable player come around. First: Matisse — the name of an all-time great artist, with two excellent syllables to play with and a great overall sound. Then, Thybulle! Unusual but easy to say (unless you’re Hubie Brown), and two more great syllables, including Bulle, a competitor for best syllable ever! Then, his broad smile and charming demeanor. And finally, his standout play, literally at all-time-great levels in certain specific areas, such as steals and blocks-for-a-guard. So many ways to go! I listed a few of these in my earlier Thybulle post, but we have plenty of new ideas, many via the fertile minds of my brilliant brother and other extraordinary friends. I may also have stolen some from commenters here at LB; if so, my apologies!

Before I list them, let’s note that there are three quite distinct uses for a nickname:

  1. For the player’s friends and teammates to call him
  2. For sportswriters and headline writers to use in writing about him
  3. For fans to use in discussing him and exulting in his successes

So, the nickname “The Sultan of Swat” for George Herman Ruth was excellent for sportswriters, lousy for fans (it’s hard to imagine yelling “Sultan of Swaaaaat!!!” after a dinger), and useless for his friends. Of course he was also known as “Babe,” which was great on all three dimensions. Honus “The Bonus” Wagner was another easy-to-use early-baseball classic. Earvin Johnson’s friends apparently called him “Buck” in his youth, which is a great name, fans and writers called him “Magic,” which is among the best nicknames ever, so good that I suspect his friends now also use it. I doubt any teammate at a bar ever said to Charles Barkley, “Round Mound of Rebound, can I get you a beer?” That nickname was pure sportswriter. But Sir Charles was great for writers and fans alike.

The best nicknames usually serve all three purposes,. Great ones often have variants that can be used in different circumstances. E.g. “Dr. J, The Doctor, Doc, etc.).

Some of the best-ever Philly-sports nicknames are:

  • Dr. J — the best Philly nickname ever, and one of the best sports nicknames ever, period!
  • Jaws
  • Lefty
  • Hammer
  • Smokin’ Joe

That’s one from each sport, including boxing since Philly has such great history there; if I had to choose one more from each I’d suggest

  • Sir Charles
  • Shady
  • Nails
  • Hound Dog
  • The Executioner

For any very young readers, please note the players above are, in order, Julius Erving, Ron Jaworski, Robert Moses Grove and Steve Carlton — yes, the two best pitchers in Philadelphia history had the same nickname! — Dave Schultz, Joe Frazier, Charles Barkley, LeSean McCoy, Lenny Dykstra, Bob Kelly, and Bernard Hopkins.

You can see my preference for multi-use nicknames above; I don’t deny the excellence of such names as “Concrete Charlie” for Chuck Bednarik, but I just don’t find them as useful as e.g. Jaws. Speaking of Charlie, “Charlie Hustle” is a potential exception because it’s just so superb, but I count Pete Rose as fundamentally a Cincinnati player despite his wondrous 1980 run. Also: funniest Philly sports nickname ever goes to former Phillies pitcher Hugh Mulcahy who was known as Hugh “Losing Pitcher” Mulcahy.

Two Philly-great names that are highly relevant to the discussion are: The Minister of Defense (Reggie White) and The Secretary of Defense (Garry Maddox).

If someone can think of a third variant on this theme for Matisse, I’m interested, as that would mean each of the Big Three sports (sorry, hockey people) would have a Philly great working this angle. Rogers Hornsby was known as The Maharaja of Swat, can Matisse be The Maharaja of Defense? No? The Artist of Defense? Still no?! The Art of Self-Defense? Um, I’ll see myself out....

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the Sixers absolutely dominate the Philly-sports nickname discussion. I glanced at a list of the 75 greatest sports nicknames ever (national, not just Philly), and it had not only Dr. J and Sir Charles but also The Answer and Chocolate Thunder. To say nothing of the incredible nickname “The Process”! Dr. J can’t be beat, but the others are all viable competitors for second place among Sixer monikers. Reggie and Chuck were the only Eagles on the top-75 list, and Philly baseball and hockey went unrepresented.

With all that as backdrop, some ideas for Matisse Thybulle. Frankly Matisse is such a great and unique name that we’ll probably just call him Matisse more often than not, but I’m serious when I say that he is going to be a special player, and he deserves a special name over and above the one his mother gave him.

