The New Road to the Six
Jerry Stackhouse wants to be an NBA head coach. He doesn’t want to toil as an assistant for years to make that happen. By leaving his gig with the Toronto Raptors to lead their D-League affiliate, he hopes to prove that the same minors-to-majors pipeline that players increasingly enjoy can work for bosses as well.
by Sam Fortier
When the Toronto Raptors offered assistant coach Jerry Stackhouse the head-coaching job of their Development League affiliate last summer, he immediately consulted two of his closer colleagues, Nick Nurse and Rex Kalamian, both longer-tenured NBA assistants.
“You’ve got to take it,” advised Nurse, who had spent six years coaching in the NBADL. “I got 10 times better there.”
“Stack, you’re already in the NBA,” offered Kalamian. “Everybody knows you’re going to be a head coach. You don’t have to go down there and do that shit.”
Now, head coach Stackhouse prowls the Hershey Centre sideline in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. It’s a cold February night, and his D-League team, Raptors 905, is about to tip off against the Erie BayHawks. The two-time NBA All-Star folds his arms across his three-piece, gray-and-purple-pinstriped suit and surveys the hundreds of fans dotting the seats of the converted hockey rink. It’s been decades since Stackhouse — the former top high school prospect in the nation, North Carolina Tar Heel All-American, and no. 3 overall pick in the 1995 NBA draft — has worked in front of crowds this small. But this is his chosen home now; this is the plan. He weighed what Nurse and Kalamian counseled and decided that vacating his spot on Toronto head coach Dwane Casey’s NBA staff after his first year as an assistant would help him better his chances of one day becoming an NBA head coach.
Stackhouse didn’t arrive at that decision easily. Of the 30 current NBA head coaches, 24 were assistants in the Association before being promoted to head jobs. Three led college programs. Two analyzed games on TV. And one, to Stackhouse’s chagrin, transitioned directly from playing. While four current NBA head coaches once toiled in the minors — Utah’s Quin Snyder, Sacramento’s Dave Joerger, Phoenix’s Earl Watson, and the Lakers’ Luke Walton — an NBA franchise has never hired a head coach directly from the D-League; Snyder, Joerger, Watson, and Walton were all at least a year removed from those ranks by the time they earned NBA head gigs.
Stackhouse wants to change that. He wants a shot as soon as a team will give him one. He wants to change the perception of D-League head coaches and former players — and in so doing, help coaches forge the same pipeline from the D-League to the NBA that players now increasingly enjoy. He believes that by accepting the 905 job, he’s begun an experiment: proving that the D-League can work for coaches the same way it works for so many other parts of the basketball apparatus.
“Until I got this job this year, I hardly even knew the D-League existed,” Stackhouse says. “I’m a pro. I’m an NBA guy, and I’m not wasting time, you know? I get it when people don’t understand the D-League. It’s part of it. But I’m here to tell ’em it’s a gem. A hidden gem.”
Stackhouse is hardly the first coach to use the D-League, but he’s the most candid about how he’s trying to use it, and he’s also unquestionably the most well known. In the Hershey Centre, some arena staff still stop him for photos, and BayHawks players whisper and point. The D-League personnel in the building — from players to dancers to front-office staff — dream of experiencing the kind of NBA glory that Stackhouse has already enjoyed. That’s partially why Stackhouse’s decision to head to the NBADL surprised even his own players.
“The whole team is surprised he’s here,” says 905 forward Antwaine Wiggins. “He’s a successful NBA player who’s teaching us the game of basketball, so it’s a blessing. But I know he wants to be a head coach [in the NBA]. I know the route he’s taken.”
At first blush, the D-League might seem like more of a scrimmage showcase heavy on 3s and light on defense than the place for a would-be NBA head coach to prove himself. But it’s not just home to empty gyms and empty dreams. The NBADL will expand from 22 teams to 25 next season, all now one-to-one affiliates with NBA franchises. The league will also change its name to the G-League following the NBA’s recent decision to partner with Gatorade in the U.S.’s first sports league naming-rights deal. Gatorade is investing in an increasingly relevant product: 40 percent of NBA players now have D-League experience, according to the league. And increasingly, those players are not the only ones with minor-league roots: Look in an NBA training room or PR room, and you’ll likely find someone with D-league time served.
