Season In Review
Entering his fourth season, Maxi Kleber was billed as a multi-dimensional big man capable of protecting the basket, corralling guards on the perimeter, and spacing the floor on the offensive end. Through his first three seasons he was just that: a unique chess piece on a roster that lacked his particular skill set. What ensued in the 2020-21 season might be a culmination of a few things. First and foremost, Kleber was one of the players affected by COVID, and we might not know the extent to which the virus impacted his performance, but we can assume it had a negative effect. Second, it seemed that everything the Mavericks asked Kleber to do in past seasons finally caught up to him.
Kleber, 29, averaged seven points and five rebounds while shooting 41 percent from deep. Those are fine numbers for a role player alongside mega-star Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. But digging a little deeper, Kleber’s struggles can be illustrated elsewhere.
The German big man registered the lowest block percentage of his career at only 2.4 percent. He registered as many as five blocks in a game in each of the prior three seasons. This season his game-high in blocks was only 2. His .135 free throw rate was also the lowest of his four-year career as he was relegated to a (good) spot-up shooter. In his three previous seasons, Kleber was a menace terrorizing opponents on help-side blocks. And he was invigorating on the offensive end with put-backs and fast-break dunks.
But Kleber’s role changed as he was asked to guard players too big for Dorian Finney-Smith and too quick for Kristaps Porzingis (think Zion Williamson or, most recently, Kawhi Leonard), which resulted in a singular focus on offense and defense as energy was expelled on one-on-one defense. However, he was an effective spot-up shooter reaching a .601 true shooting percentage even with a .771 three-point attempt rate.
Aside from COVID Kleber also battled an Achilles injury that required injections to keep him on the floor. In all it was a challenging season for Kleber who noted there wasn’t much practice time to get back in shape after recovering from COVID. While Kleber built off a career year shooting the ball, his defensive presence was lacking even though the Mavericks put him up to the task.
One of the most impressive aspects of Kleber’s season was his knack for hitting big shots, and there were a handful of games where Kleber’s shooting prowess was on full display. Arguably his best game came on the road against the Denver Nuggets in early January where the Mavericks eked out an overtime win, 124-117.
Kleber played 36 minutes and was held scoreless up until his three-point barrage late in the fourth quarter. Cashing in clutch three after three, Kleber hit a massive triple to put the Mavericks up two with 2.4 seconds remaining. He ended the night with nine points, eight rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
The game ended up spilling into overtime where Kleber registered a key help-side block against Nikola Jokic, snagged a couple of crucial rebounds, and moved the ball well to get others open shots. It was one of those games Kleber did a little bit of everything, and his clutch shooting was the cherry on top.
Kleber completed the second year of a four-year, $35.6 million contract. He has two years left on his deal and will $8.65 million next season.
Kleber’s upcoming season will be an interesting case study as COVID gets farther in the rearview mirror. On one hand, Kleber regressed defensively. He hardly blocked any shots and was a non-factor against Leonard in the playoffs. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible he returns to form if he can get his body right in the offseason. The COVID hangover was a real thing, and that might be the story of Kleber’s season.
Looking past all that, Kleber offered valuable insight during his exit interview. He noted that because he shot the ball well, teams switched smaller players on him. He expressed his need to develop a counter (like a post-game) so he doesn’t become irrelevant on offense.
Make no mistake, Kleber made significant strides as a shooter, but he can’t be as one-dimensional on offense if he fails to protect the basket on defense. Kleber has been a feel-good story for the Mavericks, but nearing 30 years old, it’s fair to wonder if the Mavericks have given Kleber the NFL running back treatment – have they ground him into dust with how much they’ve asked of him defensively?
Time will tell, but it’s entirely possible Kleber’s peak is behind him. However, a sharpshooter on a modest contract has value in the NBA. The Mavericks just need to add players that make Kleber a little less important to the team’s success.