The quintessential NBA role player understands his strengths and weaknesses, can do enough with that understanding to maximize the good stuff and minimize the rest, and every so often can swing a game when things fall into place.
This ideal role-playing type would be consistent, trusted by teammates and coaches, and comfortable in his own skin and given role—he realizes that playing in an All-Star game isn’t a realistic goal, but understands that, if he masters his various responsibilities, team success is. He will take the latter over the former, and be glad to do it. So, yes: this type of player is rare.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Jodie Meeks, on one of the NBA's less high-functioning teams, played this part all season, with an appropriately understated excellence—running the floor, making threes, finishing around the rim, and always defending one of the opposing team’s primary ball-handlers. But were his career-best numbers the result of playing in an offensive system known for embellishing statistics, or was this real development?
There will be unrestricted free agents this offseason who'll attract bigger contracts, but Meeks may be the most polarizing. He is a premier role player who has come to fully understand and embrace his role, or he's the best player on a lousy team. He could be both. No one really knows.
Just now entering his prime, the 26-year-old thrived in a somewhat awkward situation. He was the Lakers’ starting shooting guard, yet his jersey number isn’t 24 and his name isn’t Kobe Bryant. It’s uncomfortable, but Meeks owned the challenge in every way. He led L.A. in minutes and points.
He also averaged 18.5 points on a 48.3/39.7/87.6 shooting split after the All-Star break, and he finished the season ranked by Synergy Sports as the 13th most efficient player in the entire league. Only 11 players had a higher True Shooting percentage. In short, the Lakers' worst season in memory was without a doubt the best year of Jodie Meeks' basketball life.
Strictly as a scorer, Meeks is effectively James Harden Lite: allergic to the mid-range, forever attracted to threes, free-throws, and the restricted area. Unlike Harden, Meeks also spends a good chunk of time tenaciously guarding opposing point guards, which is arguably the most strenuous task in the league. The mere thought makes Houston’s star dizzy, which is why he generally avoids it.
Look at Meeks’s shot distribution chart:
This year, only three players in the entire NBA made at least 40% of their threes, 50% of their twos, and averaged at least 15 points per game: Stephen Curry (duh), Goran Dragic (nods respectfully), and…Jodie Meeks.
Meeks redefined the hot hand against Oklahoma City late in the season, dropping 42 points in a performance Russell Westbrook declared “lucky.”
Excellent sportsmanship to be sure, but also nobody can score 42 points in an NBA game solely on luck; what Westbrook probably meant was that anybody in the world’s most competitive basketball league can catch fire on any given night. He might also have meant that the style Los Angeles plays is conducive to a high-scoring game, and high scoring performances from its players. A bunch of Meeks’ 42 points came on transition threes launched early in the shot clock. This is not a shot most players get to take without being yelled at by a coach. Still, they went in.
But this is where Meeks becomes a difficult player to analyze. His scoring was dependent on others all season, as only 19.4% of his made field goals came unassisted. That number dropped to 13.2% after the All-Star break, and 10.9% in L.A.’s final 15 games.
Meeks doesn’t create off pick-and-rolls, and the only off-the-bounce action he stirs is when a big will pass it to him on the wing, then immediately run over to set a screen. Meeks either rises up for three as fast as he can, passes the ball along the perimeter, or turns it over. He doesn’t drive or rack up assists.
Mike D’Antoni coaches the Lakers, which means they’re fast. Only the Philadelphia 76ers—more science experiment than basketball team, overall—averaged more possessions per 48 minutes. The Lakers also adored the three-point line, with 27.5% of their points coming beyond the arc, third highest in the league.
They Lakers cracked the century mark nearly every game by propping up subpar players up on stilts made of glitter: Kendall Marshall defied logic with his three-point accuracy and trailed only Chris Paul in some meaningless category called “assists per game;” Nick Young somehow spent parts of the season flirting with Sixth Man of the Year without fixing any of the terrible habits that made L.A. his fourth team in three years; Kent Bazemore spent time as a cartoon action hero—a Bazed God, if you will—after being traded for Steve Blake; Xavier Henry doubled all his major statistics from the previous season and looked like a miniature Vince Carter before hurting his knee; and Wesley Johnson shot comfortably above 40%, which may be the most startling statistical bit in this paragraph, and the universe.
These are the NBA’s very own bubble boys. Peel them from a comfortable habitat and they wither. With regard to his employment future, everything depends on whether executives believe Meeks belong in this company, or can survive in a different system.
He'll get a nice deal either way, most likely. Meeks is clearly smart, knows how to draw contact, and has fantastic timing on cuts into space, especially along the baseline. He’s also efficient, a solid defender, and can space the floor. These are all very good things
But do opportunities like these happen if he’s playing on a different team?
Probably not. But what separates Meeks from several guys with the same skill-set is this: He always runs like someone’s chasing him. Meeks will fly up his lane like a pinball screeching right off a flipper whenever someone misses a shot. D’Antoni’s offense has that sort of Pavlovian effect on a few of its players, who most clearly pick up on its rhythms and rewards. The jolt of happiness in Meeks’s brain is almost visible when his ears hear a ball clang off the rim. To wit:
Two years ago, the Lakers signed Meeks to a two-year, $3.05 million deal using their taxpayer mid-level exception. He’s now unrestricted and due for a raise. Two players comparable by position, age, and recent stats are Gerald Henderson and O.J. Mayo.
Mayo signed a three-year, $24 million mistake with the Milwaukee Bucks last summer; Henderson landed back in Charlotte on a team-friendly, three-year, $18 million deal. The open market won’t look the same this July as it did in 2013, but Meeks has a strong case to receive comparable money on a three or four-year deal.
There’s always the possibility that the here and now is the peak of Meeks’s career, and instead of continuing to improve he spends the next few years as Randy Foye 2.0. That's a decent living, too, but likely a less lucrative and more itinerant thing than what Meeks—who has already played for three NBA teams—has in mind.
There’s also the chance Meeks becomes more than that. What if the second half of his career is a three-point explosion a la Kyle Korver? (The 33-year-old Korver is in the first season of a four-year, $24 million deal with the Hawks; Meeks’s agent would very much like the same for his client.)
Either way, an early estimation suggests that only a couple competitive teams in the league have both the need and cap space to gamble on Meeks. There's a solid chance he stays with the Lakers as Kobe’s backup over the next few years, but also and always there’s the possibility that a team like the Detroit Pistons can swoop in and take a gamble. The Pistons are invested in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but they're also a mess, and need both spacing and a veteran player who knows where to be. They can afford Meeks’ quote.
All of which leaves Meeks in an intriguing but unsettled position—Schrodinger's Free Agent, if you want, a player whose value depends to a great degree on whether teams believe in what he showed all year long. Meeks spent a season showcasing the type of important, game-winning skills that any playoff team in the league would love to afford, and it’s safe to call the marriage between D’Antoni’s system and Meeks’s own development successful. The next frontier, for Meeks and the team that bets on him, will be knowing which one mattered more.