Nick Van Exel is dope.
I hadn’t thought much about him recently, until a recent SB Nation tweet asked who was our favorite left-handed players. I stared at the tweet for maybe 30 seconds before Van Exel flashed through my head.
Who is your favorite left-handed NBA player of all-time?— SB Nation NBA (@SBNationNBA) August 14, 2017
To me, it feels like Van Exel was wearing a Mavericks uniform just a couple of years ago — in reality, it’s been 14 years. Holy crap. Fourteen years. I figured the doldrums of August would be a good time to revisit a player that a decent amount of Mavs fans never got to watch. I’m pretty sure our former boss Tim Cato wasn’t even born in 2003.
So yes, Van Exel was great. He was only in Dallas one and a half seasons but they were extremely memorable. Van Exel arrived just as the Mavericks were going places behind Dirk Nowitzki. A surprise upset of the Stockton-Malone Utah Jazz in 2001 seemed to be the tipping point to the run of 50-win seasons we now very much take for granted. Dallas desperately needed a backup for All-Star Steve Nash and Van Exel was the perfect fit for the role in Don Nelson’s uptempo attack.
Van Exel came to the Mavericks in the prime of his career and he was always known as a gunner. In the 1996-1997 season, he averaged just a hair under six three-point attempts per game. Remember, this is 1997 we’re talking about, when the Heat and Knicks beat each other to death with shovels on the court while teams still weren’t even close to grasping at the value of the three-point shot. Hell, six threes a game in 1997 is equal to like 10 threes a night in today’s NBA.
So of course a trigger-happy Van Exel fit right in next to Nash, Dirk, Michael Finley and Nelson’s up-and-down offense.
He was a sorely needed component to that 2003 team, not just in terms of talent, but personality. The Mavs big three of Dirk, Nash and Finley was fantastic and one of the most fun trios to watch in franchise history, but they were pretty, well — normal dudes. All three were firery but quiet leaders, with Finley being the elder statesman. Van Exel was the spark that lit the fire.
There was more swag in Van Exel’s 6’1 frame than the rest of the roster combined. He gave the team an edge, some more outward toughness and cockiness that you kind of needed in the ridiculously loaded time period of early aughts NBA. Just in the Western Conference alone the Mavs had to deal with Hall of Famers and perennial All-Stars like Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Peja Stojakovic, Chris Webber, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady — all in their primes. You needed to be a little crazy to go against those dudes every night. You also needed to be a little crazy to shoot free throws like this:
Van Exel once said he’s “more of a three-point shooter than a mid-range jump shooter” and whenever he’d miss, he’d miss off the back rim, so scooting back just made sense.
“I just tried it one day in practice and it seemed to go well, so I told the coaches I was going to try it in a game,” he told NBA.com during his final season with the Spurs back in the 2005-2006 season. “It went pretty well that game and it just kinda continued from there. Coaches preach repetition when going to the free throw line. No matter where you stand when you get to the line, it’s important to have the same routine because free throws are as much mental as they are physical. “I just spin the ball, give it three bounces, line it up, and hope it goes in!”
The hilarious part about this insane free throw routine is that Van Exel is a 79.4 percent free throw shooter, so it’s not like this unorthodox shooting spot made him automatic or anything. That’s definitely not a good enough mark to absolve him of all the righteous fury I expunged toward my TV whenever he clanked a freebie. Come on, get closer to the line you asshole! That was just part of his charm.
His ability off the bench allowed Nelson to do all sorts of crazy stuff with lineups, playing Nash and Van Exel together to let Nash go off-ball some, play Dirk at center and attempt to run teams off the floor. Remember, the league thought Dirk was an unconventional power forward back in the day. When Nelson ran him out there at center, the Mavericks might as well have been playing a completely different sport.
If there’s one lasting reason though why Van Exel became a cult hero in Dallas with only 100 total games played in Mavericks blue, it had to be the playoff run.
In the playoffs that season, Van Exel bumped his scoring from about 12 in the regular season to just under 20 a game. He closed just about every game with Nelly’s small ball unit, taking tons of clutch shots and making most of them. He averaged 25.3 points per game in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Kings, shooting over 50 percent from the floor, over 40 percent from three and basically sending every Kings fan that year into their own personal watery grave.
This was just a year after the infamous Kings-Lakers series in 2002, so after Van Exel, a former pain in the ass Laker himself, put the Kings to sleep a year later and ruining perhaps the Webber-led Kings last shot at a title, well, there probably wasn’t enough alcohol in Sacramento.
The crown jewel of that series was the Mavs Game 3 win, a 141-137 double-overtime classic that saw Van Exel drop 40 just days after Chris Webber tore up his knee and was out for the series. This was, no joke, one of the most exhilarating NBA games I’ve ever seen and was what cemented my lifelong fandom. I was pretty in by that point, but this game was a religious experience. It was the first time I remember truly pacing around a dark empty living room, living and dying on every shot.
I come back to this clip every now and then, nostalgic for the era where you never questioned whether the Mavs would be good -- it would just be how good. A time when 50 wins was never in doubt and at times was actually disappointing. A time when a backup guard can spend less than two years in your team’s town but somehow find a way to crawl into your dumb fandom heart forever.
Nick Van Exel was extremely dope.