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Maybe He’ll Get Point in Denver

Being a model citizen this year wasn’t enough to keep Nick Van Exel in L.A. For some strange reason, the better Nick Van Exel behaved the worse he played.

After somehow managing to stick around after a tumultuous 1996-97 season in which he and Del Harris couldn’t just get along, Van Exel was shipped to Denver on Wednesday after a season in which he was nice to Harris, nice to the officials and generally about as disruptive as a goldfish.

He needed to rock the boat a little. He dutifully accepted his role as a backup to Derek Fisher after Fisher played so well while Van Exel was injured. But in the playoffs, when the Lakers needed some type of spark against John Stockton and the Utah Jazz, Van Exel needed to march into Harris’ office and say, “Del, if you don’t start me I’m going Sprewell on you.”

Instead he acted like a shy eighth-grader at the school dance. Van Exel said he didn’t want to go to Harris, but he indicated he would have loved it if Harris had asked him to start.

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All of the feistiness was gone. When he took the court he should have been wearing a white flag, not a Laker uniform.

Van Exel made 39% of his three-point baskets during the regular season. Against the Jazz in the Western Conference finals, he made only 24% of all his shots. He seemed to lose more confidence with every shot he missed, which might explain his four-for-21 three-point shooting. He was Nick the Quick only when it came to conceding defeat, which he did as soon as the Lakers fell behind, 3-0.

That didn’t sound like the old Van Exel. The one thing he never had done was give up. He always wanted to take the last shot of the game, half or quarter. Invariably, if the Lakers called timeout in the frontcourt and he had the ball, he would hoist a three-point shot after the whistle blew. He always wanted more.

Maybe being in Denver, the scene of his most notorious basketball crime, will make him revert to his bad boy ways. He’ll see the scorer’s table that he shoved referee Ron Garretson over and remember how he used to be.

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Speaking of Denver, uh, what exactly were the Nuggets thinking? They’re in the middle of a massive reconstruction project, and they just brought in Van Exel, a point guard with one year left on his contract and perhaps one year left in his knees.

But at least the Nuggets can say they have a point guard who played in the All-Star game last season, which the Lakers can’t. The Lakers are in the hands of Fisher. He’s dependable, noncombustible. The thing is, he wasn’t the man they chose to play at the end of most close games last season, and now it’s either him or rookie Tyronn Lue, whom the Lakers acquired from Denver in the trade for Van Exel. (Cool out on that talk about Kobe Bryant running the point. They can ask him to defend point guards, but asking him to think pass first every time down the court would be asking the impossible. Bryant will do many great things before his career is over, but he’ll never lead the league in assists.)

Maybe the Lakers figure that with so much talent surrounding them, Fisher and Lue don’t have to deliver a championship on their own, and they won’t cost them a championship either.

And perhaps it’s time to reexamine the importance of the point guard in the NBA. In the ‘80s top-flight point guards were mandatory. Look who ran the point for the champions: Magic Johnson, Maurice Cheeks, Dennis Johnson and Isiah Thomas. In the ‘90s, teams have won without classic point men. The Bulls never had a true point guard, and the Rockets won with the tag team of Kenny Smith and Sam Cassell.

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That said, the Clippers still made the wrong choice by taking Michael Olowokandi over Mike Bibby.

Olowokandi has great size, great footwork and great potential. That’s why the Clippers were afraid to let him go. But will he make a huge immediate impact? No. Is he a guaranteed star? No. There are too many uncertainties about Olowokandi to make him the No. 1 choice in the draft.

There should be more certainty with No. 1, and with Bibby the Clippers would have had a more polished product. Bibby already led Arizona to an NCAA championship, and he could probably do the same for the Clippers (assuming they were placed in a favorable bracket).

Would he bring them an NBA championship? No. But he would help the team get the most out of the young talent it already has and would lead an up-tempo style that would appeal to fans.

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The city could use an exciting point guard now that Van Exel’s gone. I’ll miss those long three-pointers, followed by the boxing uppercuts. He has made more important shots than any other Laker the past five years. Unfortunately he didn’t make any in his biggest and most recent games.

He still deserves a special little niche in Laker history, if for no other reason than he beat the Celtics with a last-second shot on the team’s last visit to Boston Garden.

Anybody who does that can’t be all bad.


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