AS A RENTAL, STACKHOUSE LOOKING LIKE A GOOD BUY

This was one of those cold spring nights at the Palace where lottery implications were everywhere you looked. On the one hand, you had the home team, the Pistons, who are heading unhappily toward a lottery pick, unless they somehow string together eight or nine wins in their last dozen games.

Across the floor, you had the visiting team, the San Antonio Spurs, featuring young Tim Duncan, the soon-to-be-Rookie of the Year, whom the Spurs got last year with the No. 1 lottery pick.

And then, coming off the Detroit bench, you had Jerry Stackhouse, a soft-spoken guy and former lottery pick himself, who symbolizes this whole crap shoot of evaluating NBA talent.

Stackhouse, you may recall, was the No. 3 pick just three years ago, who has yet to dominate the game the way people predicted. They called him “The Next Michael Jordan,” which I believe is what they now call anyone who has hang time, a good move to the basket, and some sort of connection to the state of North Carolina.

Stackhouse had all three. He went to Jordan’s alma mater, left after his sophomore year, got plucked by Philadelphia and now, thanks to a pre-Christmas trade, is here in Detroit, as that newest category of professional athlete, The Rental. You know. You pick up a guy for the last few months of his contract and you try him out. You rent him. If he works, you do what you can to sign him back. If not? Well, as they say when you smack a Hertz car against a telephone pole, “Hey. It’s a rental!”

But here’s the catch. Stackhouse is suddenly playing like a stud. He’s scoring. He’s soaring. He’s defending. And the Pistons are going to have to consider more than renting.

They may have to buy.

He’ll get more money next year

“What are you playing for right now — in order of importance?” I asked Stackhouse after the Pistons’ win over the Spurs, their fourth win in a row.

“Number one, I’m playing for us to get to the playoffs and for me to play in my first playoff game,” he said. “Number two, because I just love playing the game. Number three, to take care of my family financially with a new contract next year.”

That contract will bring more money next year — a lot more from somebody. But will it be the Pistons? Well. Here’s the kind of thing that makes it difficult to say no: Stackhouse racked up 22 points Wednesday night. On Sunday against the Hawks, he had 23. And it isn’t just the points. It’s this: Wednesday. Fourth quarter. Spurs making a run at the Pistons’ lead. Stackhouse intercepts a pass meant for Vinny Del Negro and takes off, gets fouled, hits both free throws.

Minutes later, Del Negro on a breakaway. Stackhouse rises like thunder and slaps the ball away.

“That’s the thing that is really pleasing me about Jerry right now,” said his coach, Alvin Gentry, “he’s playing aggressively on defense.”

This has hardly been Stackhouse’s traditional strength. So some would suggest that Jerry is only playing this hard because a contract looms in the balance.

On the other hand, what if this is the real him?

Ha. Not so easy being a GM, is it?

Missing the championship thing

Nor is it easy coming into the league used to winning and suddenly finding yourself only about losing. Stackhouse, a silky-shooting guard with swift acceleration to the hoop and a natural mastery of the air, came out of North Carolina with a winner’s mentality. But as is often the case in lottery picks, he went to a lousy team, the 76ers. In two seasons, he never saw a postseason.

This week, his old college team is back in the Final Four. Lights. Camera. History. Meanwhile, it’s possible Stackhouse will be absent from the NBA postseason again.

“Sure I miss the whole championship thing,” he said, as he draped his tie neatly around his neck. “I’ve thought about it. I thought if I maybe had a sub-par college career, maybe I would have been drafted by the Lakers or the Bulls or something.

“But I’ll always be honored to have been the No. 3 pick.”

Stackhouse, his talent and his age (23) make things tricky for the Pistons, because he plays the same position as Joe Dumars. Dumars may be getting older, but he’s still the guy who will get you over the hump. He did it Wednesday night with the biggest shot of the evening, a three-pointer when the Pistons were in danger of losing control. As long as Joe can do that — and he can easily do it another year — any coach will want him on the floor in crucial times.

Where does that leave Stackhouse? He’ll want to be a starter wherever he goes next. But with Dumars on the roster, that’s no guarantee.

“What if Joe comes back?” I asked Stackhouse.

“More better,” he said.

“Would you be willing to be a sixth man?”

“Yeah. It’s something I could do. I’m doing it now, coming off the bench, heating up. I’m not the Microwave yet, but maybe I’m the Toaster.”

The Toaster. Maybe he likes that role. Maybe, when his agent starts negotiating, he suddenly doesn’t. You look at Duncan, who has turned his team around as a lottery pick, you look at Stackhouse, who is still searching as a lottery pick, and you look at the Pistons, who may be into this whole lottery thing themselves in a month.

The Toaster, huh? Well, things are getting warm.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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