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Dissecting Matisse Thybulle’s Defensive Player of the Year candidacy

Just for fun.

Golden State Warriors v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

Let’s get this out of the way first. Matisse Thybulle is not going to win Defensive Player of the Year. I know it. You know it. If you asked Matisse about it, he would probably point to it as a goal of his, because when you’ve already made it as a professional athlete, you need to keep raising the bar of success higher and higher to avoid stagnation, but he also knows it.

The point of this article is not to argue that Thybulle should win Defensive Player of the Year, which won’t stop people who don’t actually read this from quote-tweeting or replying to the post and saying what a bozo I am.

Rather, I thought it might be fun to explore the reasons why Thybulle won’t win the award, and what would have to happen to make him a legitimate candidate. His stellar defensive performance against Steph Curry last weekend prompted this idea. Teammate Joel Embiid even brought it up directly in the postgame press conference:

“He’s probably the best perimeter defender in the league, and I think he has a chance to win the Defensive Player of the Year.”

With the game being nationally televised on ABC, and Curry within striking distance of the all-time threes record he would later reach in New York, there were a lot more eyeballs on that contest than your usual regular-season game. So Thybulle played exceptionally well and became a huge trending topic, both inside and outside the usual basketball circles.

For example, Peter King mentioned him in his recent Football Morning in America column for NBC Sports:

“Nice D on Steph Curry, Sixers. So interesting to watch a good chunk of the Golden State-Philly game and see a player I had no idea about, Matisse Thybulle, help hold Curry to 3-of-14 shooting from three-point range.”

Thybulle’s Q-Rating is clearly going up. He made NBA All-Defensive Second Team last season, so he’s already viewed as a top-ten defender in the league. Plus, he already has a unique profile. His 20.0 minutes per game were the fewest minutes per game in NBA history for an All-Defensive team member. From Kevin O’Connor’s recent Thybulle profile for The Ringer:

“Thybulle blocked a jumper or floater 53 times during the regular season, which led the NBA...He is on pace to again hit 50 blocks on jump shots and floaters—a feat that no player except him has accomplished since at least 2013-14, according to Second Spectrum.”

Steve Kerr had high praise for him in regards to Thybulle’s effort against Steph:

“You know he’s a rare combination of length and athleticism and brains and he did as good of a job on Steph as anybody I’ve seen in a long time.”

With all that in mind, what would have to happen for him to leapfrog from top-ten to number-one?

From the jump, it’s hard for any perimeter player to win the award. The Defensive Player of the Year award has been around since the 1982-83 season, and only seven perimeter players have been honored, most recently Kawhi Leonard in the 2015-16 season. The simple fact is that big men are in a position to control more of the action and make more of a defensive impact by being near the basket. Perimeter defenders have to be truly exceptional to stand out.

It also helps to be an All-Star. Michael Cooper and Marcus Camby are the only two players to win the award and have no career All-Star appearances (I was very surprised Camby never made an All-Star team during those years he was averaging 12 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocks per game, but it’s true). On a related note, you want to be a starter if you’re hoping to take home the hardware. The 6-foot-5 Cooper started just two of the Los Angeles Lakers’ 82 games during the 1986-87 season where he won the award. After him, Dennis Rodman had the fewest starts of any winner, starting 43 of Detroit’s 82 games in 1989-90.

So a big man who starts and goes on to be an All-Star is where voters typically look to find their Defensive Player of the Year. Matisse Thybulle doesn’t check those boxes, although he has been starting much more lately as Danny Green’s minutes are monitored following a hamstring injury.

Michael Cooper would appear to be the template for Thybulle. As mentioned, he was a guard who predominantly came off the bench and still won the award. Of course, the major difference is that Cooper was a vital cog of the Showtime Lakers, who finished with the league’s best record that year at 65-17, before going on to defeat Boston in the NBA Finals. As with most individual awards, team success is also a factor. The Sixers finishing with the Eastern Conference’s best record last season helped Ben Simmons’ case in his eventual runner-up bid for this award, and the Sixers currently being eighth in the East (as of Saturday afternoon) certainly doesn’t help Matisse’s cause this year.

So what is Thybulle’s path forward in search of Defensive Player of the Year accolades? Ironically, improvement on the offensive end would most help his cause. In his high-profile outing against Golden State, Matisse knocking down two of his three treys was a big factor in his ability to play 34 minutes, his second-highest total of the season.

It’s hard to keep Thybulle on the court when he’s such an offensive liability. His three-point shooting percentage has dropped in each of his three seasons, from 35.7 percent his rookie year, to 30.1 last season, to 28.3 percent now. Matisse hasn’t shown any development as an off-the-dribble creator or passer, and while he makes the occasional good cut and is an athletic finisher in transition, the half-court offense is hurt by his presence. Thybulle is playing a career-high 24.4 minutes per game, but even a return to his rookie year outside-shooting average would enable those minutes to creep up into the high-20’s and bolster his case to remain a starter.

The other major improvement would obviously be the team playing better. Last season, the Sixers were playing great, and the team’s two stars seemed to have this agreement that they would promote Joel Embiid for MVP and Ben Simmons for DPOY at every opportunity. However, Embiid has stepped his defensive effort back up this season, and even if the Sixers were to improve dramatically in the standings, he would likely deserve more credit for the team’s defensive success than Thybulle. Not being the most impactful defender on his own team would probably be the final nail in the coffin for any potential Matisse candidacy.

Matisse’s performance against Steph Curry was incredible to watch. He is a historically unique player and can impact a game in ways no one else in the league can. But unless he significantly improves as an offensive player, it’s hard to see him making the difficult leap from being recognized among the handful of best defensive players in the league to the very best. Thybulle doesn’t fit the structural narrative of what a Defensive Player of the Year is, and for him to excel so much in other areas as to overcome those inherent disadvantages in the system seems unlikely. Nevertheless, there’s no shame in “simply” being on an All-Defensive team, and Thybulle represents a vital piece of the puzzle for Philadelphia both now and in the future. While any award talk is still a pipe dream, Matisse very much deserved his flowers on the national stage last weekend.