Van Exel is at his worst when he is playing with a bad team. But when Nick the Quick has something to play for, he is one of the most feared shooters in the league while donning his trademark Cheshire grin. And it's Van Exel's appetite for winning, combined with his ability to to fill a significant bench need for the Spurs, that made this odd couple a perfect fit when Van Exel was signed Monday night.
"Winning a championship would be the happiest feeling," Van Exel said. "In high school, I went to two state championship games and didn't win. In college with Cincinnati, I went to the Final Four and didn't win it. Now I have another chance. This is what you play for."
And because of what Van Exel plays for, NBA fans usually love him or hate him. There might not be a player in the league who wants to win more than Van Exel does. But that strong attribute also has worked strongly to his detriment.
Case in point: his experience with the Denver Nuggets, when he gave up nearly $13 million for the chance to win.
After growing tired of losing during the 2001-02 season with the then-doormat Nuggets, Van Exel asked team management to trade him. The final season of his contract was guaranteed at $12.8 million in the 2005-06 season. But for the orchestration of a 2002 seven-player trade to Dallas to work, Van Exel had to agree to make the final season a team option. The 1998 NBA All-Star, who averaged 17.7 points and 8.3 assists with the Nuggets from 1998 to 2002, said yes to a trade that made him forever a villain in Denver.
Van Exel was in heaven with the Mavericks. He regularly saw his young son, who lives in Dallas, and was close to his offseason Houston home. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder also played a key role in getting Dallas to the Western Conference finals. An argument could be made that no Mav played bigger than Van Exel during the 2003 NBA postseason, when he scored 19.5 points per game, including a team-best 25.3 points per game against Sacramento.
After initially fighting the idea of going back to a loser, Van Exel agreed to play with the Warriors, but neither the spirit nor the flesh was willing. He shot a career-low 39 percent and played in just 39 games during the 2003-04 season. And with Portland, he averaged a career-low 11.1 points and a career-low-tying 4.3 assists in 53 games last season and contemplated retirement because of knee woes.
Van Exel's decision to leave Denver for Dallas eventually cost him $12.8 million because the Blazers released him this summer at their option. But now that he is in a championship situation in San Antonio, after signing to a veteran one-year deal paying close to $1.2 million, Van Exel is more concerned about the lost chance to win than the lost millions.
"That's how it goes," Van Exel said. "I don't have any regrets. At the time, I knew that I could suffer down the line. I won't go cry about it. The thing that did hurt was the Dallas part. They traded me to a team that I didn't want to go to. That made me more upset than anything.
"I'm really excited about San Antonio," Van Exel added.
The Miami Heat liked Van Exel, but he said they didn't make an offer since they still have eyes on coveted free agent Michael Finley. As crazy as it might sound, he also was interested in coming back to Denver, and the Nuggets seemed to have mild interest, too. However, the phone call Van Exel was expecting from Denver coach George Karl never arrived. Instead, the Spurs locked up the 12-year veteran guard and still have hopes of signing Finley.
"Maybe that's the reason they win," Van Exel's agent, Tony Dutt, said of the Spurs. "They were willing to pull the trigger."
Expect Van Exel to compete for the 2005-06 NBA Sixth Man of the Year title. The Spurs have one of the NBA's best young point guards in Tony Parker. But Parker, still developing, desperately needed someone to spell him last season. Rookie Beno Udrih couldn't fill the need and was a turnover waiting to happen in the playoffs.
With Van Exel, Parker can drop his 37.3 minutes per game average to a more manageable, legs-saving number. The Spurs also can use Nick in Robert Horry fashion, resting him against the weaker teams, thus giving Udrih a chance to develop.
Furthermore, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich can do some experimenting with Van Exel by bringing him in to play with Parker and All-Star Manu Ginobili. Put him on the same side of the court as forward Tim Duncan and the superstar's life in the post will get a little easier.
"We are very happy to have Nick as a part of our team," Popovich was quoted as saying in a Spurs press release. "His leadership and skills will be assets at both ends of the floor."
But can Van Exel hold up under all these expectations? Maybe so. Although his 33-year-old knees (soon to be 34) aren't getting any younger, he says they are feeling the best they have in years and he has been working out since the season ended.
The Spurs already had the playoffs' all-time greatest clutch shooter on the bench in Horry. Adding Van Exel brings one of the NBA's most underrated clutch shooters to the team. And if he is healthy, the move also will fill a veteran hole which will solidify the efforts to bring another championship to San Antonio, while quenching Van Exel's longtime thirst to win the big one.
Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA for The Denver Post, is a contributor to ESPN.com.