Stackhouse hopes to join that list, and soon. With the 905, he’s surrounded by players who’ve traveled the path he hopes to travel — and, in some cases, who’ve traveled back again. In the opening minutes of February’s game against Erie, BayHawks players attack Pascal Siakam off the dribble with an intensity only possible when people who desperately want into the Association face off against someone who left it that morning. Siakam has started 38 games for the Raptors this season, but Toronto sent the former first-round pick and guard Fred VanVleet down to the 905 to open roster room for the recently acquired P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka. With 4:46 to go in the first quarter, Branden Dawson, a onetime Clippers prospect who hasn’t played in the NBA in nearly a year, isolates Siakam, crosses him over, and hits a jumper in his face. He stays in Siakam’s ear all the way down the court.
Two NBA scouts sitting two rows behind the court tap notes into their phones, reminding everyone what’s at stake: exposure. That play may not impact an established guy like Siakam, but it could help Dawson, who finishes the night with 14 points on 50 percent shooting while grabbing nine boards. Scouts are here every night, and the D-League has that advantage over every other non-NBA league in the world. There will soon be even more opportunity: The NBA recently agreed to institute new two-way contracts when the upcoming collective bargaining agreement takes effect. NBA rosters will expand from 15 to 17, movement between the NBA and NBADL will ease, and salaries for players with the new two-way deals will reportedly increase over old D-League contracts to between $50,000 and $75,000.
Siakam and VanVleet alter the starting lineup for Stackhouse, but he’s accustomed to juggling the rotation because the Raptors regularly promote his best players. Figuring out new ways to win with different pieces every night is part of what attracted Stackhouse to the job in the first place. (Raptors 905 are a league-best 35–11.) A D-League head coach calls timeouts, draws up plays, and answers to reporters and executives for his decisions. The season serves not only as a source of valuable experience, but as an extended interview: Can you adjust every day? Can you develop a project? Can you keep pace with the grind? “Would you rather,” as Stackhouse puts it, “make suggestions or decisions?”
“I think [an NBADL head-coaching job] is better [than an NBA assistant] in some ways,” Magic head coach Frank Vogel says through team PR. “You’re calling your own shots, calling your own timeouts, making your own substitution patterns and rotations, and calling your own plays on the fly. This stuff is valuable experience.”
Nurse agrees: “Your growth rate is double, triple maybe, in the D-League than being a fourth assistant in the NBA.”
The NBADL’s appreciation has largely been keyed by more NBA teams buying in. When the D-League was created in 2001, there were only eight teams, and the NBA owned them all. NBA franchises had no direct relationships, and therefore little incentive to invest money or time. The D-League wasn’t fulfilling then-commissioner David Stern’s vision of “a true minor league,” so the NBA pitched franchises on buying teams to accumulate a pool of reserve players, says former league executive and current Delaware 87ers GM Brandon Williams. Between 2006 and 2009, the Lakers, Thunder, Spurs, and Rockets changed the landscape by purchasing direct affiliates from the NBA league office. “The respect those [four] organizations had across the league,” says Williams, “it made teams think, ‘What do they have that we don’t?’”
Over the following five seasons, 10 more NBA franchises became one-to-one parent clubs. Yet increased ownership alone didn’t legitimize the D-League as an NBA launchpad. “There was that stigma that people weren’t doing what they should be doing [in the NBA], and this was a way to almost punish them,” says 905 GM Dan Tolzman. NBA teams tried changing that perception by rebranding team names to clearly link NBA and NBADL clubs and stressing to young players that the D-League was more opportunity than penalty. Teams NBA-wide also began moving affiliates closer to the parent clubs, like Golden State moving its team from Bismarck, North Dakota, to Santa Cruz, California, and Oklahoma City relocating its team from Tulsa to a few miles down the road. The D-League has tripled its number of teams in the past decade, yet the average distance between NBA teams and D-League counterparts has shrunk. In the past five years alone, Turner says, parent-affiliate separation fell from an average of more than 560 miles to an all-time low 180 miles this season.
The proximity familiarized NBA players with their D-League counterparts, and the reputation of the minor league began to change. It gradually progressed as NBA regulars interacted with teammates on 10-day contracts, or learned from a coach who’d once been there, or witnessed moments like the 2014 playoffs when undrafted rookie and NBADL call-up Troy Daniels drained a 3 to seal a Houston Rockets win and immediately credited the D-League for his success. Now, franchises leaguewide are increasing investments and exposure, improving living conditions, hiring D-League-specific scouts, and producing Facebook Live broadcasts for every game. The NBADL sets new records for upward mobility almost every year; last season, players assigned by NBA teams to D-League affiliates rose from 56 to an all-time high of 68, and 32 were called up, the fourth most ever.
“I’m converted,” Stackhouse says. “I’d sell the D-League to a lot of guys. I’m a big blueprint guy, and the blueprint is made here. … [This] shows ’em that maybe it’s not about coming right out and getting a head-coaching job.”
