Everyone loves an underdog story, so it’s no wonder that Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber are beloved in Dallas. The Mavericks signed Finney-Smith out of college as an undrafted free agent in 2016, and added Kleber the same way via Wurzburg, Germany, in 2017. They knew both players would be projects, and that was fine. Dallas had just embraced the fact that they weren’t going to be able to win another championship with Dirk Nowitzki and began planting the seeds of a rebuild. Finney-Smith and Kleber had just two jobs — hustle and shoot 3-pointers.
They did the first exceptionally well. Their shooting, though, took some time to develop. Finney-Smith only shot 30% from deep his first three seasons. Kleber fared a bit better, shooting 33% on 3-pointers his first two seasons. But that was okay. The Mavericks were fully invested in developing them, and they were in the thick of losing games in order to acquire lottery talent for the first time in a decade.
Their patience paid off, because Finney-Smith hit 37% of his 3-pointers in 2019-20. This came despite an increase in 3-point attempts to a career-high 4.3 per game. In the same season, Kleber improved to 37% from behind the arc as well on weirdly coincidental 4.3 attempts per game. Their improved shooting happened to coincide with Luka Doncic taking a massive leap forward in his second season, which made the Mavericks a dangerous team. With their young superstar penetrating and distributing, Finney-Smith and Kleber were part of a group of Dallas shooters that made defenses pay when they collapsed on Doncic.
The question entering this season was whether Finney-Smith and Kleber’s shooting in 2019-20 was an improvement or an aberration. Increasing your 3-point shooting by six percent in one season is significant, and no one should be blamed for wondering if Finney-Smith just caught fire for one year. Kleber didn’t raise his 3-point percentage as sharply, so there was reason to believe his improved shooting was real.
Finney-Smith shot just under 33% from deep through the first month of the season (which included missing nine games due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols). It looked like maybe 2019-20 was just a hot streak. But since February 1, his 3-point shooting has improved to 38% on 4.5 attempts per game.
Kleber, however, came out scorching hot. He shot 47% from deep through his first nine games. Kleber missed 11 games due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols as well. He didn’t miss a beat when he returned, though, shooting 41% on 3-pointers since February 1.
So Finney-Smith and Kleber are shooting well from three. That’s exactly what the Mavericks need, right? Maybe not. Shooting well might not be enough. The Mavericks need Finney-Smith and Kleber to be elite from deep.
Look at this still from the Mavericks’ game against the Jazz Monday night.
First of all, notice that the Jazz are guarding Finney-Smith with Rudy Gobert instead of a wing like Royce O’Neale. Then, look at how much space Gobert is giving Finney-Smith. He’s just a step or so from the lane.
Now look at this still from the game against the Bucks on Thursday night.
The Bucks are guarding Kleber with Brooke Lopez, who is completely ignoring Kleber on the perimeter. Instead, he’s focusing on gumming up Josh Richardson’s drive. The Bucks are perfectly fine with Kleber getting a wide open 3-pointer.
Why are teams willing to give two players with above league average shooting percentages on 3-pointers such open looks?
The problem lies with their shooting percentage on wide open 3-pointers. The NBA classifies a shot as wide open when the closest defender is six or more feet away from the shooter. As seen above, teams clog the lane to limit Doncic, leaving Finney-Smith and Kleber all alone. Well over half of Finney-Smith’s field goal attempts are wide open 3-pointers. 55% of Finney-Smith’s shots come from behind the arc without a defender near him. Kleber takes even more, as 62% of his attempts are wide open 3-pointers.
Compare those numbers with teammate Tim Hardaway Jr., who is almost never left wide open on the perimeter. Only 15% of Hardaway’s shots are wide open 3-pointers. Kristaps Porzingis is similar, as only 19% of his shots are wide open and from deep. Jalen Brunson is at 21%.
Finney-Smith is hitting 39% of those wide open looks. At 43%, Kleber is converting those attempts at a bit higher rate. They’re both actually shooting better on those looks than Porzingis, who converts only 33% of his wide open shots. But they don’t have the reputation as shooters, so defenses choose to give them plenty of space. To command more attention, Finney-Smith and Kleber will have to hit even more of these wide open looks.
Joe Harris plays with three future hall of famers on the Brooklyn Nets. Defenses are definitely focused on Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving; not Harris. Yet Harris only shoots wide open 3-pointers 22% of the time. Why? When he gets that much space, he buries the shot. Harris is shooting 59% on wide open shots from deep. The thought of leaving Harris open terrifies opposing defenses.
Finney-Smith and Kleber don’t inspire the same fear. They have to start hitting wide open 3-pointers at a higher rate or defenders will continue to ignore them. This will clog the lane, making shots in the paint harder for Doncic, as well as cutting off vital passing lanes.
Finney-Smith went 5-of-12 on 3-pointers in that Jazz game from the stills above. Utah eventually switched Gobert off of him and onto Nicolo Melli, who couldn’t buy a bucket. Finney-Smith ended up scoring 23 points and the Mavericks won. If he and Kleber continue to win games by hitting these wide open shots, maybe opponents will start to play them tighter, creating more room in the paint for Doncic and Porzingis.
It’s probably too much to ask of two undrafted free agents — to be elite shooters and make defenses pay ignoring them. But defenses will focus on Doncic, and won’t leave Porzingis, Hardaway, or Brunson alone on the perimeter. Finney-Smith and Kleber are who they’re willing to let shoot. The Mavericks are hoping they can make them pay.