As is usually the case with mid-level free agents, the guys that were able to push through a deal early in free agency were some of the biggest winners, most notably Jodie Meeks, who agreed to a 3-year $19 million deal with the Detroit Pistons. Meeks, a former second round pick who played for 3 teams in his first 5 seasons in the league and made $1.5 million with the LA Lakers last season, went from journeyman to established NBA vet in one contract.
At 6'4 210, Meeks is an undersized shooting guard whose primary value is as a three-point specialist. He's a career 38% shooter from deep who never averaged more than 2 rebounds or 2 assists a game before last season, when he played 33 minutes a night on a Lakers team ravaged by injuries. He should provide value as a floor spacer in Detroit, but his skill-set is hardly unique, which makes you wonder about the contract he received.
Just as a comparison, let's look at Wayne Ellington, who was picked 13 spots ahead of Meeks in 2009 and has played for 4 teams in his first 5 seasons in the league. Like Meeks, Ellington is a 6'4 shooting guard whose primary value comes from his three-point shooting - he's a career 39% shooter from 3 who can score the ball but has never shown much value as a defender, rebounder or passer. The main difference between the two is opportunity.
While Meeks flourished amidst the wreckage of the Lakers lost season, Ellington was stuck at the end of a crowded guard rotation in Dallas, behind Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, Devin Harris and Vince Carter. Since Ellington lacked the size to play much at SF and the Mavs committed to playing a lot of 2 PG line-ups, there just weren't many minutes available for him behind the ageless Carter, the better all-around player of the two UNC SG's.
Since he played a little under 400 minutes in Dallas, it's hard to take much from Ellington's per-36 minute averages last season. However, if you take a look at his and Meeks numbers from 2012-2013, the similarities are striking - Meeks was at 14/4/1.5 on 38/37 shooting while Ellington was at 13/4/2 on 43/39 shooting. Through their first 4 seasons in the league, Ellington had the better pedigree and the better all-around numbers.
The difference came in season 5, where Meeks became the latest fringe guard to benefit from playing in Mike D'Antoni's wide-open system. The reality is there are a lot of NBA-caliber guards out there who could put up numbers if they could play big minutes in a spread floor for a coach who gave them the green light to shoot the ball. However, because there are only 30 teams in the NBA, those types of opportunities are few and far between.
So while Meeks now has financial security and an almost guaranteed rotation spot in Detroit, Ellington became a salary throw-in the Tyson Chandler trade, forced to scrap for minutes on a New York team that never really valued him and may not need his services at all. That can be the difference between making it or not in the NBA - for all the new emphasis on analytics, FO's are still impressed by raw numbers like Meeks 16 PPG in LA.
It's not that he won't be able to contribute in Detroit, but that there are plenty of 6'4 shooting specialists out there who can be acquired for far less than $6 million a year. There are players with Meeks and Ellington's skill-sets coming out of college every year and a lot of them end up in the D-League or Europe without ever getting a shot in the NBA. Jabari Brown (Missouri) is an example in this year's draft.
At the end of the day, the difference between Ellington and Meeks' careers could come down to Mike D'Antoni, the patron saint of giving fringe guys chances and keeping them in the league. Meeks is a lot like Landry Fields and Jeremy Lin, two guys with big long-term contracts who should be thanking the basketball gods every day for their chance to play under D'Antoni. Had they played for someone else, you probably would never have heard of them.