With 81 regular-season games down and one to go, the Sixers aren’t sure.
That’s likely a fair way to describe the team at large. But it’s applied best over the past few days to Matisse Thybulle’s playing status and the Sixers’ starting lineup.
In his third professional season and first since making the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team, it appeared Thybulle had a starting spot secure. He was still flawed offensively and only played 57 fourth-quarter minutes over the 21 games between James Harden’s Sixers debut and the team’s win Tuesday in Indiana. The post-Harden trade starters did well, though — a plus-20.7 net rating, per Cleaning the Glass — and the first five was constant.
At the moment, the question of when Thybulle will next start is murky. He was ineligible to play Thursday in Toronto and the Sixers lost their first road game against the Raptors since players needed to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter Canada.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers then stuck with Danny Green for a home win Saturday afternoon against the Pacers, the Sixers’ 50th victory.
“Just for continuity’s sake,” Rivers said. “And I do like that it’s tough for teams to game plan on their trapping. I like being able to do either one. The surprise of that is good.”
The most damaging downside of Thybulle’s on-court presence has tended to be that the defense’s choices become easier. He’s aimed to refine many aspects of his game — better understanding star scorers’ tendencies; curbing his fouls; picking the right times to cut and to crash for offense rebounds. Green’s been glad to offer advice in those areas and marvels at Thybulle’s extensive defensive weaponry. But, in the short term, it’s almost impossible to imagine Thybulle overcoming the reasonable, consensus perception that defenses should have far greater concern about everyone else on the floor besides him.
Green’s age-34 season has been scattered with injuries, but his offensive reputation is much different than Thybulle’s. If an outside shot’s open, he’ll take it. And he’s made exactly 40 percent of his three-pointers over 818 NBA games. Green has looked good in his last two, hitting 10 of 17 triples.
“Danny’s experienced, man,” Harden. “He just brings more spacing. So we’re trying to just juggle — obviously Matisse missed last game — but we’re trying to juggle how we’re going to play depending on who we play against in the postseason. With the couple of days off after our last game tomorrow (against the Pistons), we can kind of figure those things out as far as who’s in the lineup, who’s not, and then we’ll go from there.”
Indeed, the Sixers will know their first-round playoff opponent Sunday night. If the team beats Detroit and the Celtics lose to the Grizzlies, the Sixers will face the Bulls in a No. 3 seed vs. No. 6 seed series. Otherwise, it will be Sixers vs. Raptors in Round 1.
Joel Embiid, who essentially clinched the scoring title Saturday with a 41-point, 20-rebound performance, has grown adept at handling unusual, uncomfortable subjects. Ben Simmons' absence was a popular one before the Sixers' trade for Harden.
What’s Embiid's perspective on the Thybulle situation? And is there any expectation the 25-year-old could become eligible to play in Toronto?
“I honestly don’t know,” Embiid said. “Hopefully he’s able to play, because we need him. He’s a big piece. He’s a big part of our team. But other than that, it is unfortunate and there’s really nothing I can say.”
Under normal circumstances, coaches can make the credible claim that outsiders focus excessively on starting lineups. Indeed, choosing starters is just one component of the high-stakes who, when and how decisions that determine playoff series. For instance, it would be significant if Rivers increased Green and Thybulle’s minutes together, believing in the Sixers’ success with that duo on the floor over the last two years.
But there’s no point pretending the uncertainty with Thybulle is a minor Sixers story. If the team draws the Raptors and Thybulle is absent for Games 3, 4 and potentially 6, it is obvious Green would be important.
The other aspects of the Sixers' position on the wing are not as clear.
“Obviously Danny’s a great shooter and a pretty good defender, too,” Embiid said. “I think we’ve just got to adjust. They’re both great players so whoever starts, it doesn’t matter. We just want to come in and really build a chemistry with everybody that’s going to play and everybody that’s on the floor.”