Five teams still don’t have public plans for a team, though D-League president Malcolm Turner says the NBA is in talks with all of them. In the meantime, if the Nuggets, Clippers, Pelicans, Trail Blazers, or Wizards want to assign a player, they email franchises that own D-League teams and wait until one volunteers to take the player on loan. Turner expects one to three NBADL-less franchises to announce expansion plans “in months.”
In the present, Antwaine Wiggins is one of many players validating the D-League’s progression in the eyes of players and coaches alike. The defender who locked up Steph Curry in college declined lucrative overseas contracts, where he’d been playing for four years, to chase his NBA dream in the place he believed maximized his chances of making it come true. Teammate C.J. Leslie has a similar story. More and more players each year, Wiggins and Leslie say, turn down six-figure deals overseas for either $19,000 or $26,000 over six months in the D-League, hoping to catch the right scout’s eye.
Ditto for coaches. “It’s a grind,” says Los Angeles D-Fenders GM Nick Mazzella. “It’s not easy. But the exposure is there. If you’re overseas, no one calls in February.”
As practice time steadily decreases through an NBA season, close-proximity teams consistently shuttle young players between NBA and D-League practices and games. Eliminating flights and long bus rides affords flexibility, creates domestic draft-and-stashes, and increases development opportunities. In the Air Canada Centre, the Raptors leave lockers for Bruno Caboclo, VanVleet, and Siakam because the three move so fluidly. Even last year’s no. 9 overall draft pick, Jakob Poeltl, has spent time in Mississauga, one of four lottery picks and 12 other first-rounders from last year’s draft to run in the D-League this season.
“Coming down here and getting some minutes, playing in a game, it helps my confidence,” Siakam says. “I try to be myself … but there’s a fine line between showing you don’t belong and staying in your role.”
Stackhouse came of age before players could consider development in the D-League, and until the Raptors made him the offer, he never thought it would be helpful in becoming a head coach. Former players Derek Fisher and Jason Kidd established a precedent that an NBA player could walk off the court in a jersey, change into a suit, and be an NBA head coach the next season. Kidd’s jump in particular stuck with Stackhouse, who retired after the 2012–13 season from the Brooklyn team that Kidd then took over.
“Seeing [Fisher and Kidd] get those head-coaching jobs,” Stackhouse says, “I was like, I know I’m — you hate to say better — but I know I’m damn as good as those guys when it comes to coaching. I’ve had more experience. …
“I wouldn’t have been ready [to be a head coach] in 2012–13, but Jason Kidd came in and my mind was like, ‘I have more of a pulse of this team than he could ever have. They respect me.’ I look at all of the other relationships you have to have to make it work, and the people you need to know in organizations. … It’s hard to get that.”
Stackhouse, who played for eight NBA franchises over his 18-year career, remembers what his mother, Minnie, always told him growing up: “What’s for you is for you.” He moved on from his surprise at the Kidd hire and, after a stint as a TV analyst covering the Pistons, became an assistant, where he built on the defense-first core values that had defined his playing career. Film about defense and workouts accounts for most of Stackhouse’s eight to 10 terabytes of film saved from a life in basketball. He preaches accountability to his players now and actualizes the buzzword by analyzing every 905 game and grading each player’s defensive performance using a grading system learned during his time with the Nets under Avery Johnson, who learned it in Dallas. Stackhouse’s teams seek to deny “the middle,” essentially the circle around the free throw line just inside the arc, and Stackhouse says that if he were interviewing for a job and someone suggested allowing the middle, then he would immediately stand up, shake hands, and walk out.
He keeps 905’s offense simple: Drive and try to finish. If you can’t finish, kick. If the kick isn’t open for a shot, swing. If the swing isn’t open, drive and try to finish. “He says it so much we all groan on the bench if they shoot on the kick and they’re not open,” says Wiggins.
The Raptors also have a player, guard Norman Powell, who advises other young players on how to approach D-League assignments. The second-round pick tore up summer league in 2015 but still wound up in the D-League during the 2015–16 season. The Raptors assigned and recalled him seven times that first year — players with three years or less of experience can be moved unlimited times — and Stackhouse worked Powell out extra after every practice last season in Toronto. In that season’s playoffs, Powell averaged 11 minutes and four points per game during a run to the Eastern Conference finals. Not a star, but a puzzle piece. “The success Norm had in his rookie year,” says Raptors head coach Casey, “was strictly due to his experience in the 905.”
