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Magic And Nuggets Ship Players

Ron Mercer and Chauncey Billups have been shipped off to Orlando in a trade that Denver Nuggets general manager Dan Issel insisted he didn't want to make but which, at the same time, improves his team.

The NBA gave approval on Tuesday to the five-player deal that was reported on Monday night.

The deal sends Mercer, Billups and former Magic first-round pick Johnny Taylor to Orlando for forward Chris Gatling, guard Tariq Abdul-Wahad, a future first-round draft pick and an undisclosed amount of cash.

The Nuggets were pushed to deal Mercer before the NBA trading deadline rather than risk losing him this summer in the free-agent market.

"The trade has been consummated and it's exactly as reported," Issel said Tuesday. "Tariq and Chris will be here tomorrow morning and hopefully be in uniform tomorrow night" against Milwaukee.

Mercer, the Nuggets' leading scorer with an 18.3 average, said when acquired in a trade with Boston last August that he wanted a contract extension or he would pursue free agency after the season. No agreement was reached.

Issel said he felt pressured to make a deal "because of our understanding about what Ron was expecting at the end of the year. If we couldn't do that, then it might be best for us to look for a deal, so that's what we did."

He said the franchise "can't let a talent like Mercer go without getting something in return. The Nuggets let that happen with Dikembe Mutombo and with Antonio McDyess. We couldn't let it happen again."

His real regret, Issel said, was trading Billups, a native son who starred in high school in Denver and in college at Colorado.

"I feel good about everything but trading Chauncey Billups," Issel said. "I love Chauncey, not only as a basketball player but more as a person. Having to trade Chauncey to get the deal done is one of those things that is not very palatable."

Billups' season ended in December following surgery for a dislocated left shoulder.

Issel left open the door to reacquiring Billups after the season.

"He's property of the Orlando Magic, and I certainly don't want to get into a tampering situation," Issel said. "But we'll see what the future brings."

Mercer, BillupsTaylor and Abdul-Wahad will be free agents this summer.

Orlando is expected to use Billups and Taylor to free salary-cap room at season's end to pursue such possible free agents as San Antonio's Tim Duncan, Detroit's Grant Hill, Toronto's Tracy McGrady and Charlotte's Eddie Jones.

Despite his reluctance to make the deal, Issel said it makes the Nuggets "a better basketball team today than we were yesterday. Gatling gives us another low-post scorer, which is something we need. Tariq is somebody who's going to defend and rebound. He's a lot like a young Bryant Stith. I think it helps us in the short term. Down the road, who knows?"

"Tariq is a free agent after this year. We would certainly want to re-sign him if we can. Chris has another year on his contract."

Nuggets players reacted with shock to the trade, hinting that it breaks up team chemistry.

Guard Nick Van Exel called a players-only meeting Tuesday morning.

"We realized that this can affect is in one of two ways," Stith said. "Either we can continue to push forward because this is a pivotal point in our schedule as we try to get to .500 and make a run for the eighth playoff spot. Or we can feel sorry for ourselves and go in the tank. I don't think we would rather do the latter, because we have a lot of talent in this locker room."

Nuggets forward George McCloud, who criticized Mercer earlier in the season for shooting too much, said he felt "sorry for the guys that left. We had bonded and had a friendship. That's the tough part of this business. Dan thought this move would make our team stronger and better. We have to make it work."

Stith said Gatling is a "very physical, strong player. I don't know if he's going to provide the scoring punch that Ron did, so it's going to have to come from the rest of us in this room to fill that void myself, George, Nick and Antonio."

The 6-foot-10 Gatling, a 1997 All-Star when he averaged 19.0 points and 7.9 rebounds with Dallas and New Jersey, ranked second on the Magic this season in scoring (13.3) and rebounding (6.6). The 32-year-old Gatling now is playing for his seventh NBA team.

The 6-6 Abdul-Wahad, 25, was averaging 12.2 points and 5.2 rebounds.

Taylor, on the injured list since Nov. 14 with tendinitis in his left knee, has played only five minutes this season.

The first-round pick the Nuggets received was the one they gave up in a trade with Orlando for Keon Clark and Taylor in January 1999.

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