On Jan. 18, Dallas Mavericks big man Maxi Kleber told Bally Sports Southwest that he hoped to return from injury before the All-Star break, perhaps even as soon as the following week. Evidently, that was far too optimistic. The All-Star break has come and gone, and Kleber is not quite ready to go.
Kleber practiced on Wednesday, but he will miss Thursday's game against the San Antonio Spurs. He told the Dallas Morning News' Callie Caplan that he'll likely miss Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Lakers, too. He has not played since tearing his right hamstring in practice on Dec. 13, .
After Wednesday's practice, coach Jason Kidd told reporters that Kleber "got some run, did a really good job," but the Mavericks need to see how his body responds. Thursday marks the beginning of a six-game homestand, and Kidd stopped short of saying Kleber will be back in the lineup during that stretch, which concludes on March 7.
"We'll see," Kidd said. "That's not a guarantee. Again it's about how he feels. Everything from the break, he feels great. So we'll just see how it goes. It would be great to get him back in the homestand, but there's no guarantee that he'll be ready to go."
Kleber is rejoining a team that looks a lot different than it did in December. Kyrie Irving, Markieff Morris and Justin Holiday are on the roster now, and Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith and Kemba Walker are not. Josh Green has entered the starting lineup and has become Dallas' top wing defender. Before the break, both Jaden Hardy and Theo PInson were every-night rotation players, but this could change with Tim Hardaway Jr. set to return from a hamstring injury on Thursday.
One thing that remains the same as it was a couple of months ago: Kleber is the guy that is supposed to tie this whole thing together. When the Mavs made their run to the conference finals last season, his 3-point shooting and switchability are what allowed them to play 5-out on offense without being too small. During the last six weeks of the regular season, he will be one of the most important role players in the entire league.
Kidd said that Kleber's "ability to guard multiple positions" and "his want to play defense and sometimes not look at the basket on offense" will help the team, and he called it a "luxury" to be able to play Kleber next to Luka Doncic, Irving and two wings.
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Dallas is "not trying to put pressure on Maxi to do everything defensively," Kidd said. The reality, however, is that there is a lot on Kleber's shoulders. The Mavericks have the league's 23rd-ranked defense, a massive drop from seventh last season. In Kleber's 564 minutes, they've surrendered 108.3 points per 100 possessions, which is even stingier than the No. 1-ranked Cleveland Cavaliers have been over the course of the season. In all their other minutes, Dallas has surrendered 116.4 per 100, which is effectively the same as what the 27th-ranked Portland Trail Blazers have managed to do.
Kleber is not going to come in and swat shots like Jaren Jackson Jr. or be a disruptive defensive force like Draymond Green. He gives the Mavericks an entirely different dynamic, though, because of the way they've constructed the roster. In Dwight Powell and JaVale McGee, they have traditional bigs that need to drop against pick-and-rolls. In Christian Wood, they have a modern big who needs someone like Kleber next to him defensively. They used to play the 6-foot-7 Finney-Smith as a smallball 5, but they can't even do that anymore. In the playoffs, when they need to be able to switch, space the floor and give opposing stars different looks on defense, they'll be counting on Kleber to play huge minutes.
Provided that he is healthy, that is. As difficult as it has been for Dallas to get stops without Kleber, it makes sense that the team has been cautious with him. If he's diminished or unavailable in the postseason, then the Mavs will be in much bigger trouble.