Introduction: Nearly Seven Decades of Celtics’ Basketball in a Few Short Paragraphs
Through the first 47 years of their existence, the Boston Celtics were the NBA’s gold standard, the most accomplished, storied franchise that the league had ever known. Between 1946 and 1993, the 2,322 regular season wins that they had compiled and 16 championship banners that they had hung were the most in league history, their .638 team winning percentage the best. As of today, an incredible 26 of the 99 NBA players inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – players named Russell, Cousy, Heinsohn, Jones, Havlicek, Cowens, Bird, McHale, and Parish – have worn the green and white at some point in their career.
As all things pure and good must, the Celtics’ prolonged period of success would eventually come to an end. After the 1987-’88 season, which concluded with a six-game Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons, injury and the gray, creeping hand of mortality began the slow snuffing-out of the Celtics’ once-great might. Though they would make the playoffs in each season from ’88-’89 through ’92-’93, they would never get further than the Conference Semifinals, after advancing to the Conference Finals or beyond in eight of the previous nine campaigns.
The downward spiral accelerated in 1993. Immediately following the Celtics’ heartbreaking, series-ending, one-point, Game Four loss to the upstart Charlotte Hornets in the Conference Quarterfinals – delivered unto them by an improbable buzzer-beater from Alonzo Mourning – Hall-of-Fame power forward Kevin McHale announced that he would join Living Legend Larry Bird in retirement. Less than three months later, team captain and emergent All-Star swingman Reggie Lewis collapsed during a pickup game. Nearly two hours later, he was pronounced dead, struck down by an inherited heart defect.
Reeling from the loss, the ’93-’94 Celtics finished the season at 32-50, below .500 for the first time in 14 years. Going by PER, their five best players (minimum 70 games played) were:
- Dino Radja (18.2 PER), a 26-year-old Croatian rookie who was out of the league less than four years later;
- 40-year-old Robert Parish (16.1), who would depart via free agency at the end of the season;
- Dee Brown (16.0), who won a dunk contest once;
- Some combination of Easy Ed Pinckney (14.5), Professor Xavier McDaniel (14.5), TV star Rick Fox (14.4), and “General William Tecuhmseh” Sherman Douglas “MacArthur” (14.3).
It’s worth noting that, as PER normalizes across all seasons with 15.0 perpetually set as the league average, four of the players considered for inclusion in the ’94 Celtics’ top-five were quantifiably subpar.
Darker days lay ahead. From ’93-’94 through ’06-’07, the Celtics compiled a record of 472-644, eighth-worst in the league. They ended 11 of those 14 seasons below .500, something that they had done only seven times in the previous 47 years. They posted records of 15-67 and 24-58, the two worst in franchise history. They missed the playoffs nine times, including a stretch of six seasons straight. They had never before endured more than two consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance.
They drafted future All-Stars Chauncey Billups and Joe Johnson, then traded them away before they knew what they had. They brought on the dried-out husks of Dominique Wilkins and Gary Payton, Hall-of-Famers whose Hall-of-Fame days had long since gone. They traded for Vin Baker, a former All-Star who would be owed $54M over the next four seasons, though he had averaged a PER of 13.5 while battling alcoholism and a stridently-expanding waistline over the previous four. They rostered Alton Lister for two years, whose most significant contribution to the rich tapestry of NBA history came from being on the business end of this. We could go on.
Of course, the harsh times, as they so often do, eventually ended. Over the last five seasons, the Boston Celtics have reestablished themselves as one of the elite teams in the NBA. Since 2007, they’ve not missed a playoff, advancing to the Conference Finals three times, the NBA Finals twice, and winning the whole thing once. Led by three surefire Hall-of-Famers (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen) and one who might be on his way (Rajon Rondo), their 273 regular season wins and 54 postseason wins have been second only to the Los Angeles Lakers’ 277 and 55. Their Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 100.8 has been second to none.
But we know all about those guys. And the ones whose numbers hang from the hallowed rafters of the TD Garden? We know all about them, too. As the Boston Celtics gear up for what they hope will be another deep playoff run and a legitimate shot at banner 18, we’d like to take some time to look back on the not so distant past and remember the unheralded, forgotten, occasionally maligned stepchildren of the darkest age of the NBA’s greatest franchise.
We call it “Out of the Past,” and, we promise, any resemblance to Celtics Life’s impressively comprehensive “What the Hell Happened To…” series is totally unintended. We didn’t even know it existed until we were well under way working on this.
