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Sixers week in review: Thybulle's masterpiece, trade market heating up

The Ben Simmons trade market is reportedly heating up. What does that mean for the Sixers, and does that mean a trade is likely to occur in the coming weeks?

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Today's post will take on a slightly different format, as I'll recap most of the major news that came out last week that has an impact on the Philadelphia 76ers, while offering up some stray thoughts of my own along the way.

Covered in this post
  • Matisse Thybulle's defensive masterpiece against the Warriors.
  • Recapping the quickly evolving situation in Portland, and how that impacts the availability of Damian Lillard.
  • The trade market 'heating up', and what that actually means.
  • The Pacers potentially being ready to blow things up, and whether they could be looped into a Ben Simmons trade.
  • Podcasts to listen to.
  • What's coming up this week.
Matisse Thybulle's defensive masterpiece against the Warriors

Most of the post will focus on the changing dynamics of the trade market, which, according to reports, is heating up. Maybe. Perhaps. We'll dive into what that actually means.

But before we do that I have to offer up a few thoughts on the Sixers' performance against the Golden State Warriors, a surprising 102-93 win in what was easily their most impressive performance of the season.

I'm going to try to keep this relatively short, as the nature of this newsletter is going to be more of a focus on the big picture view of the team, especially at times like this when there is significant big picture developments to talk about. I might come back to Saturday night's performance again later on this week, though, because I think there are some big picture takeaways to glean from it as well.

Still, there are three things I wanted to point out here before we dive into #tradeszn.

The first is going to focus on Matisse Thybulle. It really was the magnum opus of his young basketball career, one of the best individual defensive performances we've seen from a wing in quite some time. Curry had just 8 points on 2-11 shooting (1-9 from deep) with Thybulle on him the other night, and while those stats are often times not perfectly representative of someone's defensive performance, it certainly was on Saturday.

What impressed me about Thybulle's performance isn't the two blocks he had on Curry, as Thybulle can make ridiculous change-of-direction perimeter contests look commonplace. I've grown used to them, which isn't necessarily fair to Thybulle, but it's the truth. What impressed me is how he virtually eliminated his mistakes against an exceptionally tough matchup.

Thybulle came out of Washington with the reputation of an off-ball terror who had playmaking instincts that were unique, and unteachable. But players of that ilk tend to be extremely susceptible to off-ball movement, with open cutting lanes freeing up as their eyes wander for the next passing lane to jump or drive to contest. They also tend to be hurt by offensive players who use their aggressiveness against them, something we saw Thybulle fall for in his very first game in the NBA, when Kemba Walker terrorized him with that devastating pump fake of his.

Thybulle has, of course, gotten better at limiting those weaknesses during his three years in the NBA, but Saturday was a masterclass. Curry can be devastating moving off the ball and he has every misdirection, pump fake and jab step imaginable in his bag. What impressed me about Thybulle wasn't the recovery blocks or the fighting through screens, although both were certainly impressive. What really caught my attention was how locked in he was, how focused he was every second he stepped foot on the court, and how few mistakes he made against an opponent who forces teams into making mistakes with the best of them.

Thybulle can take over a game defensively in many different ways and is as unique, and as impactful, of a wing defender as you'll ever see. Which is what makes his lack of offensive development so frustrating, because he is still an exceptionally tricky fit, in any offense but certainly one dominated by Joel Embiid in the post. But that is a post for another day.

Beyond Thybulle, two things stood out.

First, Andre Drummond's pick-and-roll defense. It's not something they'll want to do very often because it stresses out the back line of the defense so much, but Drummond jumped pick-and-rolls and moved his feet surprisingly well. Just as surprising was how consistently excellent his effort was.

Every second that Andre Drummond is extended 25+ feet out from the basket is a second that his teammates have to put out fires behind him, where they have to be locked in not only in their effort but also in their decision making, as one slight hesitation, much less a missed rotation, will result in an open corner 3 or a wide open layup. That's not intended as a slight on Drummond – it's not his mistakes that put pressure on his teammates but the nature of the scheme. Just go watch a Portland Trailblazers game to see how bad that scheme, when sloppily executed by  disengaged defenders, can look. Every second that Drummond took to recover back to the paint would have increased the chances Golden State got a good look out of the possession, which made Drummond hustling his ass off to get back absolutely crucial, and he did so impressively.

And, of course, there were the rotations by the players not involved in the primary pick-and-roll action, who had to consistently put out 4-on-3 fires all night. I'm not going to suggest that the Sixers made every right decision and contested every shot, and certainly the Warriors missing 36 threes made the consequences of the Sixers' aggressive strategy very easy to live with. Virtually all of Curry's 14 three-point attempts were with a hand in his face, but many of the shots that Bjelica, Iguodala and Porter missed were not.

