Maxi Kleber’s hidden talents make the Mavericks defense tick

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 6: Maximilian Kleber
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 6: Maximilian Kleber /

Maxi Kleber wasn’t the star of this summer’s import of talent from basketball leagues across Europe. Euroleague imports like Milos Teodosic to the Clippers, Ekpe Udoh to the Jazz and Bogdan Bogdanovic to the Kings were the flag-bearers of the NBA’s trend of culling Europe for cheap veteran talent. The high end of talent got the praise, but it’s been the depth of the import class that has truly made the league’s pilfering of the European game truly impactful. While Teodosic has dealt with injury and Bogdanovic has struggled with consistency, Mike James became the first player to turn his two-way deal into guaranteed money, Daniel Theis has been propping the Celtics’ rebounding up and most recently, Maxi Kleber has made waves, looking like a valuable piece of the Mavericks’ future.

Kleber, a German power forward, has emerged as a super-utility player for Dallas this year. After taking the first 10 games to find his footing, Kleber earned his way into the starting lineup in mid-November, and has been a mainstay since. That’s because of his commitment to doing little things that don’t show up in the box score. Kleber isn’t a stat-stuffer — he’s averaging just 6.1 points and 3.3 rebounds in 18.7 minutes per game — but he’s consistently found ways to impact the game in a positive way. He’s drawn assignments against Karl-Anthony Towns and Kevin Durant in the past week, he has the lowest turnover rate on the team at 6.7 percent and he even went off for 21 points in Saturday’s close loss to the Spurs.

The Mavericks’ interest in Kleber was not a surprise, as the 25-year-old hails from Wurzburg in central Germany, the same city Dirk Nowitki hails from. That made the path to the NBA simple. The Mavericks have had eyes on him for a long time as he’s played in German national team events with Nowitzki. However, the move to bring him over in the summer of 2017 was a bit of a shock. Kleber had excelled in the 2014 FIBA World Cup qualifiers, averaging 11.8 points per game and shooting 57.6 percent from the field and 53.3 percent from the perimeter. But in domestic play, he didn’t really pop off the stat sheet. Kleber averaged a pedestrian 9.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in his 2016-17 performance with Munich, and he didn’t have elite shooting numbers, either. Unlike many of his fellow Euro-to-NBA brethren, the NBA fan didn’t have much to go off in terms of projectable numbers.

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But just like he has shown in the NBA, Kleber’s body of work on film far outweighs the numbers he put up. Kleber wasn’t a scorer, but he was a lynchpin in Bayern’s ground-and-pound style of play, and his defensive skill set becomes readily apparent when you watch him in both European games and his NBA tape so far. In an attempt to highlight what’s made him so effective, and what drew him to the Mavericks in the first place, let’s show a comparison between his Euro film and his NBA film, focused on his best qualities.

We have to hone in on his defense first, which has been excellent in the past couple of weeks as he’s gotten comfortable with NBA athleticism. Kleber stands 6-foot-10, but he has the quickness to switch onto wings, something that fueled Bayern’s defensive success during his tenure there. He could competently defend isolations and pick-and-roll ball-handling wings, staying stride-for-stride with guards on drives.

Kleber also has a very solid closeout to 3-point shooters. He attacks under control, and his length is an asset here, closing off gaps to attack and bothering opponents with a hand to the face even when he’s not at an ideal distance. It isn’t aesthetically pleasing, but here we can see him cut off the drive and force a 30-plus foot shot.

In the NBA, Kleber’s found similar success, walling off the paint on closeouts with his lateral quickness and strength combination.

That lateral quickness is his biggest asset for Dallas, who has been cross-matching assignments with Kleber on the wings and the stockier Harrison Barnes guarding fours in recent weeks. It results in Kleber getting switched a lot on dribble-handoffs, and he’s done well stopping the isolations that result.

Kleber also has found a way to utilize the skill that made him pop most on this end. Kleber is an incredible weak side shot-blocker, and has routinely wiped away open shots with his quick-twitch reactions in weak side help. His five-block performance against Boston showcased this ability, capped off by this fantastic erasure of an open Kyrie Irving layup.

This was his calling card in Germany as well, as he would often contain initial drives, and then block the cutter on the backside cut after the dump-off pass. Kleber didn’t put up gaudy numbers consistently like Udoh would, but his seven-block performance against Bamberg last year was a good encapsulation of the variety of problems he can cause at the rim.

Kleber isn’t a true rim protector, which likely caps his defensive impact, to an extent. He’s allowing 61.7 percent at the rim this year per player tracking data, which is explained by his frame, which at 220 pounds isn’t ideal, even for a four. Pairing him with Nowitzki and Dwight Powell in the front court leaves Dallas’s defense a bit of a sieve at the rim.

However, the Mavericks rank 16th in defensive efficiency because they make the fact that they essentially blackballed the only rim protector they have not matter. With Kleber, Wes Matthews, Yogi Ferrell and Harrison Barnes together, the Mavericks can switch most on-ball screens comfortably and make getting to the rim difficult. This foursome has a 98.6 defensive rating in 162 minutes so far this season, thriving through versatility. That is helped immensely by Kleber being able to check offensive front court hubs and switch to defend guards as well.

Kleber isn’t flashy, and his impact isn’t completely obvious outside of those few weak side blocks. But his defensive skill set is diverse, and he’s an incredibly useful player, aided by his smarts and quickness that allows him to defend down positions. He’s a major reason Dallas’s defense has been mediocre this year, and as he continues to get comfortable within Rick Carlisle’s scheme, we should continue to see this impact long-term.

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As Dallas continues to march into the impeding post-Dirk rebuild, they need players like Kleber just as much as they need Dennis Smith to succeed. With his defensive skill set and work ethic, Kleber should be around in Dallas for a while.