It’s not easy being a big man in today’s NBA, where there’s more skill, shooting, and space than ever before. Up until the last few years, big men lived under the basket at both ends. Now, they often find themselves on the perimeter defensively, and if they can’t stand behind the 3-point line on offense, they might not be able to stay on the floor at all. Watch the playoffs these days and it seems like Clint Capela spends more time defending Steph Curry than Chris Paul or any other Rocket.
It’s all about switching to force mismatches. It’s one of the oldest, most fundamental elements of the game, but now those advantages are hunted from 30 feet out, not from on the block.
When the Mavs signed Maxi Kleber in the summer of 2017, I’m not sure anyone outside of the front office knew exactly how dynamic a defender he would almost immediately become. Kleber is a shot-blocking menace and has proven he can step out and switch on to every position down to point guard. He was the third-most “versatile” defender on the Mavericks in 2018-19, according to stats wiz Krishna Narsu, based on a metric that gauges how often a player defends a position other than his own. The two ahead of him on his own team, and many of the other 62 qualified players ahead of him on that list, are wings in the traditional sense: Luka Doncic, Dorian Finney-Smith, and loads of other players who are between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-9. These are players you would expect to defend multiple positions considering their size, and the fact that many of them are teammates. For example, Doncic and Finney-Smith would often defend each other’s “man,” meaning they almost never defended their own position. James Harden and P.J. Tucker did the same thing, and so on.
What’s unusual is to see Kleber so high up on that list, because he’s 6-foot-11. But he ranked 11th in defensive real plus-minus among power forwards this season and was 13th last season, according to ESPN’s rankings, so we know the guy is good. And the Mavericks allowed just 104.5 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, the best mark on the team by far among qualified rotation players, so we know the guy is valuable, too.
There’s plenty in the numbers to suggest Kleber is a high-impact defender, but sometimes value is easier to understand when you see him in action. Here are some of his top defensive plays this season when switched off against smaller, quicker perimeter players.
For the season, opposing offensive players shot just 18 of 53 from the field when Kleber switched on to them after a pick-and-roll, per Synergy. Players in those same situations had more success scoring against Draymond Green, Clint Capela, Nerlens Noel, and Willie Cauley-Stein, just to name a few.
His defensive versatility is extremely important within the context of this team in particular. Dallas seemed to switch more often this season than last season, and I wonder if that trend will continue into next year and beyond. Every season is different, of course, and it’s impossible to know what the roster will look like on opening night. (Not to mention Kleber himself is a restricted free agent.) His ability to play power forward while defending 3s, 2s, and sometimes even 1s makes everyone else’s jobs easier and unlocks so many options for the Dallas defense. Powell has also demonstrated an ability to step out and play in space as well, which gives the Mavs two bigs who can get by on the perimeter.
Add to that his shot-blocking prowess (averaging nearly 2 swats per 36 minutes and holding opponents to just 55.7 percent shooting at the rim), his 35.3 percent clip from long-range, and the fact that he shot nearly 70 percent from within three feet of the rim, and you’ve got yourself a very intriguing player. Kleber has all the tools to be an extremely effect big man, and he flashed a lot of that potential this season. It’s difficult to predict what will happen this summer, of course, but as the 27-year-old heads into restricted free agency, he’ll have two solid seasons behind him and hopefully plenty more productive ones in front of him.
He always performs, the front office seems to like him, the players love him, and it’s practically a law by now that Dallas has to have at least one player from Würzburg on the roster at all times. Nothing in life is ever 100 percent certain, so we’ll have to wait and see. One thing is clear, though, and it’s that Kleber has more than made a name for himself as one of the most dynamic defenders in the league.