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March 10, 2023

Matisse Thybulle says 'fear-based play' was a factor during Sixers tenure

Matisse Thybulle, now with the Trailblazers, opens up about his time with the Sixers and the pressure he faced.

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Sixers-Matisse-Thybulle-2_0322 Colleen Claggett/for PhillyVoice

Former Sixer Matisse Thybulle

Matisse Thybulle was an eye-of-the-beholder player in Philadelphia, someone who was either one of their most important (and underutilized) players or a non-threat who couldn't play in a single big moment. And that dichotomy continues with Thybulle now in Portland, reflecting on his time with the Sixers.

The Inquirer's Keith Pompey spoke to Thybulle during a Blazers practice on Thursday, and the fourth-year wing shared the following:

“It’s hard when you are on such a talented team and a team that has so much demand to win now,” Thybulle said. “And for whatever reason, I fell out of favor in the lineup or whatever you want to call it. And I didn’t really feel like there was an opportunity to really showcase it. “Now, it feels like I have all the opportunity in the world. The opportunity is there, and it’s going to continue to be there. I’m only receiving encouragement to take advantage of it.”


“Any player that’s playing out of a place of fear is going to struggle,” he said. “Like there’s going to just be friction in everything you try to do. But when you play for a place of just discipline and receptiveness to what the game’s giving and what you are reading from it. I think there’s a lot more opportunity. “And for me, specifically, I feel like there was a lot more fear-based play in Philadelphia as opposed to what I’m doing here in Portland.” [Inquirer]

Immediately, this is an opportunity for the debate over Thybulle to settle into two camps.

  1. This is proof that Thybulle was not fit for the pressure a role player has on a contender
  2. This is proof that Doc Rivers failed in his management of Thybulle (and by extension, other young players)

I'm here to tell you that... it is probably a mix of both.

Let's start with what Thybulle did (or did not do) for himself. Prior to this season, his role had grown every year with the Sixers, with Thybulle going from exciting bench player as a rookie to a starter in his third season. While one could argue that Thybulle regressed in the most important offensive area for him, shooting, he was moved further up the pecking order for Philadelphia, given a chance to play important minutes alongside Joel Embiid and eventually James Harden. Those lineups were good in the regular season — the Harden/Tyrese Maxey/Thybulle/Tobias Harris/Joel Embiid lineup was 20.3 points better than opponents per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, admittedly in a 660-possession sample that needed a bit more time to work through.

And then, a decision made by Thybulle impacted the end of his season. Thybulle was unvaccinated last season, and as a result, he was unable to play in games in Toronto during Philadelphia's first-round series. Despite Rivers starting him through the end of the regular season with this potential matchup looming, Thybulle was removed from the starting lineup as the team prepared to play multiple games without him.

I am not going to get into a debate with anyone over the urgency of vaccination or the connected policies/laws, and will simply frame it as I did last season — Thybulle had a choice to make for himself, and by choosing not to get vaccinated, he knowingly removed himself from the opportunity to appear in playoff games for Philadelphia. It is not the typical way we think of "putting yourself before the team," but it was that type of decision all the same.

The optics of that decision were not helped by the fact that Thybulle was straight-up bad in the playoffs last season, and that his regular-season flaws turned into playoff alarms. The Sixers only managed to win his minutes once across nine postseason appearances in 2022, in their blowout 20-point win to open the Toronto series in Philadelphia. They were underwater in every game after that, including back-to-back outings to close the Heat series where the Sixers were -15 with Thybulle on the floor. Trust from the coaching staff had eroded, and Thybulle looked like a deer in headlights on several notable possessions in round two, afraid to even think about shooting when open looks were presented to him.

With more competition for minutes on the wing this season, Thybulle's ability to shoot was under the microscope yet again, and in limited action, he was below-average there once again, though there were pockets of success between periods of ineptitude. While Thybulle earned positive reviews for his summer work habits, there was no meaningful progress shown on the floor. Flashes as a self-creator were few and far between, and his defensive style has been a constant over these four years, high risk and high reward. When it came off, Thybulle was given plenty of minutes. When it did not, he took a seat next to the other role players on the bench. That feels about fair for his contributions.

On the other side of the story, yes, is Doc Rivers. One of the things I preach in this space is that so many of the things that are important for a coach (ego management, expectation setting, trust building, and so on) are never seen in the public eye. Every player needs a different approach to be the best version of themselves. Some guys are talented enough and mentally resilient enough to work through issues at a fast and furious pace, while others need softer, more thoughtful treatment. The latter is not inherently a bad thing, just a different thing.

Like any coach, Rivers has given some players longer leashes as they've struggled while banishing others to the shadow realm, and like most coaches, he tends to punish younger players more and more quickly. It took a much longer stretch of Montrezl Harrell stinkiness for Paul Reed to get minutes than it did when the roles were reversed. Isaiah Joe did not shoot well for Philadelphia during his time here, but his reps came in limited action. And from an organizational perspective, there is simply more importance that should be placed on developing and empowering someone like Thybulle compared to a standard bench player. With athleticism and theoretical upside to tap into, there was the incentive to bring along Thybulle whether we're discussing on-court impact or potential trade value. 

Even if Rivers needs to afford young players a bit more freedom to fail, the fact is that this is part of being part of a contender. Danuel House Jr. has been out of the rotation for months after getting early-season reps at Thybulle's expense, and he jumped right back into the rotation at a moment's notice recently. Shake Milton has been an impactful bench guy all season and still doesn't know if he'll play on any given night, and he perseveres. This is life as a non-essential player on a high-level team, and if you can't hang, there are opportunities for you in places like Portland.

Based on the early returns with the Blazers, Thybulle is in a better position to work through his weaknesses and progress as a player, removed from the stress of contending and the battle for minutes night-to-night. Long-term, it's certainly possible that the Sixers end up regretting the loss of Thybulle, who has shot well in Portland (a recent skid aside) in a starter's role. But these quotes from Thybulle sum up the issue both parties ran into in Philly — the player needs patience and playing time, and the team needs right-now production. 

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