Sixers: Matisse Thybulle’s first team All-Defense case

(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) /

The Sixers are first place in the Eastern Conference and have the third best record in the NBA. Doc Rivers and Daryl Morey have praised the team’s ability to win with defense all season, and defense will inevitably determine Philadelphia’s path to the NBA Finals.

While the lion’s share of credit has deservedly fallen on the doorstep of Ben Simmons, Philadelphia has three candidates for All-Defense this season. Simmons, of course, as well as Joel Embiid and second-year wing Matisse Thybulle. It’s the latter who is the subject of this article.

Thybulle has been unspeakably impressive this season. The 24-year-old is not only a freak athlete, but one of the most aware and disruptive defenders the NBA has ever seen. This will not be the last time he is heavily featured in the awards conversation.

The Sixers have a lock for first team All-Defense in Ben Simmons. Should Matisse Thybulle join him?

Fresh-faced, with his foot barely through the door, Thybulle has cemented his status as one of the NBA’s premier defensive weapons. He can guard up and down the positional ladder at 6-foot-5, while his hummingbird hands and inhuman reflexes allow him to cover more ground than any other defender.

As NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Noah Levick noted in the most recent episode of The Sixer Sense Podcast, Thybulle is one of three NBA players with over 70 steals and 70 blocks this season, joining Giannis Antetokounmpo and Robert Covington. Giannis and Covington have played 1944 and 2177 minutes, respectively. Thybulle has played a grand total of 1298.

While logging just 20.0 minutes per game, Thybulle has posted steal and block numbers that place him among the league’s very best. He is able to get his hands on the ball with comical frequency, and as a result, he often kickstarts Philadelphia’s transition offense. The Sixers can smother teams on the perimeter with Simmons and Thybulle, or allow Embiid to clean up messes at the rim. It’s a formidable trio.

Thybulle is great at fighting over screens, slithering into passing lanes, or sneaking in for the occasional backdoor block. He has the ability to gamble and recover unlike anyone in basketball, and his on-ball defense has improved leaps and bounds as a sophomore. Whereas last season he was foul-prone and uneven, this season Thybulle has been aces against some of the NBA’s most potent scorers. He’s less gullible to ball fakes and more honed in on the fundamentals, all without losing the ability to freelance and wreak havoc.

Per Basketball Reference, Thybulle has posted the fifth highest single-season Defensive Box Plus-Minus in NBA history. He has done so, again, in 20 minutes per night. That places him above names like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Jordan, Draymond Green, and Hakeem Olajuwon in the record books. Nate McMillan, Manute Bol, and David Robinson are the only three players in NBA history to post higher single-season marks.

As Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer notes in his excellent breakdown of Thybulle’s defense, the Washington product has blocked 0.8 jumpers and floaters per game this season. That factors into his overall mark of 1.1 blocks per game as a 6-foot-5 wing. Add his 1.6 steals per game, which places him near the top of the NBA, and it’s hard to argue any single defender is more disruptive — more repeatedly in the other team’s grill — than Thybulle.

Different criteria and preferences will inform different voters when award ballots are cast. Thybulle will not win Defensive Player of the Year. Some will see 20.0 minutes per game and rule him out or penalize him due to a lack of playing time. That, however, is misguided. Thybulle has made an impact on par with defenders who have played 10-15 more minutes each night. He is doing more in less time. He is outpacing several players who will likely get votes ahead of him. He has more steals than Jrue Holiday and Ben Simmons. He has more blocks than Bam Adebayo and Joel Embiid, all in significantly fewer minutes.

Rather than write Thybulle off, voters should give him more credit. No defender has made more of his minutes on the floor. Per Cleaning the Glass, when Thybulle plays small forward, 17.5 percent of opponents’ possessions end in a turnover. That puts him in the 97th percentile among small forwards. When he’s the two-guard, the number is 15.1 percent.

Thybulle is a rare beast. He’s a pocket-picking, jumper-blocking menace. The kind of frenetic defender who can single-handedly throw a team (or player) out of rhythm. There is a very real argument that Thybulle is the best individual perimeter defender in the NBA. If not, he is certainly one of the most unique and impactful.

Sure, he has not logged as many minutes, and that will count against him when names like Ben Simmons and Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are brought up — players who shoulder more responsibilities on both sides of the ball. Thybulle, however, deserves a spot on an All-Defensive team. That is inarguable. And, if your desire is to put the five best defenders on first team, then perhaps Thybulle should be first team All-Defense.

Next. 15 players who defined 'The Process'. dark

Stats accurate as of May 14, 2021 at 1:44 AM