The big question isn’t whether the 76ers should trade Matisse Thybulle. It’s whether they can.
Fresh off a postseason in which Thybulle’s stagnant development and accompanying lack of confidence left the Sixers playing four-on-five any time he was on the court, there should be no more debate about whether his unique defensive gifts are worth the trade-offs on the offensive end. The guy needs a shot. And not the kind that is FDA-approved.
The Sixers know it. Thybulle knows it. At this point, there are only two scenarios in which they continue to make sense for each other. The first is if the Sixers truly believe that he might yet become a player who brings positive value to a playoff game. The second is if nobody else does.
It might not be the biggest question facing Daryl Morey this summer, but it might be the bellwether. The Sixers are at least two three-and-D wings shy of a rotation that can even think about contending for the NBA Finals. They have a variety of movable parts, of which Tobias Harris’ trade value is probably the first and biggest domino. But Thybulle could be a fulcrum all his own.
Morey’s ability to cobble together a team around James Harden, Joel Embiid, and Tyrese Maxey would be dramatically enhanced if there’s a team out there that is willing to part with a playoff-caliber veteran rotation player in exchange for a fan-friendly, second-team All Defensive player who might yet reward the massive amount of patience that his current employer has afforded his offensive development. In short, whether the Sixers are able to accomplish what they need to accomplish is contingent on whether there is a viable trade market for Thybulle.
Obviously, the Sixers will not acknowledge this, whether in public or private. But as The Inquirer reported on Wednesday, the team is in the process of gauging leaguewide interest in Thybulle, and that gives us a pretty good indication of where the Sixers feel their optimal strategy lies.
There was a stretch of time at the end of the regular season when you maybe could have talked yourself into thinking that Thybulle was turning a corner. The addition of Harden seemed to unlock a critical element of his game, opening up lanes in the halfcourt offense for him to utilize his quick-twitch cutting and leaping ability.
We already knew that the athleticism was there. Previously, though, we’d only seen it express itself in the occasional transition situation. Now, playing alongside a gifted passer who consistently drew attention from multiple defenders, Thybulle found himself in plenty of downhill situations where he could attack the rim off the ball and put himself in position to finish. In his 23 games after the Harden trade, he shot 52% from the field while averaging 9.0 points per 36 minutes, up from 49% and 7.6 points per 36 minutes before the trade.
If you squinted, you could see more confidence and a better rhythm that even seemed to manifest itself behind the three-point line. Before the trade, Thybulle shot a woeful 28.6% from deep. After, he shot 38.5% including a 10-for-22 run to end the season.
In the end, Thybulle’s modest offensive improvement didn’t even rise to level of a mirage. It was mostly a combination of wishful thinking and regular-season defense. Once the playoffs started and opponents started paying attention to their game plans, Thybulle went from a positive-value player to a nonfunctional one.
Ignored by defenders any time he had the ball in his hands behind the three-point line, Thybulle rarely had the confidence to try to make them pay. And he was perfectly justified in not having it. After going 2-for-3 from deep in the first two games of the Sixers’ first-round win over Toronto, he shot just 2-for-11 from there the rest of the postseason. In Games 3 and 4 against Miami, he did not attempt a single three-pointer in more than 40 minutes of court time.
After the series, the Sixers said all the things you’d expect them to say with regard to Thybulle’s future.
“I think Matisse is someone who has an elite defensive component and he’s looking at himself thinking, ‘How can I improve and contribute in other ways?’ ” Morey said. “In the playoffs, 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. The challenge for Matisse, which he knows, is how can he improve in ways that makes him someone that can make more of an impact in the playoffs, and I think he will in the future.”
At this point, though, the future is not much further away than the present. Thybulle can be a restricted free agent after next season. By the time next trade deadline arrives, any team interested in acquiring him will be taking the risk that another team offers him a contract that exceeds its own valuation. None of his first three professional summers has led to anything resembling progress. After shooting 35.7% from three-point range in his first NBA season, he shot 30.7% in his next two combined. In 25 career playoff games, he has recorded a positive plus-minus in exactly four.
“I think it makes us more patient because he works at it,” coach Doc Rivers said after the season. “We would be less patient if we didn’t think he was working at it.”
Patience can be a virtue, but there are plenty of situations where it is more of an impediment. All good things come with time. Not all time comes with good things. Three years into Thybulle’s career, the Sixers are nearing a point where the marginal utility of each passing day dips into the red.
It’s finally official. The 76ers will select No. 23 in the 2022 NBA draft, picking in the latter half of the first-round, which is a position they are familiar with. Sixers star Tyrese Maxey, defensive stalwart Matisse Thybulle and backup guard Furkan Korkmaz were all chosen in that part of the draft. The Inquirer’s Gina Mizell and Keith Pompey will discuss potential picks for the Sixers and touch on a big offseason to follow.