Few NBA players are better qualified to speak on zone defense than Matisse Thybulle.
After thoroughly enjoying zone at the University of Washington, where he won the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2019, Thybulle now thinks zone can’t be an every-possession fixture in the NBA.
There are obvious parallels between Thybulle’s description of how NBA teams employ zone and how Sixers head coach Doc Rivers has used him this season.
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“We played strictly zone in college,” Thybulle said following the Sixers’ Tuesday shootaround and before their loss to the Wizards. “You could never do that in the NBA. Zone is kind of just to throw the other team off and to get them on their heels so that you can initiate your own attack, or to just throw off their momentum. I think we’ve actually gotten really good at using it as a strategic thing to throw off the game, muck it up a little bit so we can get momentum rolling in our favor.”
Rivers hasn’t exclusively called upon Thybulle to “muck up” games. He’s asked him at times to guard specific scoring threats, or to simply bolster the team’s perimeter defense. Thybulle hasn’t played much overall, though. A five-minute outing Tuesday decreased his minutes per game to 11.3.
How does Rivers view Thybulle's role?
“We’ve got a lot of guys,” he said pregame. “I’ve got a feeling you could probably ask that after every game about one of our guys. We built the team that way and each game will be different for some of the guys. There’s guys who are clearly in the rotation daily, and then there’s guys who will be game by game.”
From Thybulle’s perspective, dealing with that uncertainty and being ready for fluctuating minutes is “a survival skill.”
“If you become bitter and resentful, that’s going to hurt your ability to perform. … When I was a rookie, emotionally, it had a stronger toll on me,” he said. “It changed my attitudes, it changed my behaviors. But now, as you can see, there’s no dark cloud looming over me. I think as a professional, you learn how to go through storms and still show up and do your job.”
Thybulle is a two-time All-Defensive Second Team selection (and yet again the top NBA wing in steal rate outside of garbage time, per Cleaning the Glass), so he’s not the average player on the bubble of a rotation. He’s also continued to be part of very successful lineups. In 106 possessions, the unit of Tyrese Maxey, Thybulle, Tobias Harris, P.J. Tucker and Joel Embiid has a plus-33.4 net rating thanks to elite defensive numbers. Thybulle was a member of the Sixers’ first-choice starting lineup for the majority of last season’s second half, and that group sported a plus-20.3 net rating.
Defense is still Thybulle’s calling card, though, and he’s yet to show the kind of dramatic offensive improvement that would warrant opponents treating him as a shooting threat. The 25-year-old is 11 for 36 (30.6 percent) from three-point range. Rivers last season saw Thybulle as similar to Lou Williams in that he must excel at his stronger side of the ball to merit minutes — being “dynamic defensively every night,” in Thybulle’s case.
“That hasn’t changed at all,” Rivers said Tuesday.
While Tucker’s right hand issue is a notable injury concern, the Sixers may very well have a full roster available soon. Maxey is close to returning from his left foot fracture, barring any late-stage setbacks, which means Rivers should have more ways he can handle those game-by-game decisions. He’s been asked twice in the last week about Maxey possibly coming off the bench and twice indicated he’s open to just about anything.
“What do you think? You think with our staff, we have not thought about all these things? We really have,” Rivers said Tuesday. “Even when he wasn’t there, we always (thought) about it. We have discussions about lineups every day, and we’ll probably continue to have that.”
With Thybulle in particular, it still seems Rivers isn't finding the choices easy at all.
“It’s nice, but it’s all tough,” Rivers said of the Sixers’ many options. “It’s tough for guys who don’t get consistent minutes. It is. It’s hard. And so every coach would love it to be the (best) nine guys are just so much better than everybody else, but your other four guys are really good. That never works that way, and we get that.
“But at some point, if he’s playing consistent minutes, that means he’s earned that. And that would be great for all of us because when he’s at the top of his game defensively, he really helps our team.”