It's no secret that the Mavericks' Donnie Nelson is one of the smartest general managers in the NBA, and that his boss Mark Cuban gives him all of the resources he needs. Primarily that's cold hard cash -- Cuban's Mavericks have never been confused as cheap.
What's changed in recent years is that the Mavericks were totally spendthrift and tried to buy their way to a championship. Cuban got religion sometime after the 2006 Finals loss to Miami and realized flexibility was more important than he thought in a league with transaction restrictions for the teams with the highest payrolls.
In the intervening years -- including the 2011 title run -- Nelson has focused more on cost-effective deals. What's notable about the way Nelson has built the current iteration of the Mavericks is how cheap it was to put together in both salary and assets surrendered. After the Rajon Rondo trade, the Mavericks' payroll stands at just about $70 million -- roughly $6 million under the luxury tax threshold.
Thanks be to Dirk Nowitzki's massive discount, certainly, but note that outside of the Mavericks' starting five no one makes more than $3.9 million. In fact, the Mavericks' entire bench rotation -- Devin Harris, Al-Farouq Aminu, J.J. Barea, Richard Jefferson and Charlie Villanueva (who we'll assume will take some of Brandan Wright's vacant minutes) -- costs less than $9 million. The only real dead weight (no pun intended) on the roster is Raymond Felton, at a whopping $3.8 million. This is a gloriously clean and balanced cap sheet.
That's half the story. The other half is that the Mavericks have given up so little to put it all together.
Excluding Nowitzki, who has been in Mavs blue for 16 years, the rest of the rotation came over in trades or via free agency. (Dirk was technically a trade pick-up himself, but I count rookies acquired on their draft day as draft picks.)
Dallas really doesn't rely at all on the draft at this point, which allows Nelson to include picks in trades (like the Rondo deal) or nab players who might take some time to blossom. Those Chandler and Rondo deals were relatively cheap on that account -- Dallas didn't give up a first to nab the center, and the first conveyed to Boston will very likely be in the back half of the first round in 2016. Excepting Dirk, every other rotation player signed in Dallas as a free agent, most of them on cost-effective deals. (Parsons might be the one exception, though he's earned his keep to date.)
What's most interesting about seeing how this has shaken out is that Dallas has chased top-tier superstars really hard since 2010. From Dwight Howard to Chris Bosh to Deron Williams to Carmelo Anthony, they've all declined the pitch from Nelson and Cuban. But the Mavericks have had huge success with that next tier of free agents over the past two offseasons, grabbing Ellis on an undervalued contract in 2013 and then stealing Parsons from Houston in 2014.
Chandler and Rondo both had sinking value when Dallas traded for them; it's worked out wonderfully on the former, and we'll see about the latter. The remainder of the rotation was filled in with cheap free agents. (Jefferson, Aminu, Barea and Villanueva are all on minimum contracts, or thereabouts. Harris makes about double the minimum.)
The team is in excellent shape to make the playoffs in the brutal West. It remains to be seen if they'll be able to win a series or more, but it's going to be really hard to bet against them. There's also the matter of the 2015 offseason, when Chandler, Rondo and Ellis will be free agents barring late extensions -- there is the possibility that Dallas could lose one or all for nothing. But overall it's ridiculously impressive that Nelson and Cuban got the Mavericks into this promising position four years after a title and with one aging superstar. Compare it to what a former rival in Los Angeles has done since winning its last title; it's night and day.
The Mavericks front office doesn't get the press that the ones in Houston or San Antonio do, but it's hard to argue anyone has done a better job than Nelson over the past two years. Now let's see how this latest move works out.