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How does Matisse Thybulle enhance the Sixers’ defense?

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What makes the rookie a good fit?

NCAA Basketball: Pac-12 Conference Tournament-USC vs Washington Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most popular criticisms of Robert Covington during his time with the Philadelphia 76ers was his seemingly underwhelming on-ball defense. His most ardent supporters lauded him as an elite defender (he is one), but a cursory glance saw too many breakdowns on the ball. Through the traditional lens of defense, there’s no way Covington could be elite, especially after his struggles against then-rookie (and 19-year-old) Jayson Tatum in the playoffs. In reality, though, the Sixers failed Covington, but his critics framed it as Covington failing the Sixers.

Covington was treated as an elite wing stopper because Philadelphia didn’t have anyone better to defend the opposition’s primary scorer each night. At his best, however, Covington is a defensive playmaker operating off the ball, causing chaos with his awareness, anticipation, and quick, strong hands. Covington is no longer a member of the Sixers, but if Jimmy Butler re-signs — and perhaps even if he doesn’t — the team is well equipped to maximize the talents of an off-ball roamer like Matisse Thybulle. To be clear, I’m not saying Thybulle is Covington. He’s not as tall (6-foot-5 vs. 6-foot-9), long (7-foot wingspan vs. 7-foot-2) or strong/physical (200 pounds vs. 225). And, well, he’s not an All-Defensive-caliber player at this stage. It’s just that he shares some similar skills as an off-ball wizard.

Neither Butler nor Ben Simmons were All-Defensive-caliber players during the regular season last year, but when the playoffs rolled around, both elevated their games, hounding All-Stars D’Angelo Russell and Kawhi Leonard. Sometime in the near future, during high-leverage moments, the Sixers can (hopefully) pin those two on the opponent’s best perimeter players while Thybulle excels off the ball, just as he did at Washington.

Sure, you could say “Ben Simmons was on the team with Covington for one season, why wouldn’t he defend the No. 1 option and let Covington play free safety?” As a counter, I’d note that even then, the best teams, those that project to stand between the Sixers and a potential NBA championship, almost always have multiple scoring threats who demand on-ball attention. Plus, Simmons was a rookie without the decorated defensive profile of Covington. It just didn’t make sense, and either way, you needed both when the matchups mattered most.

The Raptors have (had?) Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and Pascal Siakam. The Warriors have (had?) Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. The Bucks have (had? Wow, lots of star wings on the market this summer!) Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Two stalwart perimeter defenders is essentially a must-have these days.

On a night-to-night basis, it’s probably easy enough to overcome, but in the aggregate, you need the Butlers and the Bens of the world. Otherwise, an off-ball disruptor like Thybulle is forced out of his idealized role and his impact curbed. As I mentioned earlier, you saw that with Covington, who often defended beyond his depth because the Sixers’ personnel mandated it. Just imagine if he was deployed on last year’s post-trades roster. Against Toronto, when Kawhi periodically struggled as a playmaker, an off-ball savant with elite reaction times like Covington or Thybulle would have spurred waves of chaos while guarding standstill scorers/shooters. Kawhi’s slow decision-making and lack of top-flight passing were perfect for Covington to pounce upon (this is not me saying the Sixers would’ve beaten Toronto, I’m just trying to contextualize an example).

I’ve emphasized how Thybulle’s talents specifically mesh with Butler and Simmons — hiding him on lesser players and allowing him to roam — but he’s also a good on-ball defender, largely because of impressive recovery skills, sharp anticipatory decision-making, and serviceable lateral mobility. Most importantly, his defensive assignments don’t significantly overlap with Joel Embiid, Butler, or Simmons. He can guard 1s, 2s and some 3s, especially if he adds weight, given his 7-foot wingspan.

