Two days before it was reported that former Raptors assistant Nick Nurse would become the team’s new head coach, Jerry Stackhouse walked away from the organization. The promising young coach, then the G League Raptors 905’s bench boss, joined J.B. Bickerstaff as an assistant for the Memphis Grizzlies.
For many, this was just another move in the annual off-season coaching carousel. But to some ardent Raps observers (including this one), it was a step backwards for the team’s evolution — and quite possibly an egregious error by the seemingly infallible Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office.
Following an impressive 18-year playing career, Stackhouse was an unqualified success in his two seasons as head coach of the 905. He posted an impressive .700 winning percentage, leading the squad to back-to-back G League Finals and one league championship. Throw in a 2016-17 Coach of the Year award and Stackhouse accomplished as much as any coach could in such a short window. As remarkable as what he achieved was how he achieved it. Stackhouse had only two holdovers from his title-winning 2016-17 roster, meaning that he won his accolades with two distinctly different teams.
Two factors fuelled Stackhouse’s instant success as a head coach. The first was the defense-first culture he instilled in the squad, which saw it in the top two in defensive rating in both seasons. This is all the more impressive in the G League, where players know full well that flashy offensive numbers are often the quickest ticket to the NBA.
The second factor was Stackhouse’s old school in-your-face approach, which he was known for as an elite player in his dominant years, and also as a role player as his career gradually wound down. He never shied away from confronting his players, challenging them to work harder, perform better and win. Everyone knew better than to mess with Stack.
Stackhouse’s success with the 905 was not merely team-focused. As the NBA’s developmental league, the G League’s mission is to churn out NBA-ready players. Stackhouse did just that, developing a number of players who moved on to the pro level. The Raptors may have stacked (no pun intended) the deck for him a bit in 2016-17, but he did have a hand in helping Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam polish their craft during short stints in the G League.
It was a much different story in the case of Fred VanVleet. The undrafted Wisconsin product signed a league minimum contract with the Raptors in the summer of 2016. It was a low-risk signing by Ujiri, but now the rest of the FVV story is well known. His relentless improvement with the 905 saw him eventually emerge as a key contributor in the Raptors second unit this past season, which was regarded as the NBA’s top bench. VanVleet bet on himself, but you can bet Stackhouse had a part to play in the process.
Another Raptors prospect to benefit from Stackhouse’s mentorship was Lorenzo Brown, who went from NBA journeyman washout to G League MVP this season. Brown was a late second round pick (52nd overall) back in 2013. He then bounced around to multiple NBA organizations, getting waived no less than three times, before playing overseas. He eventually joined the 905 in 2017. Under Stackhouse’s tutelage, the 27 year old point guard refined his game to become the backbone of the team. His MVP season featured impressive averages 18.8 points, 8.9 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game. He also played 14 games for the Raptors down the stretch (and in the playoffs), and could challenge for an NBA roster spot next season.
Stackhouse’s head coaching success both in terms of dominating the league and developing players did not go unnoticed around the NBA. In April, he was linked with several head coaching opportunities. He interviewed with the Knicks in mid-April, and was rumored to have also met with Orlando and Charlotte.
When the Raptors parted ways with Dwane Casey on May 11th, it seemed possible that Ujiri could hand the reins over to Stackhouse. Yet the 905 coach was but one of the names to emerge, along with former Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer and Raps assistants Nick Nurse and Rex Kalamian. Budenholzer was considered the front-runner because of his NBA experience, though ironically his playoff record against LeBron James was very similar to Casey’s.
Budenholzer came off the board 15 days later when he was named the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. Stackhouse once again appeared to be the front-runner but the hiring process dragged on, and increasingly his name seemed to be losing traction. Making matters worse, some new names were reportedly added to the mix. Specifically, Ujiri interviewed San Antonio assistant coaches Ettore Messina and Ime Udoka, along with EuroLeague Lithuanian coach Sarunas Jasikevicius.
For Stackhouse, the delay in the decision and the introduction of new names into the mix led him to conclude that he wasn’t going to be the Raptors next head coach. What’s more, whoever that new Toronto coach would be, he figured there might not even be an assistant position for him either. So instead of sticking around, he made the jump to the Grizz — a temporary spot until another head coaching opportunity comes his way.
The Raptors fan base reveres Ujiri, and for very good reason. He’s become the undisputed architect of the Raptors’ best-ever squad with his astute personnel decisions and tone-setting passion. But there is cause to doubt his decision to bypass Stackhouse and turn instead to Nurse, who’s been on the bench for a long time, but has no more NBA head coaching experience than Stackhouse.
Nurse may turn out to be a solid head coach, but there are many who believe that Stackhouse has the chance to be special. If that indeed comes to pass for any team other than the Raptors, Toronto fans will regret the decision not to give Jerry Stackhouse a shot.