Kristaps Porzingis is back at power forward. Better play from the big men alongside him could be a big reason why. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball

Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell Could Be the Mavericks’ Big Difference

Kristaps Porzingis is looking to bounce back. A return to form from his running mates in the frontcourt could be even more important.

Kristaps Porzingis’ 2021-22 season started around Game 5 of the Mavericks’ first-round playoff series against the Clippers, when he disappeared either by design or defense or both. Since he wasn’t doing much to help the Mavs advance over the last three games of the series, the questions turned to Porzingis’ future — and whether he had one in Dallas.

By that point, it was clear that Rick Carlisle had lost faith in him, and it seemed like the loudest portion of the fanbase had as well, bringing up trade ideas that barely made sense on paper, much less reality. Even his staunchest supporters would have to admit that his trade value was not what you want this summer.

And then Carlisle ended up being the one to leave. The summer wore on, Porzingis was still here, and the talk surrounding him began to change. Maybe he’ll do better with a new coach who believes in him. Maybe he’ll look better with a full offseason, the first one in forever that he hasn’t been rehabbing some broken part of his body. Maybe he just needs to play center full time.

The last suggestion has already been quashed by new coach Jason Kidd. He won’t. The 7-foot-3 Porzingis, at least to start the season, will be in his preferred power forward spot. It’s just semantics—he’ll still likely be guarding centers on defense—and only means that he won’t be the only big man on the court.

But it does bring us to the two other big men on the roster looking to bounce back: Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber. Powell will start, but they both figure to play a fair amount of minutes alongside Porzingis, and both are key to Kidd getting the most out of a roster largely unchanged from last season.

Powell made a stunningly fast return from a ruptured Achilles tendon, back on the court less than a year later. But he wasn’t the same player he had been before. His comeback was quick, but he wasn’t. He was laying the ball up instead of dunking it. He had his moments here and there, getting by more on effort and veteran knowhow. Gone was the guy who could get to—and finish—any lob Luka Doncic threw up anywhere in the vicinity of the rim.

Powell isn’t much of a shooter, so even though he has tried to add three-point range to his game, he doesn’t have much of a use on offense if he isn’t a lob threat. And since he’s not a great defender or rebounder—solid but not spectacular—he doesn’t have much of a use at all. It’s unfortunate, because when he teamed with Luka as his roll man in 2019-20, it unlocked something, like having a deep threat in football. It led to a record-setting offense (a mark surpassed last season by something like seven teams, but still).

It is difficult to tell from the actual play in three preseason games, taken with various amounts of sincerity, but I have noticed one thing: Powell can jump again. I don’t remember the exact play, but he had an almost casual dunk that was nothing like he did last season, and nothing like he would even attempt. And you can see he feels different, too, because he is rolling hard, hand up, looking for those lobs. He’s a good guy, so I’m happy to see this for him.

Kleber also looks athletic again, leaner than he ever has, and reminds me that no one made a big enough deal about players like him coming back from bouts with COVID-19 and even attempting to play at a high level. It wasn’t just that. He was banged up all season, everything a level above the normal wear and tear of an NBA campaign. It was difficult for him to stay healthy long enough to get any sort of consistency.

As he has become a better shooter, Kleber’s role on offense has largely been reduced to spotting up behind the three-point line. But he is also another lob threat and has some show-and-go ability off the bounce, very little of which was seen last season. If he can bring that back, it’s a bonus, but where the team really needs him healthy is on defense.

Kleber can guard just about any frontcourt player, from bulky centers to rangier wings, able to stick with players on the perimeter and meet them at the rim as well. Carlisle still leaned on him—he didn’t have much of a choice—but Kleber wasn’t quite the stopper he had been previously. He had his moments, like Powell, but he wasn’t exactly who he had been, either.

All of which is to say: yes, the Mavs are depending on a bounce-back season from Kristaps Porzingis. But the real difference-makers might be one spot up from him in the lineup.

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