In our debut installment, we peer back through the mists of time to 1997 when, with the sixth pick in the NBA draft, the Boston Celtics selected Ron Mercer from the University of Kentucky.
Part 1: Summer of ‘97
“Larry made his nest up in the autumn branches / Built from nothing but high hopes and thin air…”
-Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
The 1996-‘97 season had been cruel and unforgiving to the Boston Celtics. Their franchise-worst record of 15-67 was only one game better than that of the dead-last Vancouver Grizzlies who, by the way, were in only their second year of operation.
The Celtics had finished at or near the bottom of the league in several key statistical measurements:
- Offensive Rating (points scored per 100 possessions), 103.9, fourth-worst in the league.
- Effective Field Goal Percentage, .474, sixth-worst.
- Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), 111.4, fifth-worst.
- Opponent’s Effective Field Goal Percentage, .539, worst in the league by .021 points. No other team was separated from the one next to it on the list by more than .006.
Their leading scorer and rebounder was a 20-year-old rookie. Their best player was probably David Wesley, who would go on to post a career PER of 14.2, with per-game averages of 12.5 points, 4.4 assists, and 2.5 rebounds spread across 14 seasons. Someone named Brett Szabo participated in 70 games in his one and only season in the NBA. He was from Postville, Iowa, which, apparently, is the Hometown to the World.
As bad as things had been, there was reason to believe that better days lay ahead. Antoine Walker, that 20-year-old rookie, had established himself as one of the exciting young talents in the game, earning a spot on the All-Rookie First Team next to Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. He and Abdur-Rahim were the only two rookies that season to average more than 15 points and 6 rebounds per game.
Better still, the team had installed successful college coach and self-help guru Rick Pitino as president, director of basketball operations, and head coach. In many ways, Pitino was the antithesis of what the Celtics had stood for over pretty much their entire existence. More Showtime Lakers than Blue Collar Boston, he glistered with a charismatic sheen, sharp and smooth as a dagger in his fine, Italian suits. On the court, he burned with a smoldering, slightly theatrical Sicilian intensity; off it, he oozed confidence and easy charm.
More importantly, he had a solid gold track record of pulling hopeless college programs and professional franchises out of the void. In his first year on the job at Boston University, he had taken the Terriers to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 24 years. In subsequent stops, he had guided Providence to the Final Four only two years after they had finished a season with a .355 winning percentage, and taken two years to make a New York Knicks team that had finished 24-58 the year before his arrival into division champs for the first time in two decades. More recently, he had driven Kentucky to three Final Four appearances, two national title games, and one NCAA Championship over a five-year span.
Pitino was known for a high-energy approach, marked by an up-tempo, three-reliant offensive attack and start-to-finish full-court press defense. He seemed a logical successor to the hapless M.L. Carr, who had gone 48-116 in two seasons coaching Celtics teams that had been the sixth-youngest in the league (average ages of 26.3 and 26.1) and played at the fastest pace (96.2 and 95.8 possessions per 48 minutes). The youth movement that had begun with the retirement of McHale in ’93 and the departures of Parish and, after one season, Wilkins, had not yet paid off in the standings. With a coach at the helm who had a demonstrated knack for maximizing the advantages pre-built into a roster full of young legs, perhaps they soon would.
Best of all, the top prize available in the upcoming NBA draft was Wake Forest big man Tim Duncan, the first player in NCAA history to compile more than 1,500 points, 1,000 rebounds, 400 blocked shots, and 200 assists. Duncan, a two-time ACC Player of the Year, was the consensus number one pick in the draft and about as sure-fire a game-changer for the team who would land him as there had been since Shaquille O’Neal in 1992.
The Celtics owned two lottery picks in the 1997 draft, which combined to give them a 36-percent shot – the best of any team in the league – at the first pick overall. The prospect of starting his tenure by adding a dominating center to a team that already featured the seemingly-stardom-bound Walker (along with the reportedly 10-year, $70M contract and the keys to President’s office) was a huge motivating factor in Pitino’s decision to sign on with the C’s.
Part 2: Ron Mercer
“If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” –Stephen Stills
Of course, a one-third shot at scoring the top prize is still a two-third shot at missing it. As it turned out, the ping pong balls fell in favor of the San Antonio Spurs, who paired Duncan with future Hall-of-Famer David Robinson and won their first of four NBA titles two years later.
The Philadelphia 76ers wound up with the second pick and used it on Keith Van Horn, who turned up on the cover of Nintendo 64’s “NBA Jam ‘99,” most probably off the strength of an utterly fearless, career-long rocking of the knee-highs à la Kuts-favorite Glenn “The Big Dog” Robinson.
