Moving Van A dispirited Nick Van Exel may force yet another team to deal him

October 05, 2003

Though the Warriors were the NBA's most improved team last
season, optimism about any further improvement has been
squelched. They open training camp this week in Hawaii in
apparent disarray after losing their top two scorers and
acquiring 10 players in a salary purge engineered by fickle
owner Chris Cohan.

Even more unsettling is that the key newcomer is mercurial point
guard Nick Van Exel, who as of Sunday remained unhappy about
being unloaded by Dallas in a nine-player deal for forward Antawn
Jamison (22.2 points per game in 2002-03). Though Van Exel didn't
return calls from SI, he has given no indication that he's
pleased about moving from a title contender to a franchise that
hasn't made the playoffs in nine years. Cohan insisted on the
trade as part of his strategy to trim $34.4 million in long-term
payroll. League sources say that G.M. Garry St. Jean objected to
the deal and that coach Eric Musselman was never consulted. (St.
Jean and Musselman both refused to comment.)

Van Exel has three options. He can try to leverage a trade by
playing the malcontent, a role he filled so splendidly two
seasons ago when the Nuggets shipped him to the Mavericks. He can
punch the clock at Golden State, then opt out of his contract
this summer with one guaranteed year remaining at $12.8 million,
but that would mean a pay cut of almost $8 million if he signed
for the mid-level exception. The Warriors hope that he selects
Door Number 3: Play hard, make himself prized trade bait and in
the meantime help lift the team into playoff contention.

Cohan's erratic moves have shed 19.5 points per game based on
last year's stats, but the Warriors might still equal their
surprising 38 wins of 2002-03. Musselman expects more scoring
from power forward Troy Murphy, who averaged a double double last
year and has added three-point range, as well as from shooting
guard Jason Richardson, who is prepared to make up for the
offensive leadership of point guard Gilbert Arenas (18.3 points a
game), a free-agent signee with the Wizards. The presence of vets
Clifford Robinson and Calbert Cheaney on the bench should help
ease the demands on small forward Mike Dunleavy, who has packed
on 10 pounds of muscle after averaging a puny 5.7 points as a

But it all comes down to Van Exel, who through last weekend had
yet to return any of the 20 phone messages left by Musselman.
"When I do talk to Nick, I think he's going to understand that
point guards like to play in our system," says Musselman, noting
that both Arenas and backup Earl Boykins (who signed as a free
agent with the Nuggets) thrived last year. "Every point guard
wants to shoot a lot and run a lot of pick-and-roll, and that's
what we do here."

Van Exel should be concerned that the Warriors may never win
under Cohan, who has run the team since 1995. While league
sources wonder if Cohan's cost-cutting is a prelude to his
selling the team (a notion he refused to comment on), that
wouldn't happen fast enough to bail Golden State out of the Van
Exel mess. Musselman must try to exploit the Warriors' favorable
schedule--seven of their first eight games are at home--and hope
a fast start brings out the sunny side of Van Exel's personality.

COLOR PHOTO: JED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGES (VAN EXEL) Since the Warriors acquired him, Van Exel hasn't returned anycalls from his new coach.