The NBA trade deadline is fast approaching, and the Philadelphia 76ers are first in the Eastern Conference with a 31-13 record. Joel Embiid is having an MVP-level season, Ben Simmons is a Defensive Player of the Year contender, Tobias Harris has blossomed in his second stint with Doc Rivers, and President of Operations Daryl Morey’s offseason acquisitions are contributing nicely.
Despite Philadelphia’s surge to the top of the Eastern Conference, it still doesn’t belong with the Brooklyn Nets’ four-headed monster or the Los Angeles Lakers’ star tandem. While a big move like acquiring Kyle Lowry or smaller trades for role players would help, Philadelphia’s fate lies in the development of two guys they already have: Shake Milton and Matisse Thybulle.
Over the course of this season, Milton and Thybulle have emerged as the support for Embiid, Simmons and Harris that Philadelphia needs. The two players added new components to their game, led Philadelphia to key wins in the absence of the franchise’s stars, and both are just 24 years old. Trading Milton or Thybulle should be out of the question. The progress of these homegrown guys is Philadelphia’s ticket to its first finals appearance since 2001.
Counting on the improvement of Milton and Thybulle, however, is not like expecting Simmons to develop a jumper. It is also not blind faith in the linear progression of two young players. Their progress in the 2020-21 season alone is indicative of their potential as mainstays on a championship team.
Thybulle leads the league in steals per 36 minutes with an average of 2.9, and he is well ahead of all perimeter players in blocks with 1.9 per 36 minutes. A defensive menace and All-Defensive Team caliber wing, Thybulle will be even more valuable against a Brooklyn team that boasts Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant.
The concern with Thybulle has always been that he could get played off the court. His lack of offensive firepower and incompatibility with Simmons, who also can’t space the floor, causes worry for Philadelphia come playoff time. In his second half of the season, however, he’s shot 38.25% from three-point land and nearly doubled his points per game. Thybulle is quickly responding to concerns about his offensive struggles, and continued growth will allow him to become a bona fide star and All-Defensive Team staple.
Milton, meanwhile, has become the ball-handler that Philadelphia has needed to complement Simmons. Despite some inconsistency, Milton has improved from a solid sophomore season and shown progress as a defender. More importantly, he’s part of Philadelphia’s best five-man group by a wide margin, and he is depended on to generate offense with the team’s stalest units. Likewise, in games without Embiid or Simmons, Milton has also risen to the occasion to lead Philadelphia offensively.
Milton has hit just 30% of his three-point attempts, but his poor shooting is no cause for concern –– other parts of his shooting game have been fine. This is his best year yet from the free-throw line, and he is making nearly 50% of his attempts from between 16 feet and the three-point line, up from just 38% the past two seasons. There is a strong chance he will overcome this slump, and his floor spacing will become an asset again. He is already becoming the ball-handling scorer that Philadelphia has desperately needed over the last few years.
For Philadelphia, trading for Lowry or Evan Fournier would be appealing. Smaller deals, like trading late draft picks packaged with players who aren’t earning minutes for contributors like George Hill or Nemanja Bjelica, are almost a necessity. Competing with Brooklyn or Los Angeles without improving the current roster will prove difficult, and Morey should certainly capitalize on his team’s open window.
Philadelphia, however, should not lose focus of what will elevate it to a championship-level squad. Thybulle and Milton should not be included in any trade deadline deals this year; on the contrary, they should be considered core pieces in Philadelphia’s process. A franchise led by cornerstones Embiid, Simmons and Harris, and bolstered by the progress of Thybulle and Milton, is Philadelphia’s best chance at becoming NBA champions.
Saar Shah is a first-year in the McDonough School of Business. The Fifth Quarter appears online every other week.