Should Simmons and Thybulle play together more in postseason?


Conventional wisdom is that the more shooting the Sixers place around Ben Simmons, the better.

By that standard, Matisse Thybulle is not the ideal partner. But, if you’re searching for someone to complement Simmons’ defensive talents and throw the opposition into a state of disarray, you won’t find a better player than Thybulle.

Simmons and Thybulle only played together for a minute Monday night in the Sixers’ 121-90 win over the Thunder, but they produced the highlight of the game, a Thybulle steal and ensuing Simmons dunk. 

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers couldn’t think of a better wing defensive duo that he’s coached. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever had that,” he said. “I had an incredibly great defensive team. I guess (Rajon) Rondo and Tony Allen would be considered similar, with (Kevin Garnett) on the floor, too. But not on those positions. It’s pretty awesome to watch. The other night we were playing zone and I was telling (assistant coach Dan Burke), ‘Zone with Ben not here is not a very good zone.’ But zone with Matisse and Ben on the floor can be a dominant zone. Those two guys, their closing ability on shots is just absolutely remarkable to watch.”

Simmons appreciated the praise when informed of Rivers’ comment. 

“That means a lot,” he said. “'Tisse and I know that we’re very gifted on the defensive side. We kind of have a similar mindset going in. We’re able to play off each other when he’s in the game; it’s a lot easier when we’re both in there. You saw it when he got that steal and I had that breakaway dunk. He’s got a high IQ on the floor. It’s tough for teams to score when there’s two guys like that on the floor.”

The question of how to maximize Thybulle and Simmons’ defensive abilities is an interesting one for the Sixers with the playoffs looming.

The duo is brilliant, of course, at forcing turnovers. On 653 Simmons-Thybulle possessions, opponents have turned the ball over 19.5 percent of the time, per Cleaning the Glass. Some context: Oklahoma City ranks 30th in turnover percentage and gives the ball away on 16 percent of its possessions.

Overall, though, the Sixers have a minus-1.3 net rating in Thybulle-Simmons minutes. 

Remove Dwight Howard from the equation and the numbers look a lot better. When Simmons and Thybulle play without the veteran center, the Sixers’ net rating is plus-3.6, according to Cleaning the Glass. That astronomical opponents’ turnover percentage rises even higher, to 22.4 percent. 

The difference with Howard off of the floor is unsurprising. It makes sense that lineups with two non-shooters and a below-average shooter would have some issues. It also makes sense that the Sixers would generally be better with Joel Embiid on the court than Howard. 

Rivers has liked the concept of building a cohesive second unit that includes Howard and Thybulle. That’s contributed to Thybulle and Simmons not playing much alongside each other. Thybulle defending the perimeter star Simmons is guarding as soon as the three-time All-Star takes a seat is attractive, too. 

What’s the right way to handle things? Among Rivers’ options are using Simmons some as a small-ball center offensively, giving Thybulle more time with the Sixers’ starters (there’s a case that can be made for him to start) and trimming Howard’s minutes. The issue isn’t as complicated as it might sound, since Howard’s playing time should go down naturally in the playoffs as long as Embiid is healthy. 

Rivers staying the course and trusting his gut on adjustments as games and series unfold is what appears most likely at this stage.

Whatever approach he takes, he knows he’s got a special pair of defensive wings. 

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