Matisse Thybulle initially tried to set a screen on James Harden’s right side in the first quarter of Monday’s win over the Chicago Bulls. But Harden’s pointed finger directed Thybulle to the opposite side instead, before Thybulle rolled and took a bounce pass from Harden for a scooping reverse layup.
That sequence offered a glimpse at how Thybulle has mostly thrived with Harden — and perhaps at a more subtle reason why team president Daryl Morey wanted to keep the third-year wing on the 76ers’ side of Thursday’s highly anticipated matchup against the Brooklyn Nets.
Morey’s refusal to include Thybulle in the blockbuster Harden trade was an initial hangup in completing the deadline deal, per The Inquirer’s reporting, before the package to the Nets shifted to Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round draft picks.
Morey said at Harden’s introductory press conference that he believes Thybulle is a future NBA Defensive Player of the Year. But one immediate benefit for Thybulle from Harden’s addition is offensively, with a slew of new looks at the rim coming from off-ball activity by cutting, screening, rolling, and running in transition.
“For me to be able to take advantage of [Harden’s] skill set and kind of use the defense against themselves and create easy opportunities for myself and us as a team is huge,” Thybulle said. “ … [It] is just a learning process, and his ability to find me and just feeling the whole thing out has been pretty cool.”
That Thybulle has scored in double digits only eight times this season illustrates how offensively challenged his game can be. But the Sixers are also 8-0 when he reaches that threshold, and three of those outings have come in Harden’s first five games (Thybulle also had an eight-point performance on 4-of-6 shooting in the Sixers’ Feb. 27 win at New York). Thybulle has made 16 of his 26 shots — a 61.5% clip — in those five games. And in Monday’s victory over the Bulls, all four of Thybulle’s made field goals came off Harden assists.
A month ago, Thybulle was unsure if he would get the opportunity to become Harden’s teammate. Leading up to Feb. 10, his name floated in trade rumors as a valuable young player — especially after he reportedly had been pitched as part of a potential package with Ben Simmons to acquire Harden from the Houston Rockets last season.
Thybulle called deadline day “pretty brutal,” even with his two best friends from his hometown near Seattle visiting Philly to keep him company.
“There wasn’t a lot of talking,” Thybulle told The Inquirer. “We just kind of were sitting around, basically just trying to kill time to get to the result, waiting to see if I had any calls. … Each year, it gets worse. First year, you’re a rookie. You don’t really understand anything. It’s all new. It’s all fine. Second year, you’re like, ‘Oh, this is kind of not that cool. I could get traded.’
“Then this year, it was like, ‘This is really serious. I could get traded, and I don’t want to go.’ It was a lot. I’m just glad I survived this round.”
Staying with the Sixers meant Thybulle could build on the starting role he organically stepped into in recent weeks as veteran Danny Green, who is also expected to miss at least one game with a finger laceration, has battled an injury-plagued season. Thybulle now guards the opposing team’s best perimeter offensive player from the opening tip, a greater responsibility than when he was coming off the bench.
And Thybulle can continue experimenting with the off-ball movement he began harnessing last summer while winning an Olympic bronze medal with the Australian national team. He credits NBA players Joe Ingles and Patty Mills, along with the more fundamental style of that team, with helping him learn that skill.
Thybulle recognizes that cutting is “probably boring to most people.” But he enjoys studying how he can use that against the schemes of opposing defenses, especially when they use a “rover” to play off Thybulle to help on Harden or MVP contender Joel Embiid. Sixers coach Doc Rivers compared it to how some teams defend Draymond Green, who is not a dangerous shooting threat but is an elite ball-mover and playmaker at the center of Golden State’s dynamic offense.
Harden’s masterful court vision and facilitating have only enhanced Thybulle’s opportunities. He is learning to watch for when Harden’s eyes widen to signal he needs to make a cut to create a scoring chance for himself or a teammate. He knows he cannot always simply cut from the corner along the baseline; that sometimes he must come up through the elbow first. He would love for the NBA to create a new statistic called “cut assists,” similar to the second-pass “hockey assist” or a big man’s “screen assist” that frees up a teammate for an open shot.
“A chain reaction is a good way to put cutting,” Thybulle said. “It creates a lot just by moving your positioning on the court. … These are the things that we watch in my film edits and breakdowns, because it does generate offense for us and it’s a big deal. I really do take pride in that.”
Added Harden: “It’s my job to help him a little bit offensively — just like he helps us defensively — to where he can get some easy baskets so he can feel good about himself.”
Thybulle is still striving for offensive consistency, however. He had two scoreless games in a row against Cleveland (when he did not play in the fourth quarter) and at Miami (when Harden sat out to manage his hamstring issue) last weekend. He is shooting just 29.1% from three-point range this season, though he is 4-for-11 in the games Harden has played. Rivers said he “got on” Thybulle last week, when the coach caught Thybulle “having a conversation with himself” at the free-throw line after missing a shot.
Rivers also wants Thybulle to get out and run at least once per game for full-court, touchdown-style passes — like the one he received from Harden late in last week’s win over the Knicks.
“We tell him. ‘If you’re even [with the closest defender], we’re just going to throw it and you’ve got to outrun the guy,’” Rivers said. “Those are easy baskets for us if we can get them.”
While sitting courtside about two hours before the Sixers’ game in Miami, Thybulle said he wished he had screened more against Cleveland’s long defenders the night before. With Harden back in the lineup two nights later against the Bulls, Thybulle set those picks, following with a short roll to try to force a defensive switch and allow Harden to do “what he does.”
“He’s teaching me a lot on the fly,” Thybulle said of Harden. “Some of the things I pick up. Some of them I miss. … He sees a lot before it happens. I’m just trying to keep up with him.”
An example came on a possession during the final minutes of that win over the Bulls, when he set a screen for Harden near the halfcourt line and then used the open space to collect another bounce pass for a high-flying, two-handed dunk. As the Sixers’ bench and home crowd celebrated, Thybulle flashed a smile.
It was a connection made possible because Thybulle was kept out of the trade that brought Harden to Philly.
“The NBA is a cutthroat business, right?” Thybulle said. “It feels good to know that you’re valued. But it doesn’t make you any more comfortable. … The most important takeaway for me from that is just [I have] more opportunity to showcase my worth, and hopefully prove Daryl to have been right in his assumption that I’m a key part of this.”