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

Nov. 01, 1999
Nov. 01, 1999

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Nov. 1, 1999

NBA Preview 1999-2000

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

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.

This is an article from the Nov. 1, 1999 issue Original Layout

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 arc), 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.

--Marty Burns

COLOR PHOTO: GLENN JAMES/NBA PHOTOS INSIDE UPSIDE The slashing, 6'7" Mercer has a knack for scoring over taller players.

FAST BREAKDOWN

STARTING FIVE [3 1/2 stars]
BENCH [2 1/2 stars]
COACH [3 1/2 stars]
FRONT OFFICE [3 stars]
CHEMISTRY [2 1/2 stars]

By the Numbers

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

1998-99 PER GAME POINTS FG% REBOUNDS TURNOVERS
AVERAGES (rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)

NUGGETS 93.5 (8) 42.1 (24) 40.8 (18) 14.8 (7)
OPPONENTS 100.1 (28) 46.9 (28) 42.4 (19) 14.0 (24)

In Fact

The Nuggets were one of only two teams last season (the
Grizzlies were the other) to have a losing record when scoring
100 or more points in a game. Denver won just nine of the 19
games in which it reached triple digits.

Projected Lineup

STARTERS PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS

SF Ron Mercer [#] 45 17.0 ppg 3.8 rpg 2.5 apg 43.1 FG%
Decent three-point shooter in college (34.4%), awful as a pro
(13.8%)

PF Antonio McDyess 4 21.2 ppg 10.7 rpg 1.6 apg 47.1 FG%
Finished in top 10 in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots (2.3
bpg)

C Raef LaFrentz 57 13.8 ppg 7.6 rpg 0.7 apg 45.7 FG%
Knee injury ended Rookie of the Year candidate's season after 12
games

SG Chauncey Billups 107 13.9 ppg 2.1 rpg 3.8 apg 38.6 FG%
Second in league in free throw accuracy, at 91.3% (157 of 172)

PG Nick Van Exel 40 16.5 ppg 2.3 rpg 7.4 apg 39.8 FG%
Ninth in NBA in assists, and in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.04
to 1)

BENCH PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS

F James Posey (R)[#] 205 16.9 ppg 8.9 rpg 2.3 apg 48.8 FG%
One of nation's best sixth men as sophomore and junior at Xavier

G-F George McCloud [#] 225 8.9 ppg 3.4 rpg 1.6 apg 43.8 FG%
Of his 428 points last season, 207 came from three-pointers

C Keon Clark 237 3.3 ppg 3.4 rpg 0.4 apg 45.0 FG%
Averaged 2.60 blocks at UNLV as a senior, and 1.11 last year as
a rookie

G Cory Alexander 244 7.3 ppg 2.1 rpg 3.3 apg 37.3 FG%
Has averaged 15.8 points in 32 career starts, 4.8 in 204 games
off bench

G Bryant Stith 297 7.0 ppg 2.3 rpg 1.8 apg 39.3 FG%
Scored 3.8 points more per game at home than on the road last
season

[#] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 102)