Matisse Thybulle isn’t a player that Doc Rivers seems to fully trust. But the defensive stud has played well in limited action lately. With Tyrese Maxey back and De’Anthony Melton absolutely balling out, with P.J. Tucker not quite at full strength, it seems there’s still more room for Matisse. In fact, when you look at the numbers, and the film, it can start to feel downright awkward that he’s playing so sparingly this season.
Think back to last season, when the team acquired James Harden. Thybulle wasn’t but a couple of months removed from his masterclass performance defending Steph Curry at The Center in December of 2021.
So when The Beard finally made his debut for the Red, White, and Blue, Doc Rivers tapped the then third-year, 6-5, shooting guard out of Washington.
Thybulle started 20 games alongside James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid, allowing the Sixers to deploy a nasty three-guard approach that fared quite well...in the regular season.
The 76ers went 14-6 in the span following the blockbuster Ben Simmons deal.
In 660 possessions last season, that unit posted a +20.3 differential (100th percentile), scored 123.3 point per 100 possessions (99th percentile offense), and allowed 103 points per 100 (97th percentile defense). Gangbusters.
Thybulle would go on to make his second consecutive All-NBA Defensive Second team team.
Of course, you know this story didn’t have a happy ending. It came out that the Arizona native only received one of two mRNA vaccines for COVID and thus, was ineligible to travel to Toronto for the team’s first round road games vs. the Raptors.
So Rivers demoted him and turned to 3-and-D vet Danny Green to play with the starters, and that maneuver worked very well (until Green suffered a devastating ACL tear in the team’s final game of the season). And Matisse has never found consistent minutes since.
To be fair, Thybulle didn’t help himself much. When he did play in the 2022 playoffs, he shot just 4-14 from deep, while being mostly ignored by defenses who were then able to swarm injured versions of both James Harden and Joel Embiid.
The whole thing may well have cost him a decent contract extension, and now as a pending free agent, his name still routinely pops up as one of the more likely Sixers to be dealt before the Feb. 9th NBA trade deadline.
So I think we can say that Thybulle has never fully made his way back into Rivers’ good graces. And perhaps not Daryl Morey’s either. But for now he’s here and he’s passing the eye-test from a minutes-earned perspective.
And many of the players who are playing over Thybulle are being mostly or totally ignored by defenses now anyway so it’s not like they’ve “solved” that issue. The “but gravity” argument has flaws as well.
As our Sean Kennedy recently said on the “Talking About Podcast” following a big overtime win vs. the Pacers:
“Yeah, he’s he’s definitely moved ahead of [Danuel] House in the rotation and he was firmly behind him when the season started. I think that that’s flipped completely and yeah, he’s he’s playing really well… I would like to see more of the Melton-Matisse lineups. That’s just so much length and defensive activity on the perimeter. That’s always been an area the Sixers struggle with and now you have this pair of just elite guys at creating deflections, and steal opportunities, and that can kick start your offense with a fast break and transition opportunities.”
He’s playing less than half as many minutes per game this year as last. He’s only had the chance to play 112 minutes with Melton, the duo posting a neutral net rating in sporadic, injury-addled spot duty.
Kennedy is right. The two complement each other well. Melton thrives as a defender except perhaps when navigating a zillion screens chasing a sniper like CJ McCollum, whereas getting skinny, and staying glued through a maze, is one of Matisse’s best traits. When paired together, there are plenty of deflections.
Thybulle’s performance against a white-hot McCollum recently was strange.
CJ drops 42 on Philly in a loss one night. Thybulle made some nice plays but still didn’t earn opportunities. And then in the next game a few nights later, Thybulle appears to really stymie CJ, and still only nets 8 minutes in each contest.
See CJ go to work. See Matisse slow him down. See Matisse sit. See CJ resume cooking. All collectively shrug.
CJ totaled 68 in two contests. And plenty of it felt frankly unnecessary with an All-NBA Defender riding endless pine.
You can see a couple of his crafty blocks on McCollum towards the end of this block party compilation:
And the type you see above that save point blank layups, no doubt help him maintain a stellar plus-minus.