Thybulle’s versatility allows Brett Brown to mix and match based on the opposing personnel. Against the Blazers, Butler and Simmons could defend Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum while Thybulle hides on an offensively limited wing like Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner, or Al-Farouq Aminu, relying on his rare hand speed/accuracy to deter post-ups (trying to attack the size mismatch) and take advantage of their subpar ball-handling skills.

Against the Bucks, Embiid or Simmons guards Giannis and Butler tracks Middleton; Thybulle takes Eric Bledsoe or Malcolm Brogdon, keeps an eye on the action and utilizes his straight-line speed/7-foot wingspan to close out on potential 3-point attempts or eliminate passing outlets. For what it’s worth, Thybulle excelled at both of those traits in college, sniffing out passes and baiting ball-handlers into the play he wanted them to make. When the ball is in the air, he covers space with quickness and applicable length in a uniquely impactful way. Much like Kawhi, Giannis isn’t a cerebral facilitator (yet), so Thybulle could gamble off the ball to manipulate his playmaking deficit, aggressively digging on post-ups and stunting hard on drives (Thybulle’s pesky hands are useful in these situations).

The value of Thybulle’s defensive flexibility will prominently manifest itself down the road more than it will next season. He still needs to put on weight. Strong guards/wings like Bledsoe and Brogdon would overpower him on drives. Due to a lack of dynamic shooting, playing Butler, Simmons, and Thybulle together isn’t that tenable offensively, at least before Thybulle approaches his defensive peak (then, say hello to an 85.3 defensive rating and 99.4 offensive rating).

It’ll also be important for Thybulle to shake his nasty habit of passing up or hesitating on open 3s. At best, he’s going to be a neutral or slight positive offensively. Being a quick-trigger shooter on league-average efficiency is his best path. A passive shooter on league-average efficiency won’t cut it. Teams won’t respect that. They’ll sag off knowing there’s time to recover. He’s almost exclusively going to provide offensive value as a spot-up shooter (his ball-mover tendencies within the flow of the offense raises his floor as well, though). Let it fly, Matisse!

Thybulle won’t just be a proactive help defender hunting for steals and blocks by way of his quick hands, elite instincts, and uncanny ability to effortlessly contort his body. Because he’s hyper-alert with good closing speed, he can also be reactionary, cleaning up breakdowns in lineups headlined by lesser, non-Butler/Embiid/Simmons defenders. And with Embiid anchoring the backline, Thybulle should be encouraged to create events and turn teams over. Embiid can’t compensate for every mistake, but he’s arguably the best big man in the league equipped to do so inside the paint.

A lot of Thybulle’s optimization has been contingent on Butler re-signing, which is absolutely crucial to the franchise’s championship aspirations. However, if Butler walks, the Sixers still have Zhaire Smith, an elite defensive prospect and one that’s even better than Thybulle. At his peak, Smith can operate both on and off the ball as a potential four-position defender with outlier athleticism and smarts (he’s going to be really good, folks). Long-term, he and Simmons will act as the wing stoppers while Thybulle continues to do his thing off the ball, getting a hand on nearly every pass and shot; as an ode to Covington, he’ll be a deflections/stocks king.

The Sixers have the perimeter defenders to magnify Thybulle’s defensive strengths and an elite rim protector whose presence can embolden him to be daring. There are justified concerns about how he fits into the team’s offense as a guy currently without significant shooting gravity. But too often, defensive fit is overlooked. Defense becomes binary. It’s treated as a simplistic either/or scenario. Guys can defend — or they can’t. Good defenders are thought to complement poor ones. That’s true, but far too reductive. It’s not usually that easy to explain. Based off this team’s playoff identity last season — a gigantic, long-limbed, terrorizing defensive unit — Thybulle makes a ton of sense, particularly when one factors in just exactly how he thrives on defense. The Sixers may have been forced to overpay for Matisse Thybulle by telegraphing their preference of him at 24th overall. That doesn’t take away from the player he is and just how well he works in concordance with the defensive talent of Philadelphia’s stars.