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Know The Coaching Candidate: Jerry Stackhouse

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For starters, he’s not Mark Jackson...

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One day, very soon, Jerry Stackhouse could have job offers in New York, Charlotte and Orlando, all far removed from Mississauga, Ontario. After leading the Raptor 905, Toronto’s G League affiliate, to a 70-30 record over two seasons, a championship in 2017 and a runner-up finish this year, the sky’s the limit for the one-time D-League Coach of the Year (I really wish they’d just stuck with “D-League”; dealing with both labels is some B.C./A.D. nonsense). Someday soon, Stack’s sky may soar over Manhattan. What do we know about his history that could foreshadow his potential impact on the Knicks?

The 905 hung their hats on the defensive end, finishing first in defensive rating and last in pace. That accomplishment is all the more impressive at the G League level: fans and teams alike — are drawn to big numbers like infants to sparkly lights, most numbers measure offense, and players seeking promotion see that connection and could easily focus more on getting theirs and getting out rather than the unglamorous commitment to defense that requires placing your trust and quite possibly your career in the hands of co-workers and management who are all looking to make the same jump you are. Competition at that level can become a fierce feeding frenzy, like a bucket of hungry piranhas. Remember the piranhas. They’ll come up again later.

One example of Stackhouse inspiring trust is Lorenzo Brown. Two years ago, Brown averaged 23 points and 4 assists for the Grand Rapids Drive. This season he signed a two-way deal with the Raptors and was tasked with a distributor’s role with the 905. Initially he struggled, turning it over 5+ times a night while his scoring dropped to 18 and change. He could have rebelled against his new role. Instead, Brown stuck with the program and by year’s end was league MVP, averaging thrice as many assists as turnovers.

As the Knicks invest more in youth and player development, it’s a testament to Stackhouse that Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and Norman Powell, key members of the parent Raptors’ elite bench unit, all developed their games under his tutelage, as did Malcolm Miller, 2017 D-League Defensive Player Edy Tavarez, who had a cup of coffee with Cleveland that season, 2017 D-League All-Star Axel Toupane, who played with Milwaukee and New Orleans, and Bruno Coboclo, now in Sacramento. One reason so many players have had such success with the 905 is because Stackhouse gives so many the opportunity to succeed. Ten 905ers who played 30 or more games last season (the G League season is 50 games) averaged more than 18 minutes a game.

Consider the road these players are taking versus what Stackhouse experienced as the third pick in the 1995 draft, who earned $84 million over 18 years in the league. That a player of such high pedigree has been as successful as he’s been motivating G Leaguers suggests a man who instinctively understands the importance of differentiation in education. He doesn’t treat his players as lumps in need of a template. You have to be comfortable and willing to venture far outside of yourself to understand the needs and backgrounds of others well enough for them to follow you.

“Our player development piece was a huge piece,” Stackhouse told Zach Lowe in a podcast last summer. “LeBron James has his player development guy. Steph Curry. People say ‘Could that work with pro guys?’...You’re gonna still have some guys who wanna come in early...You have your player development set up to where you have that early group, the guys that wanna work out after practice, and guys that wanna come back at night...You gotta have structure. Not just coming in spot-shotting. Doing things that’s geared and built to our offense, and making sure guys are...practicing shots they’re gonna take when the game starts.”

The 905's slow pace and defensive intensity may suggest a Luddite at odds with the spirit of our time, but Stackhouse says that’s not him. “People say I may not like pace,” he told Lowe. “I want to get out and run every opportunity we can. But if we don’t have something initially, let’s bring it back out, get into my Carolina secondary offense...I like the [three-pointers]. I like to have weakside action, making sure that guys aren’t stagnant and just standing, making sure that we’re keeping guys occupied...We want [the guys driving the ball] to finish, but if the helps comes, I want that corner filled, and I want that slot filled, so I can sit there blind,” and here Stackhouse closed his eyes; he wants his players to know the right play so intuitively they don’t need to see it to recognize it. If you watched Stackhouse the player, you may see his coaching philosophy as somewhat surprising. He sees it, too.

“I probably wouldn’t like my game as a coach. Midrange twos...I tell guys, ‘All right, If it’s the shot clock and [a] guy runs you off and you gotta take a one-dribble pull-up, OK, do it. But otherwise, let’s try to get into the paint, pull another trigger, or find something else on the weakside, or just sidestep him and take the three...Guys who have efficient midrange games are always outliers.’”

Like Gozer the Gozerian, the Knick roster can assume any imaginable form over the next few years. No one knows how Kristaps Porzingis will recover from his ACL injury, or if he’s already decided to leave. Nobody knows if Frank Ntilikina is a point guard, a two guard, a rising star or the guy who’s no Dennis Smith Jr., much less Donovan Mitchell. No one on the roster is guaranteed a spot after 2020. If Steve Mills and Scott Perry see fluidity as an asset, they may find their man in Stackhouse, who coached two very different groups of 905ers over two seasons to similar success.

“The natural tendency is to just think you can come in and just have a carbon copy of what you did last year and it will be enough to get it done,” Stackhouse told Lowe. “But every team takes on a personality of its own, so you have to adjust to your personnel.” There’s a refreshing bit of new school tolerance in this kind of thinking. But you best know Stackhouse was renowned for his toughness back in the renowned tougher days. There’s a lot of old school there. He was suspended for game 5 of the 2006 Finals for a flagrant foul on Shaquille O’Neal after a game 1 Shaq blow to the nose forced Stackhouse to get stitches.

