- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Golden State Warriors.
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Nick Van Exel? Disgruntled? In Golden State?
Are you kidding?
He's not in Dallas anymore, after that trade to the Warriors, but they do have TVs in Oaktown. Maybe not a locker room full of HDTVs, like his old boss with the Mavericks set up, but there are plenty of places for Van Exel to watch the best Cubs team of his lifetime win the last game it needs to reach the World Series.
Angry? Miserable? Try positively giddy.
Mark Prior is pitching Game 6, and that's why Van Exel stood in the Warriors' locker room the other night, slapping his hands together in excited anticipation.
"We've still got Prior and (Kerry) Wood," he shouted. "No way we can blow this."
Van Exel knows what you're thinking. He knows that lots of folks out there are expecting the Cubs to collapse, on the brink of their first Series trip since 1945. He also knows that public perception is equally pessimistic regarding the trade that sent him from the Mavericks -- who just came within two wins of their first-ever NBA Finals berth -- to the team with the league's longest playoff drought.
Van Exel has an opinion about that team, too.
"There's some pretty good potential here," he said. "We're going to be all right."
Oakland's basketball community -- like Cubs fans, accustomed to disappointment -- isn't counting on much from the Warriors, no matter what Van Exel says. They won 38 games for rookie coach Eric Musselman last season, to come as close as they've been to the playoffs since 1994, then lost their two most popular players in free agency (Gilbert Arenas and Earl Boykins) and traded away their most recognizable player (Antawn Jamison) in the Van Exel deal.
Voter confidence in the Warriors' offseason faded further when Van Exel made almost no contact with the organization -- and no public statements -- from the time of the trade in mid-August to the day of his first Golden State practice in Hawaii on Oct. 3. The widespread assumption now is that Van Exel, as he did in Denver, will openly grouse about being traded to a contender until the Warriors give in.
Van Exel, in response, won't even waste the time trying to convince people that he's not angry about the trade. He has a right to be mad that everyone thinks he's so unhappy, but mostly Van Exel just laughs.
"I can't get mad at that," Van Exel said. "If I was an angel for my first 10 years, then people wouldn't think like that, but that's just how it is. Once you get a reputation, it's hard to shake it no matter what happens."
He swings the conversation back to baseball again.
"I think the prime example is Barry Bonds," Van Exel continued. "As much as he's done, everybody still has that (negative) label. The media's not going to sign me to a (new) deal, so I don't even worry about it."
Van Exel settles for the reputation he has restored in formal NBA circles, comforted by the knowledge that someone else -- inevitably the Knicks -- will definitely come get him if the Warriors elect not to extend the relationship beyond this season. At 31, Van Exel is fresh off the best season of his career, which included a monster playoff run in which he averaged 19.5 points over 20 games. Three times in the second round, Van Exel scored 35 or more against Sacramento.
"That definitely had to be the best I've ever played," he said. "Especially being this late in my career. People saying I was done, that I had bad knees ... (asking) 'Could he make it work in Dallas, being a backup to Steve Nash?' All those things made it even better."
Van Exel is also buoyed somewhat by the realization that he hasn't been banished to a no-hope outpost like Denver, as he was when Jerry West exiled him from the Lakers in the summer of 1999. The Warriors are outsiders for the playoffs, but that's only because they reside in the mighty West. For all the scoring they sacrificed in the offseason to make their financial future more flexible, Golden State now has a more mature squad. These Warriors will pay more attention to defense, move the ball more freely, get more out of their bench and, most likely, blend a lot better.
"I think we're better than we were last year," said Warriors forward Troy Murphy, one of three starters -- along with Jason Richardson and Mike Dunleavy -- who must score more consistently to complement the veteran positives lended by newcomers like Van Exel and Clifford Robinson.
"People are going to sleep on us -- a lot. We're still perceived to be a struggling franchise. But you can already tell that the chemistry is better. We have higher aspirations than we did last year."
Van Exel, speakingly honestly as always, can't claim to come close to last season's aspirations. So he admits that it definitely hurt to be dealt away from one of the league's elite clubs, especially since it has also taken him away from his 13-year-old son, who lives in a Dallas suburb. With the Mavericks, he was close to title contention and close to his kid. Knowing he had to leave all that was a factor in his summer silence. He needed some time to put the hurt to the side.
Van Exel, you see, wants a championship more than anything from his job. He confirmed it by agreeing not to guarantee the final year of his contract in 2005-06 in order to facilitate his trade from Denver to Dallas in February 2002. That means Van Exel could be forfeiting $13.7 million for the '05-06 season, a sum he hoped that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban would have re-guaranteed had Van Exel stayed in Dallas. No one's expecting the Warriors to make a similar commitment.
"I don't regret it," Van Exel said. "I think (Cuban) pretty much had a lot to do with the deal, but I'm not mad at anybody, because I got a chance to get back into the NBA again. So many people just forgot about me and really didn't think I could play anymore, just because I was in Denver. I'm just thankful for the opportunity just to get back out there (in Dallas).
"I just had a feeling. If a team feels that they still need something, and there's a person they can use to get something ... I always felt that person would be me. After Sacramento got Brad Miller and the Lakers did their thing and San Antonio did their thing, I knew that Dallas wouldn't just sit around. That's just not them. ... When you expect things, it makes it a little easier."
A playoff push would make it easier still, and Van Exel, as always, will be the X-factor. Arenas certainly has the better long-term future, simply by virtue of the age difference. But Van Exel will run the Warriors' offense better. Van Exel's career assist-to-turnover ratio is 3.22-to-1, compared to Arenas' 1.77-to-1 ratio last season. The mere presence of Van Exel and more minutes for Dunleavy should get everyone touches, which could spark center Erick Dampier to finally make a lasting contribution.
It's another misconception to suggest that Van Exel will be hoisting shots every time he gets the ball. If anything, it's just the opposite. In Dallas, Don Nelson had to plead with Van Exel to shoot more. The first few minutes of Van Exel's Warriors career, in an exhibition game against the Lakers last week, featured two bullet flings to Dunleavy for backdoor layups. The sort of baskets Golden State never scored last season.
For fun, Van Exel has a new jersey number. It's No. 37, to reflect his position in the 1993 draft as one of the all-time steals in the second round. For comfort, he has been joined in Golden State by two longtime teammates (Avery Johnson and George McCloud) and has a coach who keeps using the word "phenomenal" to describe Van Exel's integration to date.
Yet when he does lapse into some sadness, or he simply isn't feeling phenomenal, all Van Exel has to do is think of his Cubs. He's a Wisconsin native who was drawn to the Lovable Losers in his youth and can be seen these days strutting around in a throwback Bill Madlock jersey -- the light blue model from the 1980s with the darker blue pinstripes. That, or he simply walks around in his Cubs cap, talking about how he wouldn't trade Prior for Alex Rodriguez.
"I'm loving this," Van Exel said.
In Golden State.
Nick Van Exel's spirits are up in Oakland, and his beloved Cubs are only part of the reason.