Sixers: The Matisse Thybulle Conundrum

Matisse Thybulle, Sixers (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
Matisse Thybulle, Sixers (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images) /

Matisse Thybulle is a problem”.  You hear that all the time from players and coaches, both on the Sixers and from the opposition.  This is typically in reference to his stellar defensive play and the chaos that he can wreak on an opposing team’s offense.  And by now it should be obvious to everyone that he is on his way to becoming the most feared perimeter defender in the NBA, so those compliments are well-deserved.  However, the fact is that statement also holds a second meaning.  As stunning as Thybulle is on defense, that is how weak and limited he is on offense.  He is his own yin and yang.

In professional basketball most of the focus is on scoring and defense can be an afterthought. Most players do not give maximum effort on the defensive end until the game is on the line.  Thybulle is an anomaly because he has always known that his special gift is defense, so he has always been the flip side of most players at every level.  He gives 100 percent effort on defense and has always taken his breaks on offense, preferring to get out of the way and let other guys shine and score while he specialized in the grit and dirty work.

He became a superstar in hard work and grinding through the muck.  You better set a good, hard screen because Thybulle is going to fight through it.  Don’t get careless with the ball for even a second because Thybulle is always watching and will take it right away from you.  Think you are open for a jumper?  Thybulle drops from the sky like a paratrooper to swat away shots that he was nowhere near.  So if he is this good, what’s the problem?

The “Matisse Thybulle Conundrum” used to have another name.  We called it “The Ben Simmons Dilemma“.  Part of the reason the Sixers are currently trying so hard to move Simmons is that for all of his wonderful athletic, passing, and defensive gifts he is no threat at all on offense.  Ben is predictable and often goes long, long stretches without even looking at the rim.  During those stretches the opposition can guard Simmons with literally anyone and it feels like the Sixers are forced to play four against five in halfcourt sets.  All of his talents on D do not seem to make up for his negative impact on a halfcourt offense.  This has become the concern with Matisse.

How should the Sixers handle Matisse Thybulle’s offensive limitations?

There are many stark differences between Simmons and Thybulle, which is why this is currently only a minor concern.  The main reason is that Ben Simmons came in with all the fanfare and expectations of a number one pick, and a salary to match it.  Simmons also has been the point guard, which means that his usage rate is through the roof.  The ball is literally always in his hands and the entire offense begins with him.  All eyes — players, fans, coaches, and media are on him all the time. You cannot hide a player like that.  Thybulle plays off the ball and rarely needs it, so it is possible to “hide” him for long stretches because the offense can flow through the other four guys and you almost forget that he is there.  Until he is wide open in the corner and holds the ball, takes a dribble, and passes it back out again.  Then his refusal to shoot begins to feel like the Simmons dilemma all over again.

This is what the Sixers must be spending every waking second to address with Thybulle.  It takes years to build good habits and often just as long to undo bad ones.  Matisse has spent the last eight or nine years developing a mindset that he does not need to shoot, he just needs to focus all of his energy on defense.  It has worked so well that he earned a scholarship to play ball for the Washington Huskies and became a first round draft pick in the 2019 NBA draft.  Last year he was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team, which was all the more impressive because he only played 20 minutes a game.  This year he is only averaging more minutes because of the injuries and Covid problems that have left them scrambling for players.  When Danny Green plays and their lineup is reasonably healthy, Matisse goes back to his 20 minutes per game.  Why?  Because as mind bending as he can be on defense, he is still a reluctant shooter and it hurts the flow of the offense.

This is where the other big difference between Simmons and Thybulle kicks in.  Matisse did not have the spotlight throughout his life and is perfectly happy not being seen as a star.  He is entirely without ego, which means that when the coaching staff gives him constructive criticism he is able to handle it.  He has thicker skin than Simmons.  When asked to work with the coaches to build and develop his ball handling and shooting skills he does not push back.  He is able to see the areas of his game that need improvement and acknowledge that he needs to be better.

This is the heart of the issue.  It is now the job of the Sixers staff and coaches to take the work that he is putting in during games, shootarounds, and practices, and start to project for the future. They will happily live with growing pains now if there is reason to believe that he may be able to become an aggressive offensive threat in the hopefully not too distant future.  For example, in each of the Sixers last two games he had one possession where he got the ball and aggressively tried to beat his man and drive to the hoop, looking for his own shot.  If there is reason to believe that he can do that 2-3 times per game and take 5-6 threes per game, open or contested, then he has the possibility to become a truly special player.  The kind of 3-and-D specialist who is consistently discussed as a defensive player of the year, plays 35 minutes a game, and is the most dangerous player on the floor in crunch time because he can be a playmaker on both ends.

The fact is that Thybulle never has to be a spectacular shooter.  If he can learn how to get off contested shots and develop the mindset that he must shoot the ball in order to help this team, it will be enough for him to be an average shooter, even a few ticks below average.  If he is a consistent threat to score that will open up the floor for Joel Embiid and the other perimeter players.  He is trying to tear down his old instincts that tell him not to shoot and build up new instincts that tell him to let it fly and live with whatever happens.  It is incredibly hard to change the natural instincts that a player has.  Not everyone can do it.

If Thybulle can make those changes and slowly develop his offensive game to where he is helping the team more than hurting it then it will become almost impossible to keep him off the floor.  Such are his defensive gifts.  If the team believes that he can do that, there is no way he should be included in any Ben Simmons trade and he should be a building block upon which a championship is built around Embiid.  However, if there is reason to believe that his instincts to pass up open shots run too deep and that he is likely to always be a guy who defers to the other four players on the court, he should be utilized as a asset.  Now, before it becomes too late.  His value as a unique defender makes him a valuable trade piece in either a Tobias Harris trade or a Simmons trade.

It is unfair to both Matisse Thybulle and the Sixers organization to believe that they can stare into some magical crystal ball and project how much he will grow and develop in the next 3- 4 years.  But this is a high stakes business and people’s jobs and futures depend upon evaluators making decisions just like that. A player like Furkan Korkmaz does not have the mindset or physical tools to ever be a defender like Matisse, but shooting like you have no conscience, like Furk, can be learned.

By next season the team will need to have a good idea of what kind of offensive player Thybulle will eventually become, and how long it might take him to reach that potential. Hopefully Ben Simmons is moved either before the trade deadline, or at the very least by this year’s NBA draft.  Whether or not Matisse is included in that move will likely come down to the belief that the team has in Thybulle’s ability to become an offensive threat.  If he stays, they probably see positive growth and believe in his future.  If they do not see a reason to believe that he can become a guy who takes 10- 12 shots a game and puts pressure on a D then he will probably be moved.  Does he have more value to the team as a trade asset in returning a superstar or does he have more value as a cornerstone piece that can be a full time starter? The Matisse Thybulle conundrum rages on.

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