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October 18, 2019

Sixers mailbag: Could Matisse Thybulle eventually steal a starting spot?

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Don't start putting him in the Hall of Fame just yet, but Matisse Thybulle has given the Sixers something they've rarely had during the preseason — a nice surprise. The Sixers have been unfortunate to watch many of their young players fall victim to mysterious injuries and circumstances to begin their careers, so just seeing flashes of competence and normalcy from a first-round pick feels like a bonus for Philadelphia.

Remember, this is the team that drafted a kid everyone thought was a no brainer No. 1 overall pick and watched his jumper disappear into the night. So it goes.

As I knock on wood gratuitously, we start the final Sixers mailbag of the preseason with questions about Philadelphia's young defensive ace, who has fans dreaming of bigger and better things down the road.

Quick sidebar — I got maybe five or six variations of this question, so preseason fever has clearly overtaken us all. Nothing wrong with that. This question is basically just about Thybulle, because I can't see the Sixers subbing out Horford for a bog-standard veteran wing.

To answer the first part of the question, of course they are. They had to pay a premium to lure him away from Boston and clinch the deal, but the Sixers did not go out and sign Al Horford so he could park his butt on the bench in big moments. Philadelphia knows they'll deal with some negatives in order to make this jumbo starting five work, and they're prepared to live with them right now.

In an ideal world, the Sixers win the next four straight titles as Horford rides off into the sunset, asserting their place among the great teams in the history of sports. It's unlikely the future will be that kind to them, though, and they'll have to figure out how to minimize their flaws (shooting, shot creation, and crunch-time execution are three that come to mind) while one of those key members ages into his late 30's. Expecting Horford to hold up as a power forward that long probably isn't wise.

So moving someone into that spot in the lineup, Thybulle or otherwise, is inevitable at some point. The more interesting question is when that will happen. Perhaps it says something about the fanbase's trust in this jumbo lineup working if they're already asking for when the shiny new thing can replace the team's marquee free-agent signing.

Thybulle's defense has been almost exactly the same as it was at Washington, so it doesn't feel like a stretch to say he'll be a no-doubt contributor in year one. But we've seen players with much better two-way pedigrees stumble and fall during their first moments in crunch time, in the playoffs, and for years before they're really ready for primetime. His defense has been good enough to ignore holes elsewhere, but his shooting has been below average, and that's going to matter more when he's playing against full-strength teams who are spending more prep time on their opponents.

Horford is one of the most unselfish guys in the league and maybe that makes it easier to sell him on being big man Manu Ginobili eventually, but I don't think you can play that card until at least next season, and that assumes Thybulle is absolutely lights out this season. The value of a veteran is in their consistency, and I'd expect quite a bit of volatility from Thybulle this season. That's just how the game goes.

Thybulle could still have an important role late in games when you're subbing offense/defense. If the Sixers need one stop to win a game, couldn't you see Thybulle stepping in for Tobias Harris? I would just encourage everyone to take this one step at a time. The kid has been amazing, but it's going to take a lot to dislodge experienced starters with great resumes on big-money deals.

We definitely know very little about this team still. I don't think a bunch of blowouts against inferior talent prove much for this group, though I think it's a good sign that they are taking the preseason seriously and striving to build championship habits.

Shooting is the one area sticking out for me on the negative side right now, and it starts with Harris in particular. The Sixers need him to be the elite shooter he had shown himself to be prior to arriving in Philadelphia to make this thing work, and he has not even sniffed average since joining the Sixers, shooting 33 percent from deep last season if you combine his regular season and playoff numbers in Philly.

Even JJ Redick went through slumps in Philadelphia, so the cold spell in the preseason isn't a red flag by itself. His scoring effectiveness in the mid-post has been encouraging, for example. But if Harris doesn't turn the corner, someone is going to have to pick up the slack beyond the arc amongst the big-minute guys, and I am not sure who the natural candidate is. It's a group filled with guys who have shooting potential, but none with pedigree you can absolutely count on no matter what.