Fans are remarking on the paradox: he helps them so much when he’s on the floor, and yet he plays so sparingly.
The curious case of Matisse Thybulle. So far this season, the Sixers are outscoring opponents by 15.7 points per 100 possessions in the 386 minutes that Thybulle is on the court. I found that this is by far the best net rating of any player in the league (300+ minutes). pic.twitter.com/GJSDqgtVXu— Jason Timperley (@jason_timperley) January 5, 2023
(Extreme Ali G voice) Yo Yo, check it, the Sixers as a team:
- have the fourth-rated defense, per Cleaningtheglass.com, allowing just 110.8 points per 100 possessions. 
- The team’s offense overall ranks 13th, scoring 114 points per 100.
- Their +3.7 point differential ranks sixth overall.
Slide Thybulle onto the floor and:
- they hold teams to a crazy-low 103.1 points per 100, a 99th percentile clip.
- the team actually scores 117.3 points per 100 with No. 22 in the game, three more points than their season-to-date 114 points per 100 overall. (You can be totally skeptical about the offense being better with him out there despite the data, but it’s definitely not worse!)
- Their differential skyrockets up to +14.2.
Thybulle’s lack of minutes is one of the most insanely goofy things I’ve ever seen a coach do— Ben Detrick (@bdetrick) January 3, 2023
Harden, Embiid and Maxey have only appeared in eight games together this season due to their respective injuries (read: lots of foot stuff), and just 149 minutes. So obviously, things will change if those three ever get right at the same time for an extended period.
But for now Thybulle’s name pops up in four of the team’s top performing trios from a plus-minus perspective. A trio of Tobias Harris, Embiid, and Matisse is an eye popping +78 (fourth best on the team).
In order, the team’s top performing trios so far:
A Hardenless lineup of Maxey, Thybulle, Embiid, Tucker, Harris, fared well, posting the team’s second-highest total +/- on the season (+38). Thybulle didn’t appear to get in Joel’s way when he started alongside the big fella during Jo’s 59 point performance vs. Utah.
What’s he up against?
We touched upon the elephant in the room and his vaccination status. And maybe that incident, and whatever it did to his confidence, whatever it signified to his coaches, has had lasting ramifications.
But I’m guessing it’s not really about that anymore. There’s probably something else at play. Maybe Doc Rivers and perhaps Daryl Morey simply believe that whatever they’re seeing isn’t realllly regular season crunch time or playoff viable. Consider some context.
Back in 2019, Morey told The Ringer’s Bill Simmons that:
“Specialists like Chuck [Hayes] I think are extremely tough to play now. It’s like- if you don’t put five threats on the floor on offense, you become very easy to guard. And you have to be able to score now... if you put a non-threat on offense, it just becomes way easier to guard you in the playoffs.”
“Doc and I were talking about this. The players who are sort of extreme one-way type players, it’s challenging in the playoffs. It’s challenging for the coaches, it’s challenging for the players. I think for Matisse, his mission, which he knows, is how can he improve in ways that makes him someone that can make more of an impact in the playoffs. I think he will in the future.”
With that stuff in mind, and that Matisse still appears to have many of the same limitations offensively this year as last, despite visibly tweaking his shooting mechanics for the better, (he’s now shooting 34.9 percent from deep) it wasn’t a shock to see guys like Furkan Korkmaz, Danuel House Jr. or Montrezl Harrell get more minutes than him out of the gate. Shake Milton has stepped up and done everything the team has asked and more.
House, in theory, was going to be the two-way backup wing teams couldn’t totally ignore on offense, while offering stalwart defense. But if he’s not shooting that well, and Matisse is shooting a hair better... then the difference on defense starts to entice.
By 37 games into this year, Thybulle has outperformed plenty of his reserve competition. And by a healthy margin.
He’s by no means perfect. Per DunksandThrees he’s 96th percentile on D, and 10th on O, totaling in estimated plus-minus around guys like Bogdan Bogdanovic, Terry Rozier and Reggie Jackson:
He can make some really frustrating fouls on jump shooters.
