There's a dirty secret to team building in the NBA. Of the hundreds of different ways general managers conduct their business, every strategy and method boils down to one simple, basic tenet: acquire players for less than they're worth.
Because the NBA binds teams to a salary cap, and because every rotation spot is crucial to a team's success, this philosophy makes sense. Everyone has the same theoretical resources, but the best teams learn how to use and stretch their resources the most.
Of course, this comes in every shape, size and flavor. The two teams in the NBA Finals are perfect examples; Golden State has used shrewd front office maneuvers while Cleveland opted for a more blunt-force-trauma approach. Both are effective.
See, three of the Warriors starting five are still on their rookie deals. One of those, Draymond Green, makes less than a million. When you can spread about $7 million between three championship-level starters, it's astonishing value. It smooths over your screw ups, like making David Lee the 22nd-highest paid player in the league this season.
Like any good team, Golden State also benefited from luck. Something, somewhere, had to turn just the right way -- like Stephen Curry's ankle a couple of seasons ago. It was astutely used as a negotiating chip. Now, the MVP of the league makes just $10.6 million this year.
Drafting well is arguably the surest way to maximize value. Dozens of players will outperform their contracts every year; that's the inevitable nature of the draft and well-understood by everyone who takes part in it. A starter on a rookie scale deal is one of the most valuable assets in the league. The flexibility provided by having one of your top five players making between $1 and 3 million is unfathomable.
And then there's the Cavaliers, who also drafted well enough, and who also had some luck. But around those two things, they've also signed the best player residing within the stratosphere: LeBron James.
If the NBA were an open market and James was a ware to be sold, he'd make...double what he makes now? How Much Would Teams Actually Pay LeBron James Without A Salary Cap is an article I'd love to read and not something I'm going to dive into here, but suffice to say he'd make a lot more.
That's value. Dwight Howard is paid $22 million and Rudy Gay makes $19 million, and here's LeBron at $21 million. Though you'd prefer to pay those former two a little less for their year-long contributions, neither are drastically overpaid. Instead, LeBron -- clearly proving he's the league's hegemon right now in these NBA Finals -- presents value to his team despite being paid the absolutely maximum amount the NBA allows.
By eschewing the draft and failing to lure high-level stars, the Mavericks are left picking at the scrapheap -- which, despite its negative connotations, is a tried-and-trued strategy throughout all sports. In the summer of 2013, Monta Ellis was drowning. The weight of his criticisms -- bad teammate, shot chucker, defensive liability, inefficient -- nearly dragged him down to the ocean's floor, but the Mavericks took a gamble.
It panned out excellently for a season and a half. Ellis was one of the best valued contract for his output in the NBA (and still could be, if he opts in), and while he was still a flawed player, that was easier to overlook when he was making $2 to 4 million less than market value. But his stubbornness and streakiness finally caught up to Dallas down the stretch of the season.
This approach is why the Mavericks roster keeps turning itself over with the frequency of which king is atop Westeros' Iron Throne. Without shrewd drafting or star power, they're frequently resorting to high risk, high reward players to attain the desperately needed edge of value. That doesn't make Chandler Parsons and his $15 million a mistake, but you can't sign an entire playoff roster for a few million more than they're worth. You'll run out of space and resources.
The Dallas front office has made moves like signing Vince Carter and grabbing Al-Farouq Aminu at the minimum that have totally worked out. It's not really their fault that some of their gambles, most recently Mr. Connect Four himself, have turned into a full-blown nuclear winter. That's the danger of rifling through the scrapheap. You can't, just cannot, expect that strategy to work over and over and over again. If they were sure things, there would be no value there.
And so here we are once again, questioning the ultimate ideology of the Mavericks' summer plans. They've come close in their pursuit for max free agents before, without question, but here they are still empty handed. Throwing every hope into a singular strategy and hoping players overcome their demons so they can validate the contract you just inked with them is effective when used sparingly, but too often, it has become the last available option. That's why the roster is never the same and why 'continuity' keeps getting snoozed like a 6:45 a.m. alarm.
The Mavericks' front office is both smart enough to figure this out on their own and stubborn enough to remain deep-seated in their current philosophies. They certainly don't need me to tell them this. But with 10 of the 15 players up for free agency this summer, perhaps this helps explain why so few have returned by the time August rolls back around.