Sound business principles, when it comes to player salaries, have never been the trademark of most franchise owners in the National Basketball Association. Owners often make unproved rookies instant millionaires; give huge no-interest loans to favorite stars; and have been known (at the drop of a rebound) to occasionally put a fringe player into the same financial bracket as a corporate executive.
Into this mad world four years ago parachuted Norman Sonju, who was given carte blanche in the team's day-to-day operation by the owners of the Dallas Mavericks, a freshly minted expansion franchise. In return for a $12 million league entry fee, the Mavericks were given the right to draft one player from a list of three submitted by each of the 23 existing NBA teams.
What General Manager Sonju got for his trouble were mostly rejects, malcontents, clubhouse lawyers, hand-me-downs, and a few young players whose futures had yet to be determined. But Norman did go out and get himself one of the best pro coaches around in Dick Motta, who had won a world championship with the Washington Bullets during the 1977-78 season.
Between them they decided not to mortgage the team's future by relying on veterans who would never get much better, but to build primarily through the league's college player draft. Sonju and Motta also proved very successful at stockpiling future first- and second-round draft choices, acquired by trading many of their veterans. For example, Dallas has five firsts and four seconds in the next two NBA drafts, including the first-round picks of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1984 and 1985.
What makes Cleveland's picks so attractive is that the Cavaliers are usually a last-place club. Since teams draft in the reverse order of their standings each year, the Mavericks can probably look forward to getting two of the best college players in the country.
Getting back to Dallas's first year in the league, the Mavericks didn't win many games (only 15 of 82), but they did accomplish something that no other NBA expansion franchise has ever done before. They made money!
In fact, they have made a profit all three years they have been in the league and undoubtedly will again this season.
Sonju, who seemed to know instinctively that the public doesn't like to be fooled or taken advantage of, was also very careful at the Mavericks' birth not to oversell the team to Dallas fans.
''When we first presented the idea of a professional basketball franchise to the people of Dallas, we wanted to be open and honest about our projections and our overall plans,'' Norman explained. ''This way the community had the option to either embrace or reject our model. Fortunately most of them chose to be part of what we were building.
''During our first three seasons, which I considered our expansion period, most people gave us the benefit of the doubt when we traded veterans for future draft picks,'' he went on to say. ''They seemed to know what we were trying to accomplish.
''It helped of course when we won 28 games our second year and 38 last season. But it is important that we continue to improve on the court, because eventually we've got to give these people a team that can make the playoffs.''
With the exception of the center position, the Mavericks are extremely well balanced for a fourth year franchise and might even have an outside chance of qualifying for this year's playoffs under the league's new 16-team format.
The team's flashiest player is 6 ft. 6 in. forward Mark Aguirre, who made significant improvement in both scoring and rebounding last year. In just his second season, he finished as the league's sixth leading scorer with a 24.4 average, a clip he's carried over to the current campaign. Mark still plays a little out of control sometimes, but he's learning to blend his talents more and more with such other fine, young players as 6-6 guard Rolando Blackman and 6-7 rookie forward Dale Ellis, the Mavericks' top draft choice.
Ellis was twice named the Southeastern Conference's Player of the Year during a college career at Tennessee. Motta says Dale is an outstanding rebounder for his size. And because he's such a good shooter and selects his shots so carefully, the Mavericks plan to run more plays designed to get him the ball.
Dallas's chief weakness is at center. It isn't that starter Pat Cummings, doesn't play hard and well. The problem is that Cummings is a 6-9 converted forward (some say he's smaller than that), who simply can't handle the size of Moses Malone, Robert Parish, Artis Gilmore, etc., on a nightly basis.
Asked to what lengths the Mavericks had gone to trade for an established NBA center during the off-season, Motta never really answered the question. Instead he said that Dallas was not the kind of organization that would pay someone like Malone more than $1 million a year, even if that kind of super talent were available.
''What we have to hope is that one of the big centers coming out of next year's college draft can help us, and that he lasts long enough for us to get a crack at him,'' Dick said. ''My feeling is that this is going to be a very tough year for us to improve because two teams that we won 10 games against last season (Dallas beat San Diego and Houston five times apiece) are so much better this year.
''In fact, I'd be willing to settle right now for the 38 wins we had in 1982- 83,'' he continued. ''Of course if we could somehow win 70 or 80 percent of our home games, we might be able to make the playoffs. But I'm afraid that we're going to have our problems winning on the road.''