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Marty Burns
November 01, 1999
Happy to leave Boston, Ron Mercer is even happier to show his stuff to Denver
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November 01, 1999

Midwest: 10 Denver Nuggets

Happy to leave Boston, Ron Mercer is even happier to show his stuff to Denver

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By the Numbers

1998-99 record: 14-36 (12th in Western Conference) Coach: Dan Issel (first season of second stint with Nuggets)


POINT (rank)

FG% (rank)




93.5 (8)

42.1 (24)

40.8 (18)

14.8 (7)


100.1 (28)

46.9 (28)

42.4 (19)

14.0 (24)

It was a basketball marriage made in heaven, it seemed, a chance to bring a little bluegrass to Boston. That's what most people thought when Celtics coach Rick Pitino selected Ron Mercer, hero of his 1996 NCAA championship team at Kentucky, in the first round of the '97 draft. Along with Celtics forward Antoine Walker, another former Wildcat, Mercer was going to help Pitino build a trapping, pressing monster that would make fans in Lexington, Mass., cheer as furiously as those in Lexington, Ky., had.

Instead Boston went 55-77 over the next two seasons, and Pitino, confronted with the prospect of losing Mercer to free agency after 1999-2000, opted in August to trade his former star pupil, along with Popeye Jones and Dwayne Schintzius, to Denver for Danny Fortson, Eric Williams, Eric Washington and a first-round draft pick. "I never really got a chance in Boston to do all the things I could do," says Mercer, who was facing a reduced role in the Celtics offense with the rapid development last year of rookie phenom Paul Pierce. "I want to show [Pitino] he made a mistake."

The Nuggets are counting on it. With superstar power forward Antonio McDyess leading the way, Denver won 14 games, including upsets over the Lakers and the Jazz, in the lockout-shortened '98-99 season. It might not sound like much, but it was a Rocky Mountain-sized improvement over their dismal 11-71 mark the previous year. With the addition of Mercer, the Nuggets will take another step toward respectability. A slasher and gifted midrange scorer, the 6'7" Mercer can knock down open jumpers over taller players. "He's got a chance to be a big-time player in this league, an All-Star," says Denver G.M.-coach Dan Issel. "He's only 23 years old, but he can really get to the basket, he handles the ball exceptionally well, and he knows how to defend."

Even before the acquisition of Mercer, Denver was in the midst of a mini hoops revival. The franchise has a new state-of-the-art arena, the 19,300-seat Pepsi Center (dubbed The Can by locals). It also has a new owner, billionaire Donald Sturm, who purchased the Nuggets, the NHL's Colorado Avalanche and the Pepsi Center from Ascent Entertainment in July for a reported $461 million. Perhaps the most important change, however, was on the bench, where Issel replaced Mike D'Antoni, who was fired in September after only one year on the job.

Issel, who went 96-102 in his first coaching stint with the Nuggets, from 1992-93 to '94-95, wants his team to return to its run-and-gun roots, a style for which he believes his players are well suited. In addition to being a low-post force, McDyess is one of the NBA's best big men in the open court. Point guard Nick Van Exel, who signed a seven-year, incentive-laden deal worth at least $60 million in the off-season, is a ball-handling wizard and a dangerous—albeit streaky—outside threat. Raef LaFrentz, who got off to a spectacular start as a rookie last year before suffering a season-ending tear of his left anterior cruciate ligament, is a mobile big man with a Bill Laimbeer-like touch from the perimeter. Throw in Mercer, shooting guards Chauncey Billups and Bryant Stith, and sharpshooting free-agent pickup George McCloud (42% from behind the are), and it's easy to see why Denver will put more points on the scoreboard. "With Ron's driving ability and George's shooting, it's really going to open up the inside," says McDyess, who was one of six NBA players to average 20 points and 10 rebounds last year. "We're going to make people pay for those double teams."

When Mercer learned that he had been traded to Denver, he says he logged onto the Internet to check out the team's roster. When he saw the names of McDyess, Van Exel and Billups (whom he had played with briefly in Boston), he was thrilled. His excitement was soon tempered, however, when the Denver front office indicated it had no intention of signing him to a contract extension before the season. While the Nuggets say they like Mercer, who's reportedly seeking an extension comparable to the six-year, $71 million deal Walker signed before last season, they want to make sure he's the right fit before committing to a long-term deal. "Our thinking is, he'll come here, have a great year, and if that costs us more in the end, that's fine," Issel says.

By giving up Fortson (11.6 rebounds in only 28.3 minutes per game) and Williams, Denver has even less frontcourt bulk and depth than it did last year. Leadership is also a concern, with the mercurial Van Exel the most experienced member of the starting unit. Pepsi Center patrons will settle for 35 wins. Anything more and they might blow the lid off The Can, especially with the beloved Broncos' having lost so much of their fizz.

As for Mercer, he just wants the chance he says he never got from Pitino in Boston. He knows that if he performs well this year, he will be an attractive free agent. (Mercer's representatives at No Limit Sports say that during the summer at least six teams, including Miami, expressed an interest in trading for him and signing him to a lucrative contract extension before Pitino jettisoned him to Denver.) Standing outside the locker room after a recent scrimmage, Mercer did not conceal his bitterness toward his old mentor. "I'll get my opportunity December 8," he said, referring to Denver's first game against the Celtics. On his future in the Mile High City: "I'm renting," he says.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]