Meeks deal ups Pistons war chest – and makes free agency that much more enticing

The presence of young wings like Reggie Bullock helped the Pistons deal away Jodie Meeks – and get critical added cap space – with confidence.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

ORLANDO – The Pistons made a 12-win leap last season while Jodie Meeks missed all but 43 minutes while injured. His contribution to next season came in the form of an additional 40 percent cap space the Pistons will carry into free agency at 12:01 a.m. Friday.

The Pistons sent Meeks to Orlando for a 2019 second-round draft pick, increasing their cap space from about $15 million to something closer to $22 million. Given the expected rise in salaries due to the cap soaring to an expected $94 million, the Pistons had two chances to satisfy their two pressing needs with $15 million at their disposal: slim and slimmer.

Now – while nothing is certain in what is expected to be a dizzying few hours of spending – there’s a realistic chance the Pistons can get two quality players.

General manager Jeff Bower said the presence of Reggie Bullock and Darrun Hilliard gave the Pistons the luxury of dealing Meeks, when right an explosive scorer, at a position of depth. And that’s certainly true. Both had spins in the rotation last year, both played well under the difficult circumstances of sporadic opportunity, both are young and possessed of buoyant personalities and high work ethic.

But Bower’s grin widened a little as he admitted, “the possibilities of what the additional cap space can provide is an added benefit, as well.”

The Pistons will be shopping for a backup point guard to Reggie Jackson and a bigger power forward to complement incumbent starter Tobias Harris. Those are two certain rotation spots. They were filled last year by Steve Blake and Anthony Tolliver – terrific pros and better teammates. But if the Pistons can upgrade at both spots – and $22 million, give or take, gives them a much, much, much better chance of doing exactly that – they’ll have that much better a shot to take another leap forward in Stan Van Gundy’s third season.

If they split that money down the middle, that’s $11 million for each player. That’s going to sound a lot better to agents taking Van Gundy’s phone calls in the wee hours of Friday morning than the $7.5 million he had to offer before.

“It gives us a little more margin,” Van Gundy said. “It gives us a little bit of space so that if the numbers start to go up a little, you’ve got a little bit of space to deal with. … It goes give you a little bit more flexibility where you’re not going to lose a guy over $100,000 or $200,000, something like that. That part of it was good.”

He regretted the way it worked out with Meeks, the first free agent he went after two years ago, new to the Pistons, and still felt he could have helped. But Meeks saw the situation around him and requested a trade, Van Gundy said. “It was just really, Jodie wanted another opportunity – fine – and we get back a second (rounder) and clean up a roster glut of players.”

All while putting themselves in a better position to add at point guard and power forward.

The needs are close to equal. Van Gundy grudgingly conceded last Friday, hours after getting a better find in the draft than the Pistons reasonably expected in 6-foot-11½ Henry Ellenson with the 18th pick, that perhaps they’d elevate backup point guard over power forward slightly on their priority list. It’s possible they could still split the money otherwise – two-thirds to one position, one-third to the other, say – if they can get a player so good that his presence dwarfs other areas of need.

However it plays out, they’ve put themselves in a better situation by adding to their assets arsenal before firing commences. Bower said they’d talked with Orlando for “weeks” about the deal. Getting it done before July 1 was critical.

The return in official annals won’t sound like much, but it’s a real draft pick – not one of those that comes with an asterisk and is protected beyond all likelihood of conveyance. It’s a 2019 second-rounder, the lesser between this one and another Orlando has coming from any of three teams so … yeah, figuring it out might cause cerebral hemorrhaging. It’s real value might come in a future trade. The Pistons had dealt their second-rounders in 2017, ’19 (both for Reggie Jackson) and ’20 (for Bullock and Marcus Morris), so restocking that asset drawer is an added bonus.

But the essential element of the deal was the cap space that could mean the difference between a player – two players, in this case – Van Gundy sends into games with wavering confidence