Much has been said about the pairing of Joel Embiid and James Harden since the latter was acquired by the Philadelphia 76ers last month.
Unsurprisingly, the opinions on these two and the potential of their team are polarizing. Some have been quick to anoint them as the best inside-out duo since Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Others have already tagged the pair as a disaster waiting to happen, especially when considering Harden’s history of poor playoff performances.
What is clear is that the Sixers have two of the best players in the league today. Embiid is currently neck and neck in this year’s NBA Most Valuable Player race with Nikola Jokic and Harden won the same award just four years ago with the Houston Rockets.
Philadelphia has title expectations and a high floor by default with these two on board. However, it will ultimately be their role players who will determine their ceiling and whether they are true contenders or merely pretenders this season.
Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey will need to score at an efficient clip on a regular basis to keep defenses honest when defending the Sixers’ stars. An interesting subplot to monitor will be which of them emerges as the third option on offense come the postseason.
While the scoring of these two are prized, the more crucial supporting pieces down the road may turn out to be Matisse Thybulle and Georges Niang. Although these two are far from household names, their play over these next few months may subtly shape the narrative of this Philadelphia team and its star combo.
Their importance to this team was on full display in their 111-101 win over the Dallas Mavericks. Embiid and Harden both posted their usual gaudy statlines yet it was Thybulle and Niang who took care of the finer details that were equally important to their victory.
They finished with rather modest statistics–Thybulle had 10 points, two rebounds, two steals, and a block while Niang tallied 12 points and five rebounds–but were the only two Sixers to post a double-digit +/- on the evening.
The 6’5 Thybulle hounded Luka Doncic all night long, bothering him with his length and active feet. The prolific Doncic was limited to only 20 points on five-of-20 shooting and he also chalked up six turnovers.
Philadelphia will need Thybulle to be at his best come the postseason where they will have to contend with several perimeter stars, from Kevin Durant to Jimmy Butler to Jayson Tatum, if they want to win the East.
The 25-year-old has also made improvements on offense in his third year in the NBA, making up for his poor perimeter shooting (29% on threes this year) with crafty cuts to the basket that punish opponents for sagging off him.
Furthermore, unlike his former teammate Ben Simmons, Thybulle does not let his weak percentages hold him back from taking open shots. Against the Mavericks, he hit both of his three-point attempts on the way to finishing a perfect three-of-three from the field and two-of-two on free throws.
If Thybulle can continue being a positive–or at least neutral–contributor on this side of the ball, it will allow the Sixers to reap the benefits of his top notch defense without having to compromise their offense.
Niang is on the opposite end of this spectrum as it is his shooting that is more precious to Philadelphia. Now in his sixth year in the league and first with this team, he is averaging career-highs across the board in the biggest role of his career. The 28-year-old is playing 23.2 minutes per game which has allowed him to average 9.4 points, two threes, and 2.7 rebounds.
The shooting ability of Niang, a career 40.1% three-point shooter, is vital to the success of this group. He has helped keep defenses honest and makes them pay when they try to double team Embiid and Harden. Having a reserve player like him is a necessity for a franchise that has title aspirations and his emergence as an integral part of their rotation has been an underrated development.
Niang came up big in their win against the Mavericks, hitting three straight three-pointers late in the third quarter which sparked a run that turned a two-point lead into an eight-point advantage at the end of the quarter. It was the jolt of energy that they needed as they kicked off the fourth quarter with another burst that blew the game open and established a 20-point lead.
What makes Niang even more valuable is that he plays with the typical high motor and low maintenance ego that often comes with unheralded players like him. He has decent size at 6’7, competes hard on both ends of the court, and is by no means a liability on defense. More controversially, it can be argued that he is a much better fit on this team than Tobias Harris on a significantly cheaper contract, but that is a dilemma that can be addressed in the offseason.
Thybulle and Niang are far from household names yet their value to this team cannot be understated. They expertly fill the gaps around Embiid and Harden with their specialist skill sets that have long been an unheralded building block of winning teams.
These Sixers have a chance to be special given the amount of star power that they have, though it will ultimately be their supporting cast who will determine if they can triumph. These kinds of players spell the difference between a two-point loss and a three-point win.
It will be fascinating to see how Thybulle and Niang perform come playoff time in the biggest roles of their careers and it may quietly determine how we remember this Embiid and Harden partnership.