Category 1: Matisse-based names

  • The Artist
  • Artiste
  • Matty Ice, except Matt Ryan has it
  • Ice, except George Gervin...
  • Tisse (pronounced “teece”) Masterpiece

Category 2: Thybulle-based names

  • The Bull or The Bulle
  • Young Bull or Young Bulle
  • Thumball or Thumbull (thanks Hubie!)
  • Bully or The Bully

Category 3: Names based on his defensive play

  • Cooler or The Cooler for his ability to shut down a hot player or team
  • Ice, as in cooler
  • Plastic Man, except Stacy Augmon had it, or Spider-Man, except Donovan Mitchell has it... other stretchy superheros?
  • Thief
  • The Cat, except it sounds like KAT, so maybe Panther or Jaguar or something

Category 4: Nicknames that reference multiple categories MaThief the Bully (apparently his teammates came up with this one — great work, guys; references first name, last name, and steals!)

  • Matador — obviously this won’t fly since “matador defense” is bad, but it’s a shame — “matador” is spanish for “killer”; “Matador” references both his first name, -Mat-, and his last name, since Matadors fight bulls. Oh, well!
  • My favorite idea, to be revealed below!

OK, enough for now, though please add your own in comments. I don’t have anything good based on his demeanor. The Smiling Assassin?

It’s a tough decision, and I plan to handle it by... using a lot of these! But then again, as Geddy Lee of Rush sang, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”! So many of these have something to offer but fall short of perfection. Bully/Bulle/Bully have a great sound and feel, but don’t really fit the way he looks and plays. Artist and Artiste are OK sportswriter names but don’t pass the “will I yell it out when he steals and slams” test for me. I mean, Artiste passes it a little, I’ve been known to yell “Artiste!” at a key moment. But it feels too fancy; same with Tisse, which I also sometimes cry out.

And sort of the same with Masterpiece; I love the way it double-references his name, the similar sound and the art thing, and if he gets good enough I think Masterpiece has a shot to catch on. But for now it doesn’t feel quite right to me. We will definitely use Thumball for humorous effect from time to time, but it’ll be an ancillary nickname, not core.

And so I present to you my choice, combining the best of several concepts:

Matisse “Icepick” Thybulle

Will we call him “Ice” for short sometimes? Sure we will, and that’s OK; “Ice” Gervin was short for Iceman, or maybe Iceman was long for Ice! and Ice Thybulle is short for Icepick.

Ice because he’s the cooler, and because of the second half of his first name, and because of his calm, cool way of carrying himself.

Pick because he picks so many passes and dribbles, and because he slips over picks.

Icepick because he’s slender and because he’s a quiet but deadly weapon, and because he’s skilled at icing the pick-and-roll.

It rolls off the tongue. It’s fresh; I can’t think of any player in any sport who was known as “Icepick”. It suits him. You can scream it at the TV and it will feel good. His friends can call him “Ice” or “Pick” or “Icepick” and they’ll all seem like reasonable nicknames. Sportswriters will love it — “Matisse Ices Game,” “Icepick Picks Off Kemba To Seal Win,” you get the idea.

If you don’t love this, I bet it’s because you’re still stuck on the Gervin thing, but you shouldn’t be, if you’re like me you are falling prone to a cognitive bias. For people my age, Matisse, George Gervin, and Steve Carlton all seem like real, three-dimensional, relatively-recent players, while Lefty Grove is an ancient daguerreotype. So it feels like Grove and Carlton having the same nickname is OK due to the enormous time gap, while Gervin and Thybulle are too close to have even somewhat-similar names. But this is wrong, the classic “timeline twins” error of not realizing that the time between now and the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” is longer than the time between “Nevermind” and “Meet the Beatles.” The gap in age between Matisse and Gervin is larger than that between Carlton and Grove. Gervin and Matisse are 45 years apart in age, two full generations. We had Iceman in the 1970s. A half century later, we can have Icepick in the 2020s. George Gervin and his legend will survive just fine.

I declare Matisse Thybulle is the Icepick. Who’s with me?!