At one point, Nick Van Exel was one of the key pieces of the Los Angeles Lakers. A second-round pick in the 1993 NBA Draft, Van Exel started for the majority of his five seasons with the Lakers. Nick the Quick even made the All-Star Game in 1998, his first and only appearance. However, he was traded just months later, and the Lakers built a dynasty without him.
What made LA want to move on from their franchise point guard coming off of an All-Star season? The final straw was a one-word joke by Van Exel that simultaneously alienated his teammates and bought his ticket out of Tinseltown.
Nick Van Exel was a good player who carried some baggage
The Lakers needed a new group of players to build around following the end of the Showtime era. After their first losing season since 1976, the Lakers drafted Van Exel in the second round. The following year, they took Eddie Jones in the first round. Soon, the two guards became the faces of the new-look Lakers, guiding them to the postseason in 1995 and ’96.
Even when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were brought aboard in 1996, Van Exel was still one of the more important players on the team. He started 79 games in 1996-97, averaging 15.3 points and a then-career-high 8.5 assists. He averaged 13.8 and 6.9 the next year, but made the Western Conference All-Star Team alongside teammates Bryant, O’Neal, and Jones.
However, Van Exel was a little rude at times, as well as overly cocky. One person he struggled to get along with was Lakers head coach Del Harris.
“Del tried everything to be cool with Nick,” said Jones in Jeff Pearlman’s book Three Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty. “But Nick had his mind made up already on Del, and they never got along. You’d never see Nick high-five Del, have a meeting with Del. Normally a coach and his floor leader work together. Not with us.”
Nick the Quick’s ego was also apparent even before entering the NBA. Thinking his spot as a top prospect was secure, Van Exel took it easy during several pre-draft workouts and skipped certain workouts altogether.
“Nick is the only client I ever had who took himself out of the first round,” said his agent Tony Dutt in Three Ring Circus. “It relates to trust. He didn’t trust anyone.”
A joke made by Van Exel ended his Lakers career
In 1998, the 61-21 Lakers had four All-Stars, the three-seed in the West, and championship expectations. LA defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, then eliminated the Seattle SuperSonics, before getting matched with the defending conference champion Utah Jazz.
Utah blew out LA by 45 points in Game 1. The next two games were closer, but the Jazz won both, putting the Lakers on the brink of elimination. Van Exel was doing little to help LA along the way, going 1-for-9 in Game 1, 4-for-12 in Game 2, and 2-for-13 in Game 3. He was also a combined -56 through three games, the worst on the team.
The Lakers held a short practice on the day between Games 3 and 4. At the end of practice, the team huddled up, placed their hands in the middle, and chanted, “One, two, three, team!” However, Van Exel put his hand in and exclaimed, “One, two, three, Cancún!”
While Van Exel was joking, no one was laughing (h/t: Three Ring Circus).
The gym went dead quiet. Bryant looked at his teammate as if he’d just spoiled milk. [Rick] Fox was equally disgusted, whispering, “Can you believe this s***?” to O’Neal. Even Jones, Van Exel’s friend, was taken aback. “What the hell was that all about?” he asked. … O’Neal went directly to [general manager Jerry] West’s office to tell him of the incident, to which the veteran executive said, bluntly, “After this all ends, Nick is done here.”Jeff Pearlman
The Lakers lost Game 4, as Van Exel had his best performance of the series with 11 points on 3-for-8 shooting. He was traded one month later.
The Los Angeles Lakers moved on without Nick Van Exel
The Denver Nuggets took a chance on Van Exel, acquiring the All-Star for the draft rights to Tyronn Lue and veteran Tony Battie. The veteran enjoyed four-and-a-half solid seasons in Denver, averaging a career-high 18.4 points in 2001-02. Following his time with the Nuggets, Nick went on to play for four more teams before retiring in 2006.
LA would find their point guard replacement in Derek Fisher. With the selfless, hard-working Fisher feeding the ball to O’Neal and Bryant, the Lakers became true title contenders. Two years after trading Van Exel, the Lakers won their first of three consecutive NBA championships.
Nick the Quick spoke to the Los Angeles Times months after the trade, reiterating that his joke was never a reflection on his commitment to the team.
“Everyone who was in that locker room with me knows I’d never give up on the team,” Van Exel said. “But finger-pointing happens. I never meant anything wrong.”
It was likely a culmination of several things, along with the Cancún quip, that forced West to trade the All-Star. But if Van Exel didn’t make that joke, it’s possible he would’ve been a part of a historic Lakers dynasty.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.