On triples, he’s shooting 6 of 13 from the left corner and 2 of 11 from the right. That’s a trend. Last season he was 18 of 35 from the left corner but just 9 of 39 from the right. Go all the way back to his rookie year, and Thybulle is 46 of 118 from the left corner. That’s good enough for a very respectable 39 percent.
Tucker shoots about 90% of his 3’s from the corners and Thybulle, just 50% from the corners. If some team bought low on Matisse or Philly kept him, they could very quickly improve his efficiency based on where he spots up. https://t.co/9M13exIA0f— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) June 24, 2022
Would it be sacrilege to suggest he platoon in the left corner almost exclusively, with the occasional stealth journey into the dunker spot or backdoor cut? No more above the break bombs. And we can even limit his right corner looks drastically.
Because look...the Sixers top performers in +/ to date, per NBA.com:
Joel Embiid: + 177
James Harden +129
Matisse Thybulle +105
Tobias Harris +97
Georges Niang +76
P.J. Tucker +61
De’Anthony Melton +50
and so on and so forth...
His differential and expected wins, per Cleaningtheglass.com:
So... the Sixers are banged up. If P.J. Tucker needs a rest, and you can slide in both De’Anthony freakin’ Melton or Thybulle??
Why are they not taking that opportunity more often?
attending a funeral for PJ Tucker’s hand while the rest of his body plays the 32 worst offensive minutes since the backboard was invented— Michael Levin (@Michael_Levin) December 31, 2022
We’re nearly halfway through the year and James Harden is still leading the NBA in minutes per game by more than a full minute over second place? Maxey and Harden have missed a month each, Embiid has missed a chunk, and it’s forced guys like Harris, Tuck, and Melton to pick up the slack. Can’t we buy them a couple more minutes of rest over the next few weeks?
If the team is not merely willing but apparently eager to do things that are not
smart playoff viable anyway (coughs)....
...then the argument that you shouldn’t play Thybulle now because he won’t be as good in the playoffs suddenly turns to swiss cheese, does it not?
I'm not usually a "the rotations!" guy, but 5 minutes of Maxey, Shake, PJ, Niang and Harrell, when your lineup is fully healthy, is about 4 minutes and 59 seconds too long.— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) December 31, 2022
Was surprising when it was first put out there, and even more surprising how long it was left out there.
Philadelphia routinely plays combos of reserves we all know won’t work well vs. good teams now or in the playoffs. So why aren’t they at least doing something we know works this time of year more often?
How many points or wins might it be costing them to keep doing other things that clearly don’t work as well?
The Sixers are 9-2 when Matisse plays 16 minutes or more. They hammer teams in these brief stints, and it’s refreshing to see some rare Sixers athleticism out there. And then his minute totals remain all over the stinking map, even with multiple DNP’s.
So I’m not saying Thybulle needs to start, but I’ll note they are 5-1 this year when he does.
I’m not saying he needs to play over Melton. In fact it’s basically a crime the two haven’t played more together with someone like Harden who can get them both good transition looks, and find Thybulle on cuts or in the dunker.
I’m not saying he has to play over Tucker in the playoffs, although buying Tuck a rest now might go a long way towards making that three-year deal look better than it does so far.
I’m just saying Thybulle is due for a bump in run, and a regular rotation spot. The team has been better with him out there in large doses last regular season and outstanding in small doses this season and they can’t afford to ignore these trends any longer. Whatever their hang ups, just experiment. If 25 minutes per game isn’t the magic number, then maybe 21 or 18 is. Maybe it’s 15, I don’t know! I just know it’s not 11.7. Each starter needs a bit of a rest, they’ve been really grinding.
The other alternative is to trade him. But it’s gotta be one or the other. He’s too good to be harassing McCollum for eight minutes, then sitting down while CJ whips us up another three-course meal.
 (In case you’re curious, the 76ers allowed 110.7 points per 100 possessions last season, an even lower total than this year’s elite unit, yet the 2021-2022 crew couldn’t even crack the top 10, so it’s getting harder and harder to stop teams from scoring).