The Sixers have a vicious seven game slate which will inevitably reveal a ton about about how viable a title contender they truly are. It may also give us a few more clues about Doc Rivers’ playoff rotation. Not all of the following points will relate directly to Matisse Thybulle himself. But I hope by the end, I’ll have made a decent case for why the second year man out of Washington needs a bunch more minutes as the team enters the most challenging stretch of their season and rehearses playoff rotations.
Here are 7 reasons why Matisse Thybulle needs more playing time
1. Matisse Thybulle is quite good
The former Huskie is only averaging 19.2 minutes per game on the year. He’s 8th in the league in steals per game, first overall in thefts per 36 minutes with 2.6. Masterpiece Matisse is the only non center to crack the top 20 in blocks per 36 minutes with 1.8. Look at this list of blocks per 36 leaders in order with positions. One guard, in the top 24:
His defensive box +- basically breaks the stat and leads the league at 4.2, and he also leads the league in defensive estimated plus minus, just ahead of Rudy Gobert. Oh right and he leads the league in deflections per minute.
In short, he’s an absolute game wrecker on D, he’s both Bonnie and Cyde wrapped up in a basketball player and on a on a unit that already boasts two perennial Defensive Player of the Year Candidates in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, Thybulle’s presence in the rotation gives Rivers the chance to keep two or three All-NBA level defenders on the floor for an entire ballgame.
His shooting is a concern, that’s fair. He’s shooting just 30.8 percent from downtown on the year. But he’s up to 36.8 percent since January 31st and could be due for some positive regression. The impact data suggests he’s good to have on the floor.
mattise thybulle should be playing 30 minutes a game instead of 19. put your best players on the court and let them do good things! pic.twitter.com/rQAGwnMZ5T— Ben Detrick (@bdetrick) April 3, 2021
Matisse Thybulle currently sits tied for sixth in the entire NBA in total steals at 71.— Kevin McCormick (@KevinMcCNBA) April 7, 2021
Every player above him has logged at least 250 more minutes this season than him.pic.twitter.com/EPnwAcY8xB
Furkan Korkmaz, on Matisse Thybulle's defense: "There's a lot of guys in this league that can play really good defense. But Matisse, he doesn't let you get that shot off. That's the weird thing. He makes you pissed off every time."— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) April 11, 2021
2. Thybulle works in lineups alongside the starters
Matisse hasn’t spent a ton of time in starter units. But in 101 minutes together, a trio of Simmons, Embiid, and Thybulle are +46. When the playoffs come around, rotations get shorter and ideally sweeter. The best players get more minutes, everyone else gets less.
I think Thybulle has proven that he works well enough in bench units, and with the starters so he should be one of those guys who gets more not less; especially with names like Harden, Doncic, Booker, Irving, Durant, Antetokounmpo, and Tatum lying in wait. But the Sixers have a chance at a true identity. They sit now third overall in points allowed per 100 possessions, even with him playing so little.
This is a great from Thybulle peels off Pritchard give s a soft close to the top and then follows the pass to the corner, recovers and gets the block. It is fun watching him on defense. pic.twitter.com/7LO7bUbDYe— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) April 7, 2021
3. He also works well in bench units
A few player combos with Thybulle in the lineup, courtesy of Fantasylabs.com:
Per Cleaningtheglass.com, in 872 possessions with Thybulle in the lineup and Dwight Howard out of the lineup, the team is a +7 differential. When the two share the court, across 1,027 possessions, they’re a less impressive but still positive +1.2 differential. Throw Ben Simmons into the mix however, and suddenly, across 250 possessions, the team is a -12 differential, as you can see in that table above.
The player combinations in the table above suggest that some of the lineups the Sixers utilize often have not been that good. And some that they’ve seldom used might just work. I think there may be some upside here for rotation optimization.
But imagine a world with even a bit less of this stuff:
4. You want two of your big three on the court at all times in a game 7
There were games in the NBA finals were the Miami Heat played a 7 man rotation! It’s extreme, (most teams in the final four are down to a 9 man unit) but there aren’t many all-bench units by then unless the game’s a rout and you’re resting up to steal the next one.