Truthfully, I think there are two different points being made, one by local fans and the other by national observers:

  1. The Sixers have a much better bench to start the year than they've had in years past
  2. The Sixers' bench lags behind some of the better ones around the league

Both can be true. Philadelphia, as I've written a lot this preseason, has a solid nine-man rotation heading into the year, with decent options for the 10th spot. But is the upside of that group all that high? Probably not. They lack the second-unit creator who can fill it up in a hurry, a la Lou Williams, that some of the more well-regarded benches possess around the league.

That's also a product of their team construction. It's okay for the Sixers' bench to be just okay! It's the cost of doing business for a team with a loaded starting five.

For those who haven't been keeping up with this situation, Buddy Hield basically issued an ultimatum to the Sacramento Kings — pay me, or I'm looking for greener pastures.

Hield would be a godsend on offense for this Sixers team. Since joining the Kings in the middle of the 2016-17 season, he has shot the absolute crap out of the ball, and he connected on nearly 43 percent of his looks from deep last year on 7.9 attempts per game.

But I don't think there's a workable deal here. The Sixers aren't in a position to give more players big money moving forward, absent a team-shifting trade, and they don't have any players they're willing to give up who are going to move the needle in a trade for a young piece anyway.

Way too early to tell yet. Let's see where this team is headed, how they handle adversity, and whether Elton Brand decides to start firing up a burner account or two before we make any future predictions about guys staying or going.

With Zhaire Smith lagging as far behind as he is at this point, I think it would be crazy to pick him in this battle. Thybulle is going to be in the rotation from day one, whereas Smith might have to spend time in the G-League in order to get playing time early in the season. It would take an incredible leap forward to change the hierarchy, and those leaps forward typically come in the offseason.

There are times when I think Brett Brown is giving a political answer to stay out of trouble, but when he says, "I'm going to let the gym speak," I believe him. If Smith had shown enough in camp and practices to wow the coaching staff, he would absolutely have been given a chance to play more in the preseason. 

Look, you see the same thing the coaches do when he has gotten minutes. Smith often looks like an athlete who just happens to be playing basketball, which isn't surprising for a guy changing positions that just missed most of his rookie season with a broken foot and a life-threatening allergic reaction. The Sixers need guys who are playing instinctually, and Smith doesn't have the necessary experience for that to even be possible. Say what you will about someone like Furkan Korkmaz or even Shake Milton, but they mostly know where to be and when. 

There's plenty of time for him to figure it all out, and it's perfectly understandable that the coach of a potential title winner has given other guys a chance first.

Thybulle's emergence has made the cost of the trade for him feel like nothing, but it's worth remembering they had to trade for him to begin with because they telegraphed their interest in him. It's not a stretch to say they could have Thybulle AND Carsen Edwards if they had kept their cards a little closer to the vest.

Edwards is exactly what he showed he was in college, an undersized guard who nonetheless can shoot the hell out of the ball. He would have been a really useful piece for a Sixers team that, as we discussed above, lacks a certain punch from their bench, and it'll sting a little bit extra every time he goes off because he could have been a Sixers player.

This will sound obvious, but you can't win a championship without being very good on both ends of the floor. There are not a lot of serious contenders who finish the regular season outside of the top-10 in either defensive or offensive efficiency. A team doesn't need to be equally great on both sides to win a title, but they have to care and invest just as much in getting a stop as they do getting buckets. Both teams in the Eastern Conference Finals last season were top-five defenses in the regular season.

There are outliers here, certainly, and sometimes you have to throw out rankings and factor in things like teams coasting and what their ceiling is instead of their floor. But ignore defensive trends at your own peril.

Hard-hitting question from Dave. Not a look I tend to go with, though I think the best fall and winter jersey combo for a fan is a jersey as the top layer with a complimentary-colored hoodie underneath. Give yourself enough padding to stay warm, and options if you need to cool off on those weird days when the temperature picks back up.

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