Powell’s coach for 905, Jesse Mermuys, offered Stackhouse a case study. Mermuys left his assistant job with Toronto to be the head coach in Mississauga but, like so many others, he left the D-League after one season for a high-level assistant job back in the NBA, becoming one of the 76 D-League coaching alumni who have made it to NBA benches, according to the NBA league office. (Fourteen athletic trainers, 42 referees, and 75 front-office executives have been promoted.) Mermuys became the no. 2 assistant to new Lakers head coach Walton, who himself started coaching with the D-Fenders in player development before becoming a Warriors assistant and then head man with the Lakers. The Sioux Falls Skyforce (Miami’s affiliate) has seen three head coaches in three years jump to NBA bench jobs.
“In the past,” Tolzman says, “I can’t imagine assistant coaches jeopardizing leaving an NBA bench to go be in the D-League. Now, it’s seen as valuable to be in charge of your own team. The change is coaches don’t see it as career suicide.”
Late in the third quarter against Erie, Stackhouse leaps out of the chair he’d been sitting in as his team’s lead ballooned. Edy Tavares, his center, gets hit with a technical for complaining about an over-the-back foul. Stackhouse yells at the official, Vladimir Voyard-Tadal, but in a guarded way that allows him to support his player without risking a technical foul. A fan jeers that Voyard-Tadal will never make it to the NBA, and a few players on the sideline turn to look, because sound carries in the mostly empty arena. It’s a reminder that Stackhouse and his players aren’t the only ones trying to make the jump. All NBA officials hired since 2002 started in the D-League, where teammates and opponents and refs alike are united by their desire to make the jump.
In this game, there are three officials, but the NBA occasionally uses the D-League to experiment with four- or five-person crews, just like it has used the league to test out jersey sponsorships, reset timeouts, and replay review time limits. The trials harken back to one of the league’s main selling points to NBA franchises in the mid-2000s: the ability to test ideas in a space with many of the same rules but without the same implications. Make thousand-dollar mistakes, not million-dollar mistakes. That logic extends to teams testing out coaching schemes. The 87ers crash the offensive glass with all five players. The Reno Bighorns mandate all players shoot within 12 seconds. Three years ago, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, at the direction of parent-club GM Daryl Morey, tried to eradicate the midrange jumper. A few weeks ago, Morey’s Rockets team nearly did it in the NBA.
“The D-League is the only time people in our industry talk like startups,” says 87ers GM Williams. “You can make mistakes and it’s OK. You won’t get fired. It’s wide open to learn.”
In a small NBA bubble, it only gets harder to gain an advantage, so teams scrap. “The D-League’s not going to change the landscape of the NBA playoffs,” Oklahoma City Blue head coach Mark Daigneault says. “It’s an incremental advantage, but the NBA is very competitive, so that’s the mind-set. You’ll see it with the [two-way] roster spots, it’s leverage.”
Some coaches spend the bulk of their careers as assistants, absent the freedom to experiment in this way. The D-League, however, fosters the kind of development that leads Grand Rapids Drive coach Rex Walters to believe that an NBA team hiring a head coach from the D-League would be viewed just as favorably as poaching a college one. “Plus, it’s a better job,” the former University of San Francisco coach says of the D-League. “I’m more prepared in one season here than I would be in three years at USF.” Many coaches and executives believe an NBA franchise isn’t far from hiring directly from the D-League. Some in charge of personnel — like Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace — see the jump as inevitable. “It’ll happen one day,” Wallace says. “There’ll be a guy talented enough.”
Stackhouse believes he could be the one, and his former Toronto colleague agrees. “There’s name recognition with Jerry,” Kalamian says. “He’s highly visible. … It helps the league to have someone like Jerry to be [doing] what he’s doing right now. It’s good branding for everybody.”
Stackhouse has been a player, an assistant, and now a head coach. He’s general-managed the AAU team he owns, Stackhouse Elite, and regularly coordinated travel, food, entertainment, and lodging for that group. In 2011, Stackhouse Elite played against Watson Elite in Vegas, and five years later current Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson sprung from the D-League to a behind-the-bench assistant to interim head coach to full-time head coach in 18 months. So, why not Stackhouse? “Am I happy as hell Earl got that opportunity?” Stackhouse says. “Yes, because I know it’s not a fluke. He put in the sweat equity. That bias against former players, against the D-League, it’s going away because we’re working.”
After the buzzer sounds inside the Hershey Centre to seal a Raptors 905 win, Stackhouse speaks to both the press and his team before retreating to his office as the arena lights power down. There, above his desk, Stackhouse had a quote from his college coach, Dean Smith, scrawled in blue paint on the white wall: “A leader’s job is to develop committed followers.” Stackhouse is doing just that. As he leaves the Hershey Centre late and walks to the parking lot, he passes an extinguished lamppost where a banner flutters in the dark: “The Road to the Six Starts Here.”