Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino saw a tremendous upside in Ron Mercer, just as Denver Nuggets general manager Dan Issel did in Danny Fortson.
But both players posed signability problems for their respective teams, and so they were traded Tuesday in a six-player deal.
Mercer went to Denver along with Popeye Jones and Dwayne Schintzius for Fortson, Eric Williams and Eric Washington. The Celtics also will receive a first-round draft choice in one of the next four years.
The Nuggets also announced on Tuesday they re-signed point guard Nick Van Exel and signed free-agent forward George McCloud. The Celtics, meanwhile, announced the signing of free-agent guard Wayne Turner.
Mercer and Fortson were the key players in the deal.
Pitino, who coached Mercer at Kentucky and during his first two years in the NBA, shares the league-wide consensus that Mercer is a future star. But after Mercer told Pitino what it would cost to re-sign him, the coach decided the Celtics couldn't afford his talents, bright future or not.
"We had no desire to trade Ron Mercer," Pitino said. "I could not even come close to the numbers Ron Mercer wanted as a basketball player."
The Celtics began shopping the 6-foot-7 Mercer last month after discovering how far apart they were on his new contract demands. Mercer, who averaged a career-high 17 points for Boston last season, can be a free agent next year, and indicated he wouldn't re-sign with Boston if he wasn't given an extension this summer, Pitino said.
Issel said Fortson, fourth in the NBA in rebounding last season at 11.6 per game and averaged 11.0 points, had the misfortune of being a power forward on a team that has Antonio McDyess.
"Danny had a tremendous year, and we certainly weren't thrilled about having to give him up," Issel said. "He's good enough to be a starter in this league. He's going to want starter money when his contract is up after this year."
"He's good, but he's not as good as Antonio."
Fortson built his rebounding totals last season while playing out of position, at center after Raef LaFrentz went down with a knee injury.
Though reluctant to give up Mercer, Pitino believes the imposing 6-7, 260-pound Fortson is a good fit for the Celtics, who are trying to change their philosophy from one of offense-oriented finesse to a more "tough-minded" approach.
"We had to shore up our front court," he said. "We've done that."
Issel agreed with Pitino's assessment, saying he thought Fortson would be a better player in the more physical Eastern Conference. "He has that wide body and he takes up a lot of space," Issel said. "They probably let you play a little more physical in the East. That's one of the problems Danny had last year, getting in foul trouble so often."
Not surprisingly, Issel believes Mercer is a perfect fit for the rebuilding uggets, who hope to deploy a running game next season.
"Ron can get up and down the court," Issel said. "He can defend, and he's bigger than most people think. He elevates on his jump shot, and he can shoot over any small forward. I think he has a chance to really be an outstanding player."
Although Mercer played mostly shooting guard for the Celtics, Issel projects him as a small forward in the Nuggets' system.
Fortson came to Denver by trade after being picked by Milwaukee in the first round of the 1997 draft.
Mercer, the sixth pick overall in the 1997 draft, was an NBA All-Rookie Team selection in 1997-98 when he averaged 15.3 points per game.
The deal sends Williams back to the city where he played the first two years of his career. He averaged 15 points per game for the Celtics in 1996-97. After missing most of the next season in Denver with a knee injury, Williams averaged 7.3 points and 2.1 rebounds last season.
Pitino once questioned Williams' work ethic, but on Tuesday he said he was convinced Williams had changed his ways.
Williams is entering the third year of a four-year, $30 million contract. Denver agreed to pay $3 million of Williams' contract this year, the maximum percentage allowed by the league.
The trade for Jones and signing of Van Exel and McCloud give the young Nuggets "some veterans who know how to win and know how to carry themselves professionally," Issel said.
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