Over the upcoming weeks here at BSJ, we will be shining a microscope on one of the most tumultuous eras in Celtics history: Rick Pitino’s tenure as coach and team president.
You can check out the first five entries of the series here that chronicles Pitino’s first offseason, first big trade of Chris Mills, why the Chauncey Billups trade was even worse than you remember, why the Antoine Walker extension changed everything and betting the farm on Vitaly Potapenko. Next up: Pitino finally makes the first positive big move of his tenure
The bloom was coming off the rose quite a bit for Rick Pitino in his third offseason at the helm of the Celtics. Not only did Boston fail to come close to a postseason berth in a lockout-shortened 1999 regular season (19-31 record), but Pitino had shipped away both of his draft picks in 1999 NBA Draft, including the No. 8 overall selection for underwhelming big man Vitaly Potapenko.
Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker looked like the beginnings of a promising core but there were very limited means of adding to a roster that was over the salary cap thanks to bloated long-term deals. With no draft picks coming in, the only thing the Celtics had to spend that summer was a small mid-level exception ($2 million) and minimum-salary deals.
Complicating matters further was the fact some of Boston’s top young talent came looking for paydays. One year after seeing Walker get handed a six-year max deal by Pitino, Ron Mercer was campaigning for his own as he entered the final year of his rookie contract.
While Walker made a strong case for himself in his second season to get a max deal with an All-Star campaign, Mercer's all-around performance was a few notches below that. He averaged a career-high 17.0 ppg as a 22-year-old but he was an inefficient scorer, shooting just 43 percent from the field and with no 3-point shooting range to speak of. Combine that with lackluster defense for a sub .500 team and Mercer’s agents were overplaying their hand quite a bit that summer when demanding a max extension. It even reached a point where Mercer threatened to flee Boston when his rookie contract expired if a new extension was not reached before the year (restricted free agency wasn’t a thing yet).
"Ron told me that if we basically did not sign him this year that he would not be a Boston Celtic the following year,'' Pitino said on a conference call in 1999. "That may be true or untrue, but I could not ever come close to the numbers (he) wanted.''
The problem for Pitino? He had already overextended on his future budget. Walker was now getting max money. Kenny Anderson and Potapenko were on fat long-term deals. Combine that with some of the dead weight long-term contracts leftover from the mid 90s (Greg Minor, Pervis Ellison, Dino Radja) and there was just not a lot of leeway for the team president. Pitino either had to find a way to dump some long-term money to keep Mercer or sell him off now for assets. Luckily for him, the emergence of Paul Pierce as a rookie scorer made the second option a realistic one.
The Deal (August 1999)
Celtics trade: Ron Mercer, Popeye Jones, Dwayne Schintzius
Nuggets trade: Eric Williams, Danny Fortson, Eric Washington and a protected first-round pick
What the Celtics got out of it