With three games of the James Harden era in the books, it’s too soon to know how this works out for the Sixers in the long run, but the honeymoon is going very well. Harden is here, and he’s incredible. And, so far at least, The Beard seems to like us almost as much as we like him. That’s a fun turn of events for Philly fans broadly, and Sixers fans in particular.
Harden’s arrival was certain to impact the other players to various degrees, but some of us wondered whether the team would experience some bumpiness as they acclimate to their new roles. Aside from the Harden-Tobias Harris connection, which is still a work-in-progress, the other important pairings are progressing well.
The Harden and Joel Embiid combination, for instance, has been fantastic, as Tom West discussed earlier this week. We hoped Harden’s arrival wouldn’t disrupt Tyrese Maxey’s excellent play this season, whatever fears we had appear misguided; the young guard is playing spectacular basketball. Jackson Frank documented the Harden-Maxey pairing here, and that too is going about as well as Daryl Morey, Doc Rivers, and the rest of the Sixers organization could have hoped. Harden has been masterful as both a scorer and a playmaker, and Sean Kennedy wrote about his exceptional passing here.
Yet, as the Sixers ascend to the NBA’s upper echelon, a few of us Process-Trusters still worry about how our favorite defensive specialist is doing, Matisse Thybulle, who turned 25 on March 4th (happy birthday, by the way!). We wondered: how will Harden’s arrival affect Thybulle’s offensive outlook for the rest of the year?
Furthermore, there’s a cool complementary aspect to consider here: Thybulle’s primary job in this new-look Sixers team is to take on the toughest defensive assignments (the East’s best guards and wings to be more specific), shielding Harden from that burden. Harden’s presence will similarly make Thybulle’s life easier on the offensive side, so an effective Matisse on offense is a win for the team.
Despite any concerns about Thybulle’s offensive development, the Sixers reportedly refused to include him in trade discussions, so the team likely sees him as a foundational part of the team. But, since his three-point shot hasn’t developed as well as the team needs for a starting wing (he’s making just 28 percent of his threes this season), the Washington product had to work on other areas of his game to make a positive impact offensively. After all, if Harden and Embiid are generating the most open shots an NBA player can see, the other players must be in position to either shoot an open three or cut to the rim — they really can’t afford to play anyone who’s dead weight on either side of the ball substantial minutes at this point. Harden is well-positioned to take advantage of this and is already helping create scoring opportunities for Matisse.
Though his counting stats are only up slightly in the last three games, there are signs that Harden is already setting Matisse up for success. Matisse is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, so they don’t need him to score much, they just need him to be willing the run the fast break, set screens, and cut to the basket. If the three-point shot — which was always a swing skill for him — improves, fantastic.
Harden’s presence has helped Matisse get easy looks in transition
In the first quarter against the Knicks on Sunday, Harden found Matisse running on the break.
Harden saw Thybulle streaking. All five Knicks were watching Harden, and ignoring everyone else. Matisse is able to finish with a slam. With an exceptional passer like Harden, Matisse, one of the few plus athletes on the team, should have a chance at a few of these transition buckets per game.
Later, in the third quarter, on a Matisse cut to the basket:
beautiful JH assists are a ~dime~ a dozen. pic.twitter.com/JafWzLa6qa— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) February 27, 2022
With Harden dribbling on the right wing, Joel sets a screen. If you pause five seconds into the clip, all five (!) Knicks players are watching Joel and James, again. Meanwhile, Matisse lurks in the dunker spot. Though four of the five Knicks defenders are in the paint, Matisse is able to convert an easy lay-up. Look for Harden to continue getting him the ball on simple plays like this, and for Matisse to keep seizing these opportunities.
And in the Harden home debut game on Wednesday, Harden found Matisse in transition again:
STRAIGHT UP HAVING A GOOD TIME! pic.twitter.com/z8Ch19NJGe— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) March 3, 2022
Thybulle’s cutting should open up some additional scoring chances in the half court
One of the ways Thybulle can contribute offensively when his shot isn’t going down is as a cutter. So far, Harden has begun finding him when he cuts to the basket and the other defenders are focused on the team’s two All-Stars.
Here’s an example of Harden’s gravity opening things up for Matisse:
Thybulle cutting off the Embiid roll generating from a Harden pass— Thiago (@ThiagoPHL) March 3, 2022
Sixers creating some neat extra stuff off the PnR pic.twitter.com/mtpXuK0ipn
In Wednesday’s game, Matisse cut to the rim while everyone was watching the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll. Though Harden didn’t generate the assist, his gravity allows Matisse to run free.
Matisse had already made improvements at the rim this year, so Harden’s addition should only allow him to build on that growth.
Matisse Thybulle is making a career-high 82.1% of his shots at the rim this season.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) January 19, 2022
A lot of his finishes are simple, but he's working well in the dunker spot and corners to find chances to cut. Developing some nice chemistry next to Embiid with his athleticism and activity. pic.twitter.com/MOfELzYZel
Yes, it’s only been three games. Yes, the rest of the East is not at full strength. Yes, this Sixers team is imperfect. No worries. Our guy Matisse survived the trade, with Mr. Harden on board, he’s already taking advantage of new-found opportunities.