So if you’re going to play Embiid and Simmons just about 38 minutes per game in close playoff games, that leaves about 10 minutes they’re each off. If you don’t stagger their minutes, that’s nearly a full NBA quarter’s worth of not having your two best players out there. The competition would be thrilled. The Sixers have the luxury of a “big 3” with Simmons, Embiid and Tobias Harris. It would be a mistake to spend a fourth of a game with the team’s two All-Stars sitting at the same time.
What’s this got to do with Matisse? Not much yet, we’ll get there, bear with me.
5. So a Simmons-Embiid stagger makes sense
In my humble opinion, it’s pretty simple: to beat the very best on the road in a close game you’re going to need relentless firepower on the floor. That means if Embiid rests, Harris and Simmons should go full throttle up tempo. If Simmons rests, Embiid and Harris are in and Embiid gets dream spacing. And if Harris rests, Embiid and Simmons hold down the fort like they always do.
Divvying up your precious 240 total player minutes in a close game another way would be reckless.
I hosted ESPN reporter and TV personality Pablo Torre on my podcast “No Particular Hurry” back in early February, and Torre joked that Joel surrounded by four shooters could be like the basketball version of a Roman orgy where Embiid is Caligula.
We were talking about if the team had acquired James Harden. But just a couple of weeks later, with Simmons nursing flu symptoms, Embiid surrounded by shooters all game, delivered this performance:
JOEL EMBIID. TAKEOVER— NBA (@NBA) February 20, 2021
50 points (career high)
17 boards, 2 steals, 4 blocks
17-26 FGM, 15-17 FTM@JoelEmbiid x @sixers pic.twitter.com/692R6rOzEa
You don’t have to be a data scientist or a scout to figure out that spreading the floor for Embiid offers him more room to operate, and gives him easier passing lanes to spot a double coming and hit a shooter.
If you surround Embiid with floor spacers (even if one of them is Thybulle) it’s pick your poison: either he can make the simple read for a kick out 3, or it’s BBQ chicken. Chicago opted for the seasoned-poultry-poison variety.
We want more of that “good Embiid passing” and getting him a few of these minutes might lead to just that.
If Simmons is to rest around 12 minutes per game these playoffs, I’d want to take every opportunity to get Embiid those looks with four spot up shooters surrounding him. And since Simmons often defends the opposition’s best wing, leaving “Mathief” in when he rests might help avoid a few “Shake Milton on James Harden minutes.”
The five player combo of Embiid surrounded by Seth Curry, Thybulle, Harris and Danny Green has logged 151 possessions with a +12.5 differential.
The flip side to this is the approximate 12 or so minutes Embiid will rest. In these moments you’d love the Sixers to “let Ben cook.” Simmons career high 42 points came against his top rival for the Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert. Joel was out of the lineup.
SIXERS VS JAZZ BREAKDOWN!— Kevin Rice (@TheKevinRice) February 16, 2021
Ben Simmons' career high 42 points!
How he's learning to use his strength
His heavy use as a screen setter and roller @Liberty_Ballers #Sixers #BenSimmons pic.twitter.com/Yw5cSuF7Y8
In fact many of Simmons’ best career games have come without Embiid in the lineup:
Ben Simmons had his best game of the season (and maybe of his career) on January 20 against the Nets.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) May 15, 2020
34 points (12/14 FG, 10/14 FT), 12 rebounds, 12 assists, 5 steals and 2 blocks. Aggressive attacking the rim, worked really well as a roll man, and played great defense. pic.twitter.com/uBwa1zNS4N
The best Ben Simmons ever in the #NBAPlayoffs (31 pts, 9 ast) gives #PhilaUnite a 131-115 Game 3 W at #WeGoHard and a 2-1 lead in the series. Key W for Phila with Embiid out: Simmons proved he can carry the team. Nets missed a chance here... #NBApic.twitter.com/Psee05OUFP— Davide Chinellato (@dchinellato) April 19, 2019
Ben Simmons (27 PTS, 15 REB, 13 AST, W) and LeBron James (44 PTS, 11 AST, 11 REB) each record triple-doubles during an epic duel in Philly! pic.twitter.com/n9OOp9DZuj— NBA (@NBA) April 7, 2018
In the brief minutes each All-Star needs a rest, there is a tremendous opportunity to surround the other with a combination of shooters and defenders like Harris, Danny Green, and Thybulle.
