The Mavs may have found their new starting lineup, and it’s a group no one would have predicted as recently as a week ago.

For the last five games, Dallas has trotted out a starting unit of Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki, and Maxi Kleber. The team is 3-2 in that time. If that group starts again tonight in San Antonio — which you have to believe is likely, given the Mavs’ recent success — it will move into a tie for the Mavs’ most-used group to begin games this season.

Coming into the year, those first four names were virtual locks to start; the question was would that fifth spot go to Seth Curry or Nerlens Noel. Curry has missed the entire season so far with a tibial stress reaction — he’s inching closer to a return, although there’s still no concrete timetable for a return — while Noel has been in and out of the rotation. The Mavs have tried just about anyone and everyone in that fifth spot, including Noel, Yogi Ferrell, Salah Mejri, and even Devin Harris one game, before finally appearing to find something in Kleber.

Kleber might not be a familiar name yet to some Mavs fans, especially if you’ve missed the past few games. But he brings a lot of versatility on both ends that the starting group had sorely been missing previously. At 6-foot-10, 220 pounds, he’s got the height and bulk to match up with bigger players. After the Mavs’ Nov. 14 loss to San Antonio, Harrison Barnes said banging inside with LaMarcus Aldridge all night long took something out of his legs. Kleber started the next game. That’s no accident.

During his time as starter, he’s opened games against Karl-Anthony Towns, Al Horford, Marc Gasol, and Steven Adams. If Ferrell or another guard were starting, those are all guys who would have to be guarded by Barnes or Dirk Nowitzki, which isn’t a place Dallas wants to be. But Kleber has done a terrific job against them to open games, which has gotten his team off to a good defensive start. In the last five games, the Mavs have allowed 102.3 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter with Kleber on the floor. Before he was named starter, Dallas had allowed 110.5 points per 100 possessions in opening frames this season. Instead of playing from behind to begin games, the Mavs are playing even with opponents, making the second unit’s job much easier.

Kleber’s ability to bang with the brutes down low frees up Barnes and Nowitzki to chase down the defensive rebounds. For all the grief Nowitzki, who calls himself the “Big Mummy,” gets as a defender at this stage of his career, he’s still an excellent defensive rebounder. He’s grabbed 33.3 percent of possible defensive rebounds when he’s been on the floor with this lineup, according to, and Barnes has scooped up an additional 19 percent. As a collective group, the Mavs starters have a 90.5 defensive rebound percentage in 55 minutes together, meaning they come away with more than nine out of 10 possible defensive rebounds. Together they rank second out of 76 lineups league-wide that have played at least 50 minutes together.

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He’s also got quick feet for a center and can defend well without fouling. He commits only 2.8 fouls per 36 minutes, fewer than any Mavs big man except for Nowitzki.

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It should be noted that the Mavs have blocked exactly zero shots when this group has played, but that’s almost a good thing as it relates to rebounding, which was this team’s bugaboo through October. If the big men are boxing out instead of leaping to block a shot, it means Dallas has a higher chance to come away with the rebound. The blocking game is a risky proposition.

Offensively, Kleber’s presence on the floor in favor of Ferrell or another ball-handler puts a lot of pressure on Dennis Smith Jr. to create. The rookie has a 34.2 usage rate when that group plays together, per nbawowy, and has shot just 34.3 percent from the field during that time. But handing the reins to Smith hasn’t harmed any of the other players. Kleber, Nowitzki, and Matthews all have effective field goal percentages above 60 in that time, which is super high. (For reference, the Warriors lead the league with a 58.0 eFG percentage.)

Kleber’s positional flexibility has been helpful. Offensively he’s able to play small forward at times, which means Barnes and Nowitzki can do a lot of the screen-setting and switch-forcing while Kleber floats on the perimeter, still pulling bigs away from the rim.

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If the opposing center is guarding Kleber, the Mavs can get really creative with screens to force favorable matchups. In this play, Nowitzki screened Matthews to gain a post-up look against the smaller Andrew Wiggins. Opponents will go to crazy extremes to avoid allowing Dirk to go 1-on-1 with a point guard, but there’s not much they can do when it’s a wing.

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The Mavs do run some hi-lo stuff when Kleber joins Dirk in the double-screens; Nowitzki remains an underrated passer and has connected with Kleber on this a couple times.

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Random aside: That high double-screen always causes so much chaos. It puts three defenders in a really tricky situation because none of them want to be caught on film leaving Nowitzki open for 3, and someone has to pick up the ball-handler, but when he can go left or right it puts so much strain on opponents to communicate quickly. Not everyone can do that.

Kleber continues to adjust to the NBA 3-point line, which is a tick further back than the European arc. He’s only 3 of 16 on 3s in Dallas but went 1 of 2 the other night against OKC. He shot 38.6 percent across all competitions last season for Bayern Munich, which suggests he’s got the touch to improve as a shooter here. Meanwhile, he’s also a strong finisher everywhere else, shooting 70 percent from inside the restricted area and 70.1 percent on all shots from within 16 feet, per He seemed to catch Rudy Gay by surprise here before dunking on the Spurs.

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The starting lineup is always subject to change. You can never predict injuries, Curry is coming back soon, and someone else might get hot and earn a spot in the lineup. But Rick Carlisle seems to have found something with this group, and it’s played a big part not only in the Mavs’ first quarters, but also their third quarters. Dallas has now won four straight third frames, which fortunately has reversed what was beginning to be a bit of a nasty problem. The first six minutes of both halves haven’t been kind to the Mavericks for most of this season, but in these last five games that hasn’t been the case.

Inserting Kleber into the lineup has gone a long way toward solving those issues. He can handle the burden of defending centers and freeing up rebounders while still stretching the floor on offense and allowing the Mavs’ key players to do their thing. He’s not filling up the stat sheet — sometimes he’s so quiet out there that you might not even notice him unless you’re paying careful attention — but he’s given this team a boost in the areas it needed them most, and he’s been a big reason why the Mavericks have won three of their last four games.

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