As an aside, Pitino would later say (while still in the employ of the Celtics, we might add) that he would never have taken the Boston job had he known that the C’s would not wind up with Duncan. This is an interesting clue to that age-old question: “what makes Rick Pitino tick?” His belief in a successful outcome was so total that not even the mathematic fact that the Celtics had a significantly better chance of not getting Duncan than getting him would stand in its way. This type of thinking has probably been a lot of the reason for Pitino’s great success over the years; Success Is a Choice, you can live whatever reality you manifest, etc. Unfortunately for the Celtics and their fans, this particular steely-eyed stare-down with the long odds turned out more along the lines of Custer at Little Bighorn than David v. Goliath.
Though they didn’t wind up with item number one on their wish list, the Celtics did land the third and sixth pick of the draft; not a bad consolation prize. With the third pick, they chose University of Colorado guard Chauncey Billups, who they would trade mid-season for seventh-year point Kenny Anderson. With the sixth, they chose Kentucky swingman Ron Mercer.
As a teenager, Mercer was a two-time “Mr. Basketball” out of Tennessee who played his senior year of prep ball at Oak Hill Academy, a Virginia boarding school with an impressive history of turning out not just NBA players, but NBA stars. Over the years, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Stephen Jackson, Brandon Jennings, Ty Lawson, Rajon Rondo, Josh Smith, Jerry Stackhouse, and Rod Strickland have all called Oak Hill their temporary home away from home.
Mercer had played under Pitino at Kentucky for two seasons, winning an NCAA Championship alongside Antoine Walker in his first and falling just short in overtime in his second. In year one, he earned a spot on the All-SEC Freshman Team with 8.0 points and 2.9 rebounds over 18.8 minutes per game; as a sophomore, he stepped up to the AP All-America First Team with 18.1 points and 5.3 rebounds.
The selection of Mercer was the first in a series of moves that Pitino would make to surround himself with players he was already familiar with from Kentucky. Before the start of the ’97-’98 season, he would deal forward Chris Mills for eventual fan-favorite Walter McCarty, a member of Kentucky’s ’96 Title team. In March, he would sign Reggie Hanson, a Wildcat from Pitino’s first two seasons at UK, to two 10-day contracts, giving him his first NBA action seven years after he had graduated from college. In 1999, he would sign undrafted Title team alum Wayne Turner to a preseason contract, then waive him after just three games.
Mercer was slated for a prominent role from the get-go. In his rookie season, he started in 62 games, including the first eight, averaging 33.3 minutes per. He contributed 11 points and five rebounds to the Celtics’ opening night win over Michael Jordan and the defending (and eventual) champion Chicago Bulls. In game two, a loss to the Magic, he made it 23 and 4 with 3 steals, knocking down 9 of his 14 shot attempts.
Ron’s best game of the season came on March 19 in 105-96 loss to the Houston Rockets. With Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Charles Barkley across the way, Mercer went 12-24 from the field and 7-8 from the line on his way to season highs in points (31) and steals (6), along with 4 rebounds and 3 assists.
All told, it was a successful rookie campaign. Ron averaged 15.3 points and 3.5 rebounds, earning a spot on the All-Rookie First Team, where his name would forever be listed alongside those of Duncan, Van Horn, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Brevin Knight.
Ron described his style of play as “up-tempo, a lot of running…a lot of shooting, not a lot of flash, a little bit of high-flying.” Indeed, at 6’7” and 210 lbs., Mercer was smoothly athletic and, at times, explosive. Known as a bit of a dunker, he showed a great aptitude for finishing at the rim. He possessed the strength to convert against contact, and the dexterity to get his shot off around it.
One thing that Mercer was not, however, was a threat from deep. In his rookie season, he went a mere 3 for 28 (10.7 percent) from downtown. Obviously, he had no designs on being a three-point shooter, which is a strange notion to comprehend with a contemporary mind. A scoring wing without the long bomb in his arsenal? According to Hoopdata, the average NBA swingman playing a minimum of 30 games and 20 minutes per attempted a total of 176 three-pointers over this past season, which was, of course, shortened to 66 games. Only Luc Mbah a Moute, a power forward disguised as a wing (4 attempts), and defensive specialist Tony Allen (26) attempted fewer threes than Mercer did in ‘98.
