When the Sixers traded up with the Celtics to draft Matisse Thybulle 20th overall in 2019, the move was widely viewed as shrewd maneuvering by Boston GM Danny Ainge to leverage the Sixers open infatuation with Thybulle into more draft capital (the Celtics ultimately used the 24th and 33rd overall picks on Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards).
Though Thybulle was rightfully understood as an immediate impact defender (and a generally popular pick in a vacuum), the way it all unfolded was anything but a good look for the Sixers on draft night.
Fast forward almost two years later and the winner from that night couldn’t be more clear. It’d be an understatement to describe Thybulle as an “immediate impact defender,” and with Grant Williams being nothing more than a nice piece, and Carsen Edwards predictably flaming out, it’s clear that the 2019 Draft is a sliding doors moment in the Sixers current success.
Not only is Thybulle a real rotation piece who would likely go top-5 in a re-draft of 2019, but he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA whose case for First Team All-NBA Defense has slowly developed from remote to ironclad over the course of his 2021 campaign.
Based on a handful of metrics Thybulle is having one of the more prolific defensive seasons from a wing in recent memory. Per Cleaning The Glass, he currently ranks in the 100th percentile of both steal & block percentage, and will be the first wing to lead the position in both categories since Garrett Temple in 2013-14.
Thybulle isn’t quite in a class of his own when it comes to swiping the ball from opponents, but there haven’t been many players in NBA history who pair that trait with an equally elite ability to block shots the way that ‘Tisse does. This play pretty much sums up his impact on defense:
Highlight reel possessions like that one occur regularly when Thybulle is on the floor. You’ll be hard pressed to find someone who creates havoc for an opposing offense on a more consistent basis than he does, and his perimeter/interior defense profile from BBall Index offers a pretty clear glimpse at that.
Matisse is a menace on-ball, a shark in passing lanes/as a help defender, and a force at the rim. His ability to be elite in every facet of defense shouldn’t be taken for granted as something that every high-end perimeter defender brings to the table.
According to BBall Index, only two players in the NBA this season rank in the 90th percentile or higher in all three of pickpocket rating (measure of on-ball steals), passing lane defense (how active a player is off-ball), and blocks/75 possessions—Thybulle and Nerlens Noel. When you extend those parameters to the 80th percentile only five players qualify (‘Tisse, Noel, Covington, Drummond, Milsap); and extending those parameters to the 70th percentile only adds six more names (Draymond, Bazemore, Kyle Anderson, Oubre, PJ Washington, and Danny Green).
Again, that sort of multi-dimensional impact isn’t common—attempts to liken Thybulle to other feisty wing defenders in recent league history all miss that vital difference. Matisse is one-of-a-kind, and it’s not hyperbole to say the NBA hasn’t seen a defensive creature like this in a long time, if ever.
To further drive home that point: Thybulle leads the NBA in Defensive Box Plus-Minus by a wide-margin, and while that sort of raw data can be misleading at times, the gap between him (+4.2) and second on the list (Nerlens Noel, +3.4) leaves little doubt to his per-minute impact. If that mark holds up it would rank as 7th highest DBPM in league history.
BBall Index’s more reliable LEBRON data—a luck-adjusted on/off metric that stabilizes for sample-size and a player’s role/expected value—ranks Thybulle 8th in the NBA in D-LEBRON (+2.38), with six of the seven players ahead of him predictably being bigs. The only wing/perimeter player ahead of him is Robert Covington (+2.50), and the only other perimeter players with a D-LEBRON over +2.0 are Alex Caruso (+2.22) & Kent Bazemore (+2.03).
While Thybulle’s prowess flew somewhat under the radar throughout the season, the cat is pretty much out of the bag at this point. Unlike Embiid’s MVP campaign, Sixers fans won’t need to stump for Matisse to be in the first team All-NBA Defense discussion.
BBall Index’s estimates of the All-Defensive teams include Thybulle on the First Team (along with Ben on the second), and with NBA.com including him in their top-5 DPOY ranking we can see the broader (more casual) narrative begin to embrace ‘Tisse’s case as well.
The way I see it, Thybulle is a lock for First Team All-NBA Defense, and at this point the more interesting conversation is whether or not he’s worthy of Defensive Player of the Year consideration. While he likely won’t win the award this year, the fact that he’s even in the conversation is an accomplishment in it’s own right, and it isn’t hard to imagine him taking home a few of these trophies in seasons to come.
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