Still, given how much pressure that pick-and-roll scheme places on the entire team, and given that the Sixers aren't exactly flush with long, agile defenders who are known for their recovery speed (this isn't the Bosh/Wade/LeBron Miami Heat here), the Sixers executed that scheme about as well as could have been reasonably expected, and while Thybulle, Embiid and Drummond will (deservedly) garner much of the attention, that defensive outcome was very much a team performance on Saturday.

On to the trade rumors.

Trade market heating up

It's been a busy week on the rumor mill, with most of it relating to the Sixers. I'll provide a bit of a recap here, before offering some of my own thoughts on it all.

Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers

Much of the news has been about, or at least related to, the Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers are in a freefall, having lost 8 of their last 9 games and standing at just 11-16 on the season, good for the 11th spot in the Western Conference.

Beyond that, there's been many layers of turmoil with the Blazers. Here's a rundown of some of the key reports.

  • Back on December 3rd the Blazers fired longtime general manager Neil Olshey after concluding an investigation into workplace misconduct.
  • Following Olshey's dismissal, Sam Amick and Sams Charania released an article on his downfall, and of the implications of it. Some of the key takeaways, especially as it relates to the Sixers:
    • Lillard wanted someone with experience to replace Terry Stotts, with Jason Kidd and Mike D'Antoni specifically mentioned. The Blazers hired Chauncey Billups, a first time head coach with only one year of experience as an assistant, instead.
    • Lillard wanted significant changes to the roster last offseason. Olshey and the Blazers mostly kept the status quo intact.
    • Lillard would like to play with Simmons in Portland.
    • The Sixers and Blazers did discuss the framework of a trade last summer that included Simmons for McCollum, a first-round pick and a young player, either Nassir Little or Anfernee Simons. The 76ers, instead, wanted McCollum and multiple draft picks and multiple swaps, which the Blazers rejected.
  • Adrian Wojnarowski then added more detail on Tuesday, with the main focus being on the two-year, $107 million contract extension that Lillard is seeking to sign next summer. The extension would tack on two more years to the three Lillard still has left on his current deal, and would pay him in excess of $50 million for each of the 2025-26 and 2026-27 seasons, when Lillard would be 35 and 36 years old, respectively. More from Woj:
    • Lillard and his camp had lost confidence that Olshey and ownership would be willing to give Lillard the extension.
    • The length of Lillard's existing contract -- this year and three more years -- would have made it difficult for Lillard to force his way to a major market (i.e. New York or Philadelphia) last offseason, as long-term team control would have encouraged smaller markets to throw their name into the sweepstakes.
    • Woj reports "that several top-level GM candidates who fit the profile of Portland's applicant pool" would have more interest in the job if they are given the green light to move on from the Lillard era in Portland.
  • Later on Tuesday, word came out that CJ McCollum had a collapsed lung. There's no timeline for his return to play.
  • On Friday, Woj reported that Damian Lillard is off-limits in a trade and that the franchise plans to continue to build around Lillard.
    • Woj also reports that trade conversations with Simmons are gathering momentum, mostly since we're now getting closer to the key December 15th date, when a significant chunk of the league will become trade eligilbe, which would help faciliate larger, multi-team deals.
  • Earlier today, Shams reported that the Knicks, Lakers, Wolves, Blazers, Kings, Pacers and Cavs are among the teams interested in Simmons, although he noted that "it's unclear how much traction Philadelphia truly has on any move."

That wraps up most of the updates about Lillard and the Blazers, so I'll give a few thoughts on what it all means before we wrap up the other stuff from around the league.

The change at the top of the Blazers basketball operations org chart is obviously the biggest change, at least as it relates to how it impacts the Blazers' organization as a whole. How much impact that has on the future of Damian Lillard won't be fully known until Portland makes a decision on who the long-term replacement will be.  

It does throw an interesting dynamic into the equation, though. McCollum was a feather in Olshey's cap, a win for Olshey and the scouting department that he always took a bit of pride in, perhaps too much. Once they signed McCollum to that extension in 2019 I think his days of having positive trade value mostly ended, so I don't think a McCollum trade was ever going to reinvent the Dame Lillard era in Portland as much as many expected, almost irrespective of who was making the final call. But Olshey's dismissal certainly increased the odds of a McCollum trade to get Lillard help, or at least it would have if CJ's health status wasn't so uncertain right now.

In terms of Lillard's future with the Blazers, though, I think the most significant bit of news is that the Blazers are reportedly hesitant on that contract extension, and that it could become a sticking point between Lillard and the franchise.

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