The Dallas Mavericks purged their roster at the 2019 NBA Trade Deadline, but one survivor was Maxi Kleber. The German has shown excellent defensive instincts and rim protection, and has earned himself a long-term place in Dallas.
In a bid to build around their superstar Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks made a huge splash at the 2019 NBA Trade Deadline. They traded away three of their day one starters to the New York Knicks in order to land Kristaps Porzingis. The move had long-term goals in mind, but it also showed that the likes of Wesley Matthews and DeAndre Jordan, who were supposed to be the answer to rare losing seasons, were not that.
For Dallas, the deadline moves essentially showed that they did not believe many of their players were legitimate building blocks to go alongside Doncic.
One player who survived the cull is Maxi Kleber. The German is perhaps not a household name, but he will be sooner rather than later. His box score stats do not jump out at you, but his phenomenal level of team and help defense has meant that he could become one of the few long-term building blocks for the Dallas Mavericks.
A relatively unheralded free agency signing in 2017, Kleber has transitioned seamlessly to the NBA. Due to a combination of the Mavericks having a lot of centers in the roster over the last two years, and head coach Rick Carlisle still preferring to stick with traditional positions (though he is going to change this moving forwards), Kleber has spent the majority of his time at power forward for Dallas.
Per Basketball-Reference, 77 percent of his minutes have been spent at the power forward position. The number has been higher this year, likely because of the presence of Dwight Powell and DeAndre Jordan.
Kleber’s defense is highly impressive to the naked eye, but he also ranks very well statistically. He is 11th in the NBA in blocks per 48 minutes, with a lot of those coming from his terrific weak-side help defense. Metrics also paint the German in a positive light, as he ranks 13th in multi-year Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus and 22nd in Defensive Real Plus-Minus.
The Mavericks are a solid defensive team, as they rank 10th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, and Kleber is honestly the biggest reason for this. The Mavs’ defense is 7.4 points better off with Kleber out there, which is quite a big jump.
His best attribute is no doubt his defensive positioning, which means his film really needs a lot of care and attention to be fully appreciated. He has a terrific understanding of angles in the half-court, something that probably doesn’t earn him national attention. He blocks shots, but does it with finesse as opposed to raw power, which keeps him from being a deserved inclusion on highlight reels.
The play below is an example of Kleber’s great positioning.
The Knicks have run a basic offensive system under head coach David Fizdale, but they get penetration here. Damyean Dotson blows past Powell on the transition mismatch. Kleber not only rotates across to stop the drive, but he shows elite acceleration to contest Allonzo Trier’s corner 3, causing a horrible miss.
The Mavericks used a Dirk Nowitzki-Dwight Powell-Maxi Kleber lineup here, a lineup that has been scarcely used. The Knicks clearly wanted to attack it with good quick guard play, but Kleber is such a good defender that he managed to close off two angles at the same time.
Kleber has been excellent at defending spot-up shooters this year, ranking in the 85th percentile. A big reason for this is how well he positions himself, and his swift change of direction.
The play below shows how Kleber works in a team setting.
The Hornets attempt to run a double screen action to get an open jump shot for Jeremy Lamb. Dorian Finney-Smith momentarily loses Lamb, so Kleber hangs at the top of the paint, which stops Lamb taking the jump shot and also means he gets little room to drive into the paint.
When Finney-Smith recovers, Kleber plays terrific drop coverage on Marvin Williams, which ultimately forces the turnover. On this play, Maxi managed to play good help defense and then recover to defend his man, combining well with an equally impressive defender in Finney-Smith to make a play.
Since DeAndre Jordan was traded to New York, Kleber has been starting at the center position. This has given him more responsibility, but he has thrived with it so far. Given the fact the Dallas Mavericks have an oversized point guard, playing position-less basketball may be the way forward, which makes Kleber highly important.
Since he joined the team, the Mavericks have generally had traditional centers such as Nerlens Noel, DeAndre Jordan and Salah Mejri. The absence of all of these guys opens up the possibility for the Mavs to embrace a new style of basketball.
Plays such as the one below will only excite Rick Carlisle more as he looks to usher the Mavericks into a new era with a more unorthodox lineup structure.
The Charlotte Hornets like to push the pace under head coach James Borrego and get good matchups in transition. Here, they get Jeremy Lamb on Maxi Kleber by having Marvin Williams slip a screen. Lamb quickly learns this is not an advantageous matchup, as Kleber holds his own and forces a turnover.
Kleber has excelled as the “big defender” in switching situations in the pick-and-roll, as he ranks in the 80th percentile. Switching is important in this NBA, and having a big who can hang out in space is a huge advantage for the Mavs, especially since they have other nice defensive pieces.
Generally speaking, Kleber has a terrific understanding of space, which is maximized by his terrific footwork. You can see this on the play below from the Jan. 25 game against the Detroit Pistons:
The Pistons ran a clear-out post concept, but Kleber’s shifty footwork meant that Blake Griffin turned the ball over. Of the 247 players to have appeared in 40 games, Kleber ranks sixth in defensive field goal percentage allowed inside the paint. His post defense can be shaky at times, but on the whole he has to be considered one of the best paint defenders in the NBA at this point.
In what is perhaps surprising for a Carlisle-coached team, the Dallas Mavericks have been lifted by their defense this season. One of the major reasons for this has no doubt been Maxi Kleber. His film is terrific as he can defend in space, and he has a terrific understanding of when to shut off drives. His free agency situation is complicated by the fact he is a restricted free agent, but Dallas need to do whatever it can to bring him back as a long-term piece.
Moving forward, the Mavericks’ offense should take care of itself. They have two elite offensive players in Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic. What could be the real factor that sets them over the edge is the versatility of Maxi Kleber. Having a stretch center gives you more spacing naturally, and his size gives them a lot of small lineup possibilities. In what has been a strange two years for the Mavericks, it does look as if they found another diamond in the rough from Germany.