But what’s all that got to do with Thybulle?
I am so glad you asked.
6. Dwight Howard and Ben Simmons don’t work too well together
This isn’t an anti Howard piece. He’s been a terrific rim protector and rebounding machine. He’s a champion, a Hall of Famer and a leader. But if you want Embiid playing almost an entire ball game, and Dwight doesn’t work with Simmons, he inevitably has to get squeezed.
The duo of Simmons and Howard has played 341 total minutes together, and are a -81 net. Complementing them with Tobias Harris hasn’t helped matters much, similar for some other key players, per NBA.com:
The table below is a look at all players on the East’s 8 best teams who have seen at least 550 minutes, while posting a double digit negative plus-minus.
And so if Howard and Mike Scott’s minutes were to be cut it appears that might not be the worst thing in the world based on this table. They’re each averaging about 17 minutes per night now.
(In case you’re curious, here’s the same table for the top 8 teams in the West):
The big takeaway is that zero rotation players make the ominous list for the Jazz, Bucks, Suns, Nuggets, Clippers, or Lakers. So of the NBA’s best 8 teams, really only the Nets and Sixers have a player or two we might project to play critical playoff minutes even though their team gets routinely outplayed when he’s on the floor.
So IF we want Ben Simmons on the floor whenever Embiid rests in a huge game, and IF Ben and Dwight are not compatible... and IF we don’t even expect Joel to rest much come playoff time anyway...then why not more Matisse? Like starting today?
Furkan Korkmaz on Thybulle’s defense: “His defensive ability is just, out of the roof, you know?”— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) April 11, 2021
Matisse Thybulle forced 6 (!!) Darius Bazley TOs in 15 total matchup possessions last night— Thiago (@TScabbia) April 11, 2021
It is the most TOs Tisse has forced from a single matchup in his entire career. pic.twitter.com/OlHe7yAEvN
7. The opportunity cost of experimenting isn’t very high
Senior Writer at The Athletic, Derek Bodner on a recent Sixers Beat podcast, had this to say:
“Assuming there is no buyout candidate that comes their way, I wouldn’t mind seeing and look, Ben at the 5 has never really worked, but if you can put like Ben at the 5, and then George Hill at the one, and then throw in like 3 of Matisse, and Danny Green and Tobias Harris, can you then start switching to the point you can make that scheme work? I want to see that happen…. Dwight and Ben isn’t going to work.”
Matisse Thybulle is a +72 in his 921 minutes (many with bench units that clearly don’t work) and also leads the league in defensive estimated +-— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) April 7, 2021
He needs at least 9 more minutes per game. Why are we limiting his explosion Halle, Why? https://t.co/qONAv6L524
The measuring stick seven game slate is here. The playoffs are around the corner. It’s now time to rely on what the eye test and the data have demonstrated.
Doc Rivers said both the numbers and your eyes tell you Dwight Howard is better with the Sixers' second unit, which is why Mike Scott started tonight and Howard's time with Ben Simmons was minimal.— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) April 2, 2021
We know that in the brief periods when Embiid rests, to beat a team like Brooklyn or Milwaukee, they’re going to need Simmons and Harris on the floor to keep things afloat. The data (and all of those career high games) suggest staggering Simmons and Embiid can work. The data and the eye test suggests a duo of Howard and Simmons does not work.
When rotations shorten, you want the players who have performed the best to absorb more minutes. Everything we’ve seen on film and digested in all of this lineup data suggests Matisse Thybulle works.
The opportunity cost of not giving Thybulle more minutes is basically playing more of the rotations that usually get outplayed anyway.
If the Nets were to win the title, it would be because of an insane barrage of offense, an unprecedented offensive juggernaut. If the Sixers were to win the title, it would probably be because they were the best defensive team in the playoffs, featuring two or three of the league’s best defensive players on the floor at all times. But that won’t happen with Thybulle playing just 19 minutes while taking a seat for some lineups that got beat by average teams throughout the season. It’s time to let Thybulle wreck shop even more than he has.