Photo credit: Trung Ho / TrungHo.ca
While the Toronto Raptors continue to search for their next head coach, they’ve lost a promising coach from within their own ranks. Jerry Stackhouse has agreed to leave the Raptors organization and join the Memphis Grizzlies coaching staff, according to a report from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.
Stackhouse joined the Raptors for the 2015-16 season, working as a player development coach. In 2016, he took over the head coaching role with the team’s G League affiliate, Raptors 905. Over two seasons there, he really could not have made a greater impact – numerous Raptors worked under his tutelage at one point or another, the 905 promoted multiple players to the NBA via the call-up system, and the 905 won a championship and then returned to the finals the following year.
I wrote a lot about the job Stackhouse did with the 905 in an end-of-season mailbag you can find here. Here’s the relevant portion:
He’s had about as good a two-year stretch as you could have at that level. In his rookie season behind the bench, he earned Coach of the Year honors and helped lead a talented, experienced team to the G League Championship. He followed that up with a trip back to the finals with a much less polished group on paper, perhaps an even more impressive coaching performance than the year prior. In both seasons, the 905 were the league’s best defense, with Stackhouse eschewing the easy path of getting gimmicky to exploit the lower talent level there. It’s been more of a mixed bag offensively, as the roster had loads of playmaking talent and shooting in 2016-17 and moved the ball accordingly, while last year’s version was a little lighter on those elements due in part to personnel. The impact of the Raptors’ entire player development program has obviously been felt with the NBA club, and Stackhouse has had a large hand in that (specifically with Pascal Siakam, Lorenzo Brown, and Norman Powell, despite Powell never actually playing under Stackhouse).
In talking to players around both rosters, the biggest thing that stands out is that Stackhouse is very detail-oriented. His teams watch a ton of film, the team’s schedules are plotted out well in advance, and as a general teaching philosophy, the idea that every wrinkle matters has been pretty common. Kennedy Meeks, Aaron Best, and E.J. Singler have all remarked at the level of preparation, and the fresh-from-college players credited Stackhouse with helping them grow up as professionals pretty quickly. There have also been some legendary practice lengths, particularly in training camp, and he hasn’t been shy about using playing time as a tool for maintaining accountability, even with more established players. The cache he brings as a successful pro who can still get on the floor to mix it up and lead by example has seemed to really help, too.
All of this sounds great, and it is. Stackhouse couldn’t have made a better impression over two years. It also comes with a sizable G League caveat. There is very little track record of G League coaches jumping to the NBA, and how difficult that transition might be, especially for a coach without lead assistant experience, is unclear. The leagues are dramatically different, and certain elements of Stackhouse’s approach – shifting a 50-game workload for 82, managing star egos (he has sometimes employed a break you down to build you up tact that might have to vary player to player), tweaking his defensive scheme for the NBA talent level – would probably need to be adjusted. It’s at the same time risky to assume Stackhouse’s methods would carry over and unfair to assume he couldn’t also adjust when making the jump. We just don’t really know. What we can be pretty certain of is that Stackhouse at least has the player development side of things down and has done well enough with his opportunity to warrant consideration.
The early success was enough for Stackhouse to receive an interview for the Raptors’ vacant head coaching position, as well as for gigs in Charlotte, New York, and Orlando. The Raptors had narrowed their search to a shortlist that didn’t include Stackhouse, and while they likely would have loved to keep Stackhouse as a front-of-the-bench assistant, his 905 contract was up and he was free to land elsewhere. It’s tough to fault someone for not wanting to stay after missing out on the head coaching job, if that was part of the logic here.
This is a strong addition to J.B. Bickerstaff’s staff with the Grizzlies and a nice jump for Stackhouse. While he’s close to NBA-ready and almost surely going to be an NBA head coach at some point, he’s light on actual NBA experience, which matters to some. Court-to-bench jumps happen, but they’re rare. It’s possible the feedback he received in interviewing was that he needed some time in a primary assistant’s role. It’s also just possible that the right head coaching fit wasn’t there for him yet, and faced with a third season in the G League or a chance to take on a new and instructive experience at the NBA level, Stackhouse opted for the latter. The role should help further prepare Stackhouse for an eventual jump to the front of a bench.
It’s also a notable loss for the Raptors, who now have a head coaching vacancy to fill at the 905 level and are out a potential assistant coach on their NBA bench. Jama Mahlalela was considered a candidate for the 905 job a few years back and may now be too far up the bench, leaving Patrick Mutombo and Jim Sann as potential in-house options. How the assistant coaching staff shakes out when a new head coach is hired will likely dictate at least some of what happens on the 905 bench.
Stackhouse was a great influence on the organization’s young talent, helped build consecutive No. 1 defenses in the G League, and has the sort of power of personality that can help a coach code-switch between tactician, taskmaster, and players’ coach. As we’ve seen plenty of the last few years, especially with the 905, success brings with it a challenge of seeing other teams want to hire away your best people. In this case, opting to go another direction with the head coaching position meant Stackhouse remained an attractive coach on the market. It’s entirely understandable if Ujiri felt Stackhouse wasn’t The Guy right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an unfortunate loss.
Here’s hoping Stackhouse continues to succeed as he climbs the coaching ladder.