In Doc Rivers’ inaugural regular-season game as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, he exhibited a philosophy that has maintained throughout his tenure: adaptability with closing lineups. On that December night, with a tightly contested finish against the Washington Wizards approaching, Shake Milton got the nod alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Seth Curry.
Danny Green started the game, but Milton’s 19 points on 6-of-11 shooting and handful of feisty defensive possessions tangling with Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal curried favor from his new head coach. Milton was excellent and the Sixers won by six. Rivers’ decision proved shrewd.
Since then, Rivers has consistently mixed and matched lineups in key moments, depending on who’s playing well and best amplifies the foundational players of the roster. Although not every move has panned out, his rotations are certainly not stagnant (well, unless you’re a young backup center). Nowadays, that’s especially prevalent as it pertains to the final member of Philadelphia’s optimal quintet, which is quite tenuous.
Rivers is known to ride the hot hand, yet what happens when he scans the bench with six minutes left and every option is lukewarm, at best? Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris will be closing playoff games. Matisse Thybulle joins them as the fifth starter. But discerning whether Thybulle or someone else is best suited to finish games is probably this team’s most pressing problem and one that has already confronting them in recent weeks.
While aspects like rebounding, transition defense and guard depth remain issues, some of them are tied to the Sixers’ lack of reliable fifth closer. Others are just secondarily important if Philadelphia can’t establish a trustworthy choice alongside the Core Four.
The final starter is a fluid job, not because the Sixers have six or seven players to close with on any night, but because they generally have just four, hamstrung by the fifth being a carousel of fickleness.
Thybulle is having another very good defensive season, but his possession-by-possession consistency doesn’t seem to approach 2019-20, when he rightfully earned an All-Defensive Team bid. Although he’s frustrated a number of star scorers this year, his capacity to do so nightly feels lesser than his sophomore campaign. There have been many games over the past few months where his defensive prowess has not been enough to overcome the offensive limitations and seen him relegated to bench bystander.
His inability to command attention as a floor-spacer regularly impedes the Sixers’ offensive intentions to lengthy degrees. When they struggled out of the gates against the Milwaukee Bucks last week, that stemmed from Giannis Antetokounmpo “guarding” Thybulle and playing free safety. Philadelphia’s offense loosened up when their minutes were aligned later because Milwaukee took Giannis off Thybulle.
That’s not a one-off instance either. Smart defensive teams are routinely exploiting Thybulle offensively by clogging pick-and-rolls, drives or post-ups. Whether he’s removing himself out of plays by overindulging on risk-taking or fouling too often, he’s failing to compensate on the other end and his minutes have to be trimmed.
His connection with Harden in ball-screens as a roller and with Embiid in the dunker spot have expanded his offensive utility this season. He and the coaching staff deserve praise for that growth. But he remains a 6-foot-5, 200-pound wing masquerading as a big man offensively. That can only carry him so far.
His lack of ball skills and midrange touch severely hinder him. The Bruce Brown comp has been tossed around since Harden arrived, but Brown’s floater game and ability to put the ball on the deck vastly exceed Thybulle’s and considerably differentiate the two.
OK, so the complications that arise from giving him starter’s minutes are laid out. Surely, there’s an answer elsewhere, just swap him for one of the reserves who credibly spaces the floor! Well, not so fast. Danny Green and Georges Niang are the top candidates for this move, but both tout their own deficiencies that cap their suitable minutes load.
The litany of injuries Green has unfortunately endured in recent years have pushed him outside of starting-caliber territory. There was a time earlier this season when he was still worthy, but a couple more ailments buried him. He’s simply too slow, both offensively and defensively. Offensively, he pump-fakes or passes out of way more viable spot-up 3s than last year — at least anecdotally. This play from Sunday resonates, and isn’t an isolated incident throughout the season:
Last year, the 6-foot-6 Green is probably letting that fly over 6-foot-1 Darius Garland. This year, he turns it into an ill-advised step-back jumper.
He simply doesn’t have the faculty to handle the same long-range volume from prior seasons, which has further spotlighted his defensive slippage. He still has some of the best hands in the league, though is constantly ceding dribble penetration because of compromised lateral mobility and inefficient screen navigation. What’s more is he cannot impact as many plays with those deft hands, given his inability to rotate as hastily.
Amid a short stretch against Cleveland, Green had multifaceted defensive breakdowns, each of which resulted from his declining footspeed (Embiid covers for him on the first clip):
To his credit, he leveraged his sneaky hands to force a couple turnovers in the second quarter. However, sequences like the ones above are commonplace over the past few months and are not counteracted by high-level defensive playmaking.
Thybulle shores up some of the perimeter defense leaks that Green poses, but is still a significantly less useful offensive option around Embiid, Harden, Harris and Maxey, so you’re back to square one again. Neither player should be tasked with starting responsibilities on a team eyeing the Finals.
Another alternative, who also appears to be the trendiest among fans, is Niang. The former Iowa State Cyclone has been tremendous as a Sixer. He’s averaging a career-high 9.2 points, shooting 39.9 percent beyond the arc on more than five attempts per game and has authored an assortment of torrid shooting performances to help secure wins.
Any critiques offered of his game are done through the lens of “Can he play starter’s minutes?” rather than “Is he a good NBA player?” I’m skeptical of the former, while the latter is a resounding yes. And that’s the case for all three of these players, really!
Thybulle is good, albeit somewhat of a niche player at times. Green has his warts, yet is still a fringe rotation wing on many good teams. Niang’s bravado, versatile off-ball shooting and quick trigger are boons for any organization. Philadelphia’s dearth of a starting wing who doesn’t notably burden one end of the floor is not the fault of any of these dudes. But the reality is they are the best choices moving forward this season and have to be viewed through that perspective.
Anyhow, back to Niang.
His shooting makes particular sense alongside Harden and Embiid. He and Harden quickly founded a synergistic connection in pick-and-pops, and his snappy release on the catch pairs well with Embiid on kickouts from the post.
But when the jumper isn’t falling, he struggles to foster a sizable impact beyond shooting gravity. His 51.1 percent mark on 2s is more than two points below league average, and his forays into the lane generate roller coaster results. He’s a serviceable ball mover, but not an incredible play-linker. Despite some encouraging sequences as a physical on-ball defender, he’s a liability in space, on and off the ball.
That physicality also leads him to high foul counts (3.9 per 36 minutes this season. I’m not someone who really subscribes to the notion of foul trouble in terms of minimizing someone’s play time. But increasing a team’s chances of being in the bonus early in a quarter is a legitimate worry when/if Niang sees heavy minutes.
The Sixers improved their title odds when they acquired Harden. Even without him, that fifth starter would be in flux. Whether there was a realistic upgrade available, that spot remains a glaring flaw of this team and was not addressed prior to the trade deadline. Direct your ire wherever you deem applicable.
Regardless of how the season ends, solidifying the starting five is a chief priority this summer. Rivers’ willingness to fluctuate closing lineups should behoove the Sixers and speak to their rotational flexibility, not be something borne out of necessity and limitations. Right now, it’s the latter and could spur their playoff exit in the ensuing months.