This play against Manu Ginobili was labeled “dirty” by Mark Jackson during a national broadcast.

Any enemy of Alonzo Mourning is a friend of mine.

Other old-schoolisms:

  • In college, he decided to teach his UNC teammate Rasheed Wallace to drive. Stackhouse says Rasheed drove Stackhouse’s Blazer using both two feet.
  • He once gave Christian Laettner a black eye, claiming Laettner “wouldn’t pay me my money” from a card game.
  • He’s still pissed about his days in Detroit alongside Grant Hill. Despite ranking Hill as one of the greatest players he ever paired with, Stackhouse retains some bitterness, saying of Hill “For three quarters, I ain’t seen nobody better. Nobody better. And then, for whatever reason...he just didn’t have the same heat in the fourth quarters.”
  • He once got in a fight with Allen Iverson when the two were teammates, famously describing it as “a fight between someone who didn’t know how to fight and someone who didn’t want to.”
  • While playing for the Nets, Stackhouse was talking to the mercurial Andray Blatche, who “said something back one day after I was trying to help him, and I grabbed him and he tried to get away. And I didn’t let go. You think you’re tough, but you’re not as tough as you think you are. And I grabbed him and he just couldn’t go nowhere. And then he went down to the bench and he said something, and I was like, ‘Man, you say one more thing, I’ma come down there and it’s gonna be serious.’ From that, he kinda went into his little shell for a little bit. But we were fine after that.”
  • He plays a pretty cutthroat version of H-O-R-S-E. If Stackhouse hits a shot and the other player hits it, too, Stackhouse gets a letter. “It’s harsh,” he said. “But it gets them out of there quick.”

Stackhouse describes his coaching style as a “benevolent dictatorship.” The toughest drill he runs his teams through? “Seventeens. From sideline-to-sideline, 17 times, and then we countdown...to zero...and then I have a guy come out and maybe shoot a FT. So you got 16...you make this free throw, you got 14.” Some of this drill is about building trust. Some is just straight-up conditioning.

“I get a Brady Heslip, who I think is probably one of, if not the best shooter in the world,” Stackhouse said. “I put him to the test with Steph Curry any day; he’s that good of a shooter...I put him on the line when it gets down to 2. So it’s either if he makes it, we’re done; if he misses, then it’s [back to] 10. So I love messing with him a little bit like that, but the guys have the utmost confidence in him to step up there and make it...You have to be in great shape in order to be a great team.” Pat Riley preached this same creed 25 years ago when named Knick coach; one could only dream of Stackhouse engineering a similar renaissance to what Pat the Pre-Rat oversaw. A number of the Knicks’ biggest weaknesses on the defensive end of the floor might have been less so with superior conditioning.

New York ranked 24th in three-point attempts allowed, 28th in free-throw attempts allowed and 28th in forced turnovers. When you’re tired, you’re a beat behind running out to contest a three-pointer, a split second late sliding your feet to defend a drive, a fingertip short of creating a steal or deflection. Being in better shape would not have saved the 2018 Knicks from 53 losses, but it could lay the groundwork for their first 50-win season since Mike Woodson was in charge. Woodson was infamously obsessed with switching everything on defense that year. Stackhouse is not as sold on that strategy, telling Lowe:

“Switching is...secondary. That’s kind of hustling backwards, for me...If you start out switching, what do you go to? I’m a no-paint, no-middle team...keeping [the opponent’s offense] on the sideline, directing and dictating...where you want them to go, and you prepare to adjust when you have a breakdown...I like switching...in the mid-pick and rolls, because that way you can stay with shooters more. The one that I have a problem with is...1/4 [point guard/power forward] pick and rolls. You got Pascal Siakam, who can sit down and guard a point guard. Cool. Now, [the center] comes up and sets the pick. Now you have 4 and 5 in a pick and roll, and you don’t want to switch 5...and a lot of schemes with switching 1-4 are not switching with 5, so 5 is not ready to switch; he’s still ready to play his coverage and call his coverage in the pick and roll, and X4 is not used to doing X1, X2, X3 things...so that’s my...peeve against getting into too much switching.”

The biggest challenge Stackhouse has found as a head coach?

“...managing all the relationships with the players and the coaches and the staff...having to manage all those pieces. Some people would think that it’s just about the Xs and Os...I know the game. I understand the game. I’ve studied the game. I’ve played for a lot of great coaches, taken a lot from [them], and found a way to...form it into my own thing...I wanted to learn, and make mistakes...You look at our season...and the success we had...there’s drills that we implemented at the end of the season that if we’d had [them] at the beginning of the season, we might not have been 39-11. We might have been 49-1. That’s how much we felt like we got better as the year went on.”

The Knicks’ division rivals are coached by three men who’ll receive Coach of the Year votes and a fourth universally praised for his player development skills. If Stackhouse gets the job, he’ll have his work cut out for him. But the universe only unfolds as it must. Stackhouse’s mother, Minnie, used to tell him “What’s for you is for you.” Maybe the third’s time the charm for the Knicks hiring former players. Now more than ever, with Porzingis nearing the possibility of parole, it’s critical their next move be the right one. The Phil Jackson Bulls never happen without the Doug Collins Bulls before them; same with Golden State, Mark Jackson and Steve Kerr.

Stackhouse used to own an aquarium. He put piranhas in it. “I used to like to see the piranhas eat the little goldfish,” he confessed. Watching piranhas feed may come have taught him things that could come in handy should Stackhouse find himself moving to New York City and navigating the corporate Camazotz that is Madison Square Garden.