While he was enjoying a high school football game in his native Atlanta, Jodie Meeks' cell phone blew up with text messages.
The Lakers had just finalized a trade that would bring them Dwight Howard. Immediately, Meeks imagined what it would be like to join a star-studded roster featuring an elite defender (Howard), an elite passer (Steve Nash), an elite scorer (Kobe Bryant) and elite post player (Pau Gasol). The thought of receiving countless open three-pointers because his teammates were double-teamed seemed so tantalizing. Later that night, Meeks agreed to join the Lakers with a two-year deal, worth $3 million, which became official Monday when he signed the contract.
"I felt like this was the best situation," Meeks said Monday in a phone interview with The Times. "To have a chance to play for a team like this will make me better. I’m playing with so many good people."
Meeks hardly just wants to hop on the bandwagon with the many pundits who say the Lakers are destined to win an NBA championship. That prospect "sealed the deal," as his agent, David Bauman, put it for Meeks, who was also fielding offers from the Washington Wizards, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies. But Meeks sensed a strong opportunity in filling the Lakers' needs in having a consistent backup shooting guard behind Bryant.
"I'm looking forward to playing together with someone who will be in the Hall of Fame one day and go down as one of the best who ever played," said Meeks, who has a team option on his second year. "I'll take pride in hoping to help him out with his minutes. Last year, he played a lot of minutes. So if I can go in there and take some minutes off of him, it will help the team out."
This acquisition pales in relation to all the other moves the Lakers made this offseason. They hit two home runs by acquiring Nash and Howard. After making $15 million with the Cleveland Cavaliers last season, Antawn Jamison joined the Lakers at the veteran's minimum of $1.5 million. And the Lakers re-signed promosing young players in big man Jordan Hill and small forward Devin Ebanks. But Meeks' arrival will be the main variable to ensuring Bryant stays fresh throughout the season.
Bryant averaged 38.5 minutes a game last season, a sharp increase from the 33 he averaged the previous season. He didn't receive much rest until he suffered a left shin injury that sidelined him for seven games late in the season. Bryant also looked noticeably worn in the playoffs, particularly in the fourth quarter. Yet, Lakers Coach Mike Brown remained reluctant to limit his playing time because of his inconsistent options: an inexperienced Andrew Goudelock, a tentative Steve Blake and a raw Ebanks.
The 6-foot-4 Meeks, who played for the Philadelphia 76ers in three of his four NBA seasons, will prove to be a more reliable choice. He averaged a career-high 37% from three-point range in the last two years. He also spent his first season in Philadelphia playing under Eddie Jordan, who's likely to bring his Princeton offense as he joins Brown's coaching staff.
"That’s what I bring to the table," Meeks said about his shooting. "I can do a lot more than just spot up, but I definitely can do that. That’s been my role the last few years. What I bring to the table is that and I will be very valuable to the team."
Still, Meeks wants to evolve into more than just a shooter.
Synergy Sports Technology suggests Meeks holds his own defending pick-and-roll ball handlers (holding them to 38.7% shooting) and on spot-up shots (36%). But his opponents shot 48.5% from the field when they matched up with Meeks in isolation plays. Meeks' shooting percentage last season also took a dip. After shooting nearly 40% from three-point land during the first half of the season, Meeks barely cracked 31% during the second half.
To address those concerns, Meeks says he's spent this offseason mixing his 500 shots a day with drills to improve his ball handling and lateral quickness.
"I feel like I’ve gotten better every year on the defensive end," Meeks said. "That’s something I like to do. I don't like to just play offense. I take pride in defense. I think I bring a lot of quickness and athletic ability in hopes to defend some of the top scorers and wear them down."
During last year's playoffs, Meeks played only 7.8 minutes a game off the bench. That wouldn't be a healthy formula here for the Lakers, considering they hope Bryant can better conserve his energy. Regardless, Sixers Coach Doug Collins has praised Meeks for his work ethic and amiable personality, a formula that could expedite his growing pains with a veteran, star-laden squad.
"I had a great time in Philly," Meeks said. "It's a great city and Doug Collins is a great coach. He said that in his 20 or 30 years in the NBA, I'm a great professional and I work really hard. I’m always going to work hard and bring my best effort."
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