We would love to now line these numbers up alongside those of the average swingman from ’97-’98, but Hoopdata doesn’t go back that far, and Basketball-Reference uses wholly unsatisfactory positional definitions, making it very difficult to pull the right cross-section of players for comparison. With no choice but to shrug off our frustration or become consumed by it, we abandon the effort and move on.
In some ways, Mercer’s rookie season was his best. He would never again total more minutes (2,662) or games played (80) in a season, nor score more points (1,221), gather more rebounds (280) or collect more steals (125). His field goal percentage of .450 and free throw percentage of .839 were both career highs.
His PER of 14.1 would be the second-highest of his career, as would his effective field goal percentage of .451. His 16.5 points per 36 minutes would be the third-most in his career. Along with his offensive rating of 103, his 3.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals per 36 were all career bests.
In the following, lockout-shortened season, Mercer would play in 41 of the Celtics’ 50 games. An increase in minutes to 37.8 per game brought with it an increase in per-game production. He tallied 17.0 points and 3.8 rebounds on his way to a 13.5 PER season. He turned in his highest-scoring game to date, torching the Denver Nuggets for 35 points while grabbing 6 rebounds in a 102-94 win.
Unfortunately, after showing some improvement in the previous season (winning percentage of .439, up from 1997’s .183), the Celtics took a small step backward, finishing with a record of 19-31 (.380).
Mercer’s second season in the league would turn out to be his last in Boston. According to the Associated Press, Mercer requested a contract extension in the summer of ’99, saying that he would not re-up with the Celtics after the expiration of his current contract if he was not granted one. Stating that “[he] could not even come close to the numbers [Ron] wanted as a basketball player,” Pitino instead opted to trade him, along with Popeye Jones and Dwayne Schinitzius, to the Denver Nuggets for a package of players headlined by 23-year-old power forward Danny Fortson.
At the time, the consensus seemed to be that Denver had “won” the trade, having acquired the best player in the deal. The AP story linked to above describes Mercer as a star in the making in the eyes of the league. Pitino, though, may have felt that Mercer was expendable, as rookie forward Paul Pierce, a similarly-sized swingman with a more complete, advanced game, had impressed in the ’99 season, putting up a PER of 19.2 with per-game averages of 16.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.0 blocks.
Fortson, meanwhile, would give the Celtics a stronger interior presence and allow Pitino to shift Walker from the “4” to the “3” and Pierce from the “3” to the “2”. Theoretically, at least. In reality, Fortson would average 15.6 minutes over the course of 55 games, despite the fact that he was turning in solid per-36 numbers of 17.6 points and 15.4 rebounds, both the second-best of his career. After telling reporters in the off-season that he wanted to shift to a more “tough-minded” approach, Pitino employed a small-ball starting five of Walker, Pierce, Anderson, rookie Adrian Griffin, and Vitaly “The Ukraine Train” Potapenko, with Williams, Tony Battie, and Calbert Cheaney getting the bulk of the B-squad’s minutes. Walker would continue on at the “4” and Pierce at the “3.”
After one season in Boston, Fortson would be traded to the Golden State Warriors in a pretty complicated four-team swap that landed the Celtics Robert Pack and Hot Rod Williams, neither of whom would play a single game in Boston, plus a first round pick in the 2001 draft, which Pitino would use on Joe Forte, who would be traded with Kenny Anderson for Vin Baker 13 months later.
As for Mercer? He would never develop into the star he was expected to become. Ron would play for six different teams over the course of the next six seasons as knee injuries and added mass chipped away at his games played and minutes totals.
After averaging 16.9 points and 3.7 rebounds for Denver and Orlando (who he was traded with Chauncey Billups to for Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Chris Gatling), he turned in his best pro season as a member of the 2001 Chicago Bulls. Mercer put up career-highs in PER (14.8) and points (19.7), rebounds (3.9), and assists (3.3) per game.
The next year, he was traded to the Indiana Pacers. The year after that, to the San Antonio Spurs, who would waive him after six months. In August of ’04, he signed on with the New Jersey Nets, for whom he would play in just 18 games.
Since leaving Chicago, his averages had plummeted to 5.8 points off 40-percent shooting and 1.7 rebounds in 17.6 minutes per game. Now, an early-season knee surgery had knocked him out from November through February. Six games into his return, he put up his best game in nearly two years, turning in 18 points off 9-14 from the floor along with six rebounds in 30 minutes of play against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Nets lost 82-71.
Less than a month later, a lower back strain put an end to Mercer’s season. He was waived in August, and subsequently retired.
He was 29 years old.