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Maxi Kleber has become incredibly important to the success of the Mavericks

Kleber has impressive skills, but his playoff history is concerning

Dallas Mavericks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Maxi Kleber went in to the All-Star break riding high off of perhaps the best two game stretch of his career. In the final two games before the All-Star break, Kleber averaged 19.5 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks and a steal per game. He shot 46.2 percent on 6.5 three point attempts per game and 60.0 percent from the field.

Kleber provides an intriguing set of skills despite limited production. He is a 6’10” big man who has become a legitimately good shooter, shooting 38.4 percent on 722 three point attempts over the last three seasons. He has the ability to “pop” on the pick and roll which that three point shooting quality makes a dangerous weapon. This prevents teams from using both defenders to trap Luka Doncic. In the play below, the Pelicans are clearly attempting to pressure Luka while taking away the lob due to Kleber’s previous success rolling to the rim. Kleber’s ability to do multiple things, along with Luka’s greatness simply leaves the Pelicans stretched too thin to cover everything.

Kleber has been popping in the pick and roll for years. He’s also recently begun utilizing his vertical athleticism more to roll to the rim as an alternative to popping. This variety has resulted in him being in the 91.8 percentile as a roll man. It is important to utilize this skill occasionally given Luka’s abilities as a lob passer. It also stretches defenses to the breaking point. It is difficult to provide enough pressure to bother Luka while also defending both the rim and the three point line. Kleber is in the 100th percentile as a roller per synergy though it is on very low volume (11 possessions finished).

He is a fearless rim protector who has recovered that skill after struggling last season. Kleber allows a field goal percentage of 53.6 at the rim, which is 8.7 percent below the expected amount. Last season, while deployed as more of a big wing, he allowed a field goal percentage of 59.3 at the rim. The Mavericks currently employee an aggressive help and recover defensive scheme and Kleber’s defensive versatility fits incredibly well.

He retains the ability to switch and move his feet as he is allowing only 27.6 percent shooting on the 3.5 threes he contests per game. He blocked Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler on perimeter jumpers against the Miami Heat. Centers simply do not stay in front of guards and block their shots very often.

All of these skills combine to make Kleber something of a unicorn himself. The list of players who can defend the rim, defend the perimeter, finish lobs at the rim and shoot threes all at high levels is much smaller than the list of players who can just block shots and shoot threes as the original unicorn label was used to describe.

Unfortunately all is not perfect with Kleber. He came out of the All-Star break with a stinker, scoring just three points on 1/7 shooting from the field and 1/6 from three. He had three rebounds and four assists in 24 minutes. He did add two steals and two blocks as he played his customary stellar defense, but this is simply not enough production. More importantly than the missed shots, he passed up open shots he simply must take. None was more important than open look after a pick and pop with just under 40 seconds left and the Mavericks trailing by three. Kleber pump faked and gave the ball back to Luka despite Rudy Gobert being inside the free throw line when Kleber caught the ball.

Despite all of his talents, Kleber has averaged just 5.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and less than one combined block and steal per game during the last two playoff series. He has made a total of 13 threes in 13 games which is not enough shooting to make defenses respect him, despite shooting 40 percent in last season’s playoffs.

There have been many reasons or excuses given for Kleber’s poor play in the playoffs. He was tasked with guarding Kawhi Leonard for large parts of both series which is an incredibly difficult task. He played more minutes than he is likely able to handle. He is best in a 22-26 minutes per game role and has averaged 30 minutes per game during the playoffs. Both came at the end of a long season and his legs were undoubtedly worn down.

None of those things matter. The playoffs always come after a long season. Important players always play more minutes during the playoffs as rotations shrink. A player who derives a ton of his value from his defense is going to have to guard a great player in the playoffs. Shooters have to shoot. Kleber cannot turn down threes if he is missing or the moment is too big for him. It is important for him to always be ready to shoot without hesitation even in the biggest moments. He has to understand that not taking a three is even worse than missing an open look.

I come not to bury Kleber but to praise him. The impressive collection of skills mentioned earlier is real. He can do virtually everything but pass. He has even flashed a small ability to create for himself off the dribble against minimum pressure.

Those skills make him incredibly important to the Mavericks. His history in the playoffs has to make Mavericks fans concerned about that level of importance for a player who has failed on the biggest stages he has played on so far. Kleber cannot begin to improve his playoff history until the Mavericks get to the playoffs.

Until then all he can do is play the best he can. And renew the hope of his fans that the Mavericks player with the most unique skill set outside of Luka will finally translate his value to the playoffs. He finished off the first half of the season doing just that. Then he came out of the break and struggled. The Mavericks ask a ton of Kleber because of the incredibly diverse skill set he possesses. The Mavericks believe in Kleber. He needs to believe in himself as much as they believe in him. Unfortunately, the specter of his past playoff failures will loom over him until he has a successful postseason, which could come as soon as this April.