Matisse Thybulle Is The NBA’s Crown Prince Of Chaos

Okay, you’re entering a sandcastle building contest. Teams of five, timed (let’s say 20 minutes), tournament-style, head-to-head against another team. When the buzzer sounds, it goes to the judges, whoever built the best sandcastle wins. But there’s a twist: In addition to building your own sandcastle, you can also sneak over and try to wreck the castle your opponent is building. Kick it over, tackle it, whip rocks at it from a distance, whatever you want. Mass chaos at the beach.

How do you build your team? Do you get the five best sandcastle-builders you can find and hope their skills at creation will overcome whatever the opponent brings to the table? Do you sacrifice a little building for people who are also good at guarding the perimeter?

Or perhaps you stack your team with four good builders and find one guy who is just really good at wrecking the other team’s castle. He doesn’t even try to build most of the time. He just sneaks over and reaches his long arms out and whacks their towers smack down into their moat, every time, right before the buzzer sounds, taking the pressure off of the rest of your team to build a perfect castle because your opponents’ castle is in disarray. Victory through anarchy. Triumph via havoc. Your adversaries vanquished and demoralized and covered with the sand that was, as recently as moments earlier, a load-bearing wall of their castle.

What should we take away from this exercise? Two things, mainly:

  • I should never be put in charge of a sandcastle building contest
  • You should consider putting Philadelphia 76ers defensive dynamo Matisse Thybulle on your sandcastle team

This is where we rattle off some stats for the people who like stats. Matisse Thybulle finished tied for third in the NBA in total steals despite playing about 500 fewer minutes than anyone else in the top-20. He finished 19th in the league in total blocks despite being a backup shooting guard. If you stretch his numbers out to starter minutes, he would average something like three steals and two blocks every game, which is crazy. He’s the only player in NBA history to accumulate 100 steals and 70 blocks in a season while playing fewer than 20 minutes per game. He did all of it in just his second season, after a shortened and disjointed rookie campaign that ended inside a bubble in Disney World. It’s all very impressive.

But the stats aren’t even the point, really. You have to watch the way he does it. It’s honestly incredible. I have never seen a player have this much of an impact on a game without scoring, like, at all. I have definitely never seen a player make defense look this exciting. Defense is usually a slog, a try-hard endeavor meant to slow down an opponent and gum-up the flow of a game. Great defense can make for an ugly basketball game.

Matisse Thybulle does not make the game ugly. Matisse Thybulle makes defense look cool as hell. Like, look at this play, in which he chases down Zach LaVine, one of the best athletes alive who is used to blowing by opposing defenders and scoring, and spikes the ball against the backboard like it’s a dang volleyball.

Or this play, where he appears out of nowhere to block Devin Booker’s three-point attempt.

Imagine being Devin Booker on that play. You run through a maze of picks and other subterfuge to get free, jet to the corner to take the highest-percentage three-point shot there is, everything going exactly to plan, and then POOF, Matisse Thybulle appears out of nowhere to swipe your shot into the expensive seats, almost as though he leaped through a portal along the baseline. Zero points. Sandcastle destroyed. Or, to quote Zach Lowe:

He might be the best perimeter defender in the world. He’s one of the best perimeter defenders I’ve ever seen. Thybulle is some sort of phantom. He doesn’t move in normal ways. He’s in one spot, and then suddenly, without warning, he’s somewhere else 15 feet away — only not enough time has passed for any human to traverse 15 feet. Thybulle doesn’t move. He apparates.

I could very easily just keep posting highlights of cool defensive stuff Thybulle has done this year. In fact, now that I think about it, I will. It’s a lot of fun. Here’s a play where he racked up a block and a steal on the same possession.

Here’s a play where he blocked a shot and then saved the ball from going out of bounds in the same series of motions, which he made look natural despite being a borderline impossible thing to make your body do. Think about what would happen to your limbs if you tried to do this. Best case scenario, you end up in the hospital tied up in a pretzel, like a cartoon character.

There was one point in a game this season where Doc Rivers tossed out a zone defense with Thybulle and Ben Simmons out front. It is my suspicion that he only did it that one time because it was too mean to the other team. Every pass was tipped or altered, every ball-handler was smothered before they could enter the paint. This highlight is not technically from that stretch of game, in which about 14 feet of wingspan and reflexes created bedlam for four minutes, but it provides the same energy and ends with a dunk. Plays that end in dunks are cool.

Sometimes he does this thing where it looks like he lets a dribbler get past him on purpose so he can sneak up from behind and block their jump shot. It’s become one of my favorite things in all of sports. It’s almost like playing regular defense is getting too easy for him, too boring, so he has to increase the difficulty just to keep things interesting. That’s what he’s doing in the image at the top of this page.

It’s a blast to watch how confused players get when this happens. They do not understand how any of it worked. Which, really, is kind of fair. It’s not supposed to happen. That shot is not supposed to get blocked. It would be like if you picked up a sandwich and started moving it to your mouth and then you bit down into thin air and your empty hand where the sandwich just was. Your whole reality is now in flux. You are allowed to be perplexed about it.

In a way, I almost like that he has such a limited game on offense. Would I enjoy it if he could score 20 points per game on 40 percent shooting from three? Well, yes, sure. I have rooted for the Sixers for my entire life and would love to see many good things happen to them. But still, it’s kind of perfect this way. It’s like the one tragic flaw a superhero has, Kryptonite to Superman, a software malfunction in Ironman’s suit, a lifetime of pain and abandonment issues after watching your parents get murdered outside the opera for Batman. It makes him relatable and more fun to root for and watch. It makes it really exciting when he dunks on someone or hits a three, in part because it’s like finding a $20 bill on the ground and in part because it triggers the part of my brain that thinks he might have just unlocked the secret to offense, which he has not. Not yet, at least. But it’s really quite thrilling to daydream about. Hope is a wonderful thing, even when it’s fleeting.

For now, though, this is enough. This might always be enough. I never thought I would say anything like this because my ideal basketball game has always been one that ends 150-149 and features dozens of alley-oops and deep threes (I am a child), but here we are. I love the energy of it all. I love the chaos he creates when he enters the game. But mostly, I just love watching Matisse Thybulle turn everyone’s beautiful sandcastles into piles of stupid rubble. Summer is here and it’s cruel as hell. I can’t get enough.