|Thursday, February 21
Updated: February 22, 6:34 PM ET
Howard goes to Denver as part of multiplayer deal
DALLAS -- Even though he liked his team, Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson couldn't resist another enticing last-minute deal.
"I love this team, which has probably played at a higher level than any I ever had," said Nelson, whose Mavericks began the night atop the Midwest Division with a record of 37-17. "But I don't think our team is any better than the others that we are fighting for a playoff position.
"I think this may elevate us, and I hope it will give us a real chance to win our division."
It was the second year in a row that the Mavericks pulled off a major deal just before the deadline.
Last year, it was an eight-player deal with the Washington Wizards that brought Howard to the Mavericks. And the forward was involved this time as well.
"I just felt that we needed to get a little deeper. And we did that," Nelson said.
Van Exel, the Nuggets' leading scorer with a 21.4 average, went public with a trade demand Dec. 8.
Denver general manager Kiki Vandeweghe had been trying all month to find a team willing to take Van Exel without having to include LaFrentz in the deal, but in the end the trade with the Mavericks -- a team for which he was an assistant coach last season -- was his best remaining option.
Johnson had been starting at point guard for the Nuggets while Van Exel sat out the past five games with an inflamed elbow.
"He's ecstatic," said Van Exel's agent, Tony Dutt. "I think it couldn't have worked out any better."
Dutt said Van Exel agreed to some deferrals in his current contract. He declined to provide details. Van Exel had said he was willing to forego some of the guaranteed $26.5 million in the final two years of his contract.
Van Exel, a point guard, joins a team that already has one of the league's best playmakers -- All-Star Steve Nash. He also will be playing for an assistant coach, Del Harris, whom he clashed with while the two were together several years ago with the Los Angeles Lakers.
"They have had some problems, but the respect Del has for his ability is second to nobody," Nelson said. "Del was the biggest fan for us to do this deal."
Nelson expects Van Exel to assume Hardaway's role, but play more than the 24 minutes per game Hardaway was playing. Van Exel, who at 30 is five years younger than his predecessor, will play alongside Nash at times.
The addition of Johnson gives Nelson the unexpected luxury of having a third option at the point.
LaFrentz will provide an upgrade at center, a position that the Mavericks have manned this season with Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Bradley, Wang Zhi-Zhi, Danny Manning and Evan Eschmeyer. Nowitzki, an All-Star this season, will now be able to play exclusively at power forward.
"That will make the team more consistent," Nelson said.
Howard was attractive to the Nuggets because his $20.5 million salary comes off their salary cap after next season. Howard was averaging 12.9 points and 7.4 rebounds for the Mavericks.
Hardaway had been coming off the bench for Dallas as the backup point guard, while Harvey had played in only 18 games.
"We needed a bold stroke and something that would change the chemistry and the condition of the team, in both players and the salary cap situation and our future salary cap situation," Vandeweghe said.
"It was extremely hard (to deal LaFrentz). It was very, very hard. ... I think he has a tremendous upside. He will be a great asset to the Mavericks and he will be able to play off great players like Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley."
The trade left the Mavericks with just eight players in uniform for their game against the Boston Celtics.
Abdul-Wahad, a shooting guard who has a $43 million contract through 2007, missed 31 games after undergoing knee surgery earlier this season. He averaged 6.8 points and 3.9 rebounds. Johnson was averaging 9.4 points and 5.1 assists for Denver.
In their last-minute trade last season, the Mavericks also got Calvin Booth and Obinna Ekezie, who also are no longer with the team. They gave up Christian Laettner, Courtney Alexander, Loy Vaught, Hubert Davis and Etan Thomas.
"I felt good about that one too, but I feel real good about this one," Nelson said.
The Mavericks are on a better pace than last season, when they won 53 games and went to the playoffs for the first time since 1990. They beat Utah in the opening round before being eliminated by San Antonio.