Stack is getting the best laugh these days

As Trey Wingo and now the whole nation knows, Jerry Stackhouse is one of the league's best laughers.

Well, guess what?

He ain't a shabby leader, either.

Stack up all the stats and the Pistons' surprising standing in the Eastern Conference and it's a fairly simple conclusion. Smart as the latest SportsCenter spot comes across, it's not the best production Jerry has pitched forth this season.

Trey Wingo (or whatever his real name is) and the rest of the highlight guys have catalogued all the examples. Surely you've seen...

The 44 points posted on opening night, out-Vince-ing the Raptors. Or the 41 scored by No. 42 in Seattle last week. Or maybe his best-ever assist game, 11 against Vancouver, and his average of 5.3 assists over the last six. It's impossible to miss the name STACKHOUSE in the league leaders -- third in scoring (28.1 ppg), and second in free-throw attempts per game behind Shaquille O'Neal (9.3 per outing).

Most impressive of all, no one is laughing hysterically at the Pistons, like so many pundits predicted after Jerry's good friend Grant Hill left for Florida. Atlanta visits Detroit on Wednesday night, and, to the credit of Jerry and his kiddies, the Pistons haven't yet sunk to the Hawks' depths.

Atlanta is 5-16, in spite of the increasingly smoldering Jason Terry. Detroit should be 10-12 after beating Team Terry, to move a full game ahead of Hill's Orlando Magic. The same Magic which had a four-game winning streak to start climbing up the Least ladder ... before Hill came back just in time for losses to the Clippers and Sonics.

"You look at our roster our roster and think, 'Those guys should be 29th,' " Stackhouse said. "That's the way a lot of you guys put it."

Stack proceeds to let out one of those hearty Wingo cackles before finally turning serious.

"This is the best I've ever played," he said. "It's the best situation, where I'm not playing a secondary role. That's the best role for me, doing the things I like to do. I know that it takes more than one guy, especially to win consistently, but my thing was to go out and really try to put my stamp on this team."

Sounds a smidge selfish, yeah, but you have to admire his honesty. Plus, it's tough to argue with the results. Dana Barros is suddenly the Pistons' best point guard, the ordinary-so-far Joe Smith is considered a stop-the-presses acquisition and Ben Wallace, for all his wondrous rebounding and tenacity, is only the free-throw shooter in the league worse than Shaq (37.3 percent). And still the Pistons are overachieving, second only to Cleveland in that category in their conference.

So it's no surprise that Stackhouse sounds laugh-it-up pleased. Last season, it was easy for skeptics to submit that his surge to All-Star status was largely boosted by the presence of Hill, who drew much of the focus from opposing defenses. No one's saying so now. Stackhouse is double-teamed every night, on virtually every possession, playing better than ever with nowhere to hide.

Turns out, though, he's most proud of the successful new leadership. Stackhouse hasn't enjoyed dealing with the very public residue from his breakups with Allen Iverson and Hill, but it pained him much more to admit to himself that his first few seasons weren't good enough. That he wasn't the difference-maker everyone envisioned.

"It was humbling, the first sense of failure I've ever had in basketball," Stackhouse said of his pre-Answer days in Philly. "I was going to a team that needed so much from me, and we only won 18 games. It was kind of deflating to my ego."

Fact was, Stackhouse wasn't ready at that stage in his development -- after just two college seasons -- to turn around a moribund franchise. "At North Carolina, I was considered the leader because I had all the big numbers, but that was kind of a facade," Stack said. "Dean Smith was the real leader. He held everything together."

Five seasons later, Stackhouse has a brick-solid confidence. He has already survived two coaching changes in his Detroit tenure (Doug Collins to Alvin Gentry to George Irvine) and a wait behind the legendary Joe Dumars before becoming a starter. He still suffers from a fiery temper and a penchant for recklessness, evidenced by his 4.3 turnovers per game, but he's also steadily adding to his arsenal.

New Trick 2000: A little pull-up jumper inside 12 feet that rarely misses. And he can always get it off because defenders are so fearful that he's going all the way to the goal. Sharing the ball with his teammates more is another improvement, as Stackhouse bids for the first 5-per-game assist average of his career.

And did we mention the laughter?

Not as angry a man as his reputation suggests, huh? Unless you happen to be Christian Laettner in a card game on the team plane.

Or unless the Pistons start fading into Hawks territory, which Stackhouse thinks Detroit will avoid in the beastless East for the whole season, not just 20-odd games.

"Keep saying we can't do this and we can't do that," Stackhouse requested, with one last laugh. "We're already a pretty good team."

Around The League

  • Player mutinies, or what looks like 'em, are the rage. First it was the Sonics sabotaging Paul Westphal. Then it was the Nuggets and what will inevitably be regarded as digging a ditch to deposit Dan Issel, no matter how the locker-room inhabitants rationalize it. And now, similar rumblings emanate from Chicago. Bulls players are said to be stockpiling as much contempt for Tim Floyd as they harbor for Jerry Krause.

    The latest conspiracy theory making the rounds in the Windy City has nothing to do with prominent free agents around the league in collusion to snub the Bulls. Potentially worse, a resolve is apparently developing among Chicago's youngsters to jointly bolt as soon as they possibly can. Little-used Jamal Crawford, not surprisingly, is the unhappiest. But the frustration is mounting as well for workhorse forward Elton Brand, who needs a lot more help than he's getting -- and some good health, too.

    Problem is, since the NBA's new CBA will lock up all the new kids for up to five seasons if Krause wants to keep them, it will eventually have to be Floyd who gets relocated. Like Westphal. Like Issel, sooner rather than later. It's always the coach.

  • Friday is Dec. 15, which has become a somewhat significant date on the NBA calendar. Dec. 15 is the first day rookies or players signed as free agents can be traded. But there are still plenty of restrictions involved, usually base-year compensation issues after guys get big money, so no one's predicting an avalanche of deals. "Historically, there hasn't been a lot of movement from the 15th through the [February] trading deadline," said Cleveland general manager Jim Paxson. "Most of the activity is in the summer. Teams that have made a lot of changes, you kind of want to see what you have before you make further changes."

  • Dallas' Don Nelson is drawing strength from the knowledge that the entertainment, political and sporting communities have already witnessed numerous well-known survivors of prostate cancer. Entertainers: Harry Belafonte, Barry Bostwick, Merv Griffin, Jerry Lewis and Sidney Poitier. Politicians: Bob Dole, Rudy Giuliani and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. Sportsmen: Marv Levy, Jim Marshall, Arnold Palmer, Frank Robinson, Dan Rooney, Joe Torre and Bob Watson. Just from the NBA, Pacers assistant coach Brendan Malone recovered in less than two months while working for the Knicks in 1998.

  • In the uninspired Eddy Curry vs. Tyson Chandler showdown last week, you expected Chandler to have the better game whether Curry had the flu or not. Chandler frequently worked out with NBA players over the summer in Los Angeles and has left little doubt that his name will be in the draft come June.

  • Last Word goes to Stackhouse, on his pal Hill: "I'm not going to say we're the two most compatible people around, and that we looked for each to go out to dinner after the game. But it's hardly the rift people are trying to make it out to be. I think Grant would say the same thing."

  • And a bonus Last Word from Stack on Sacramento's Chris Webber: "I'm not putting all my eggs in one basket, but if I could have a choice, Chris is the free agent I would want. He could make us an elite team. [Detroit] is his home. I think we have a chance if we can continue to prove that were a legitimate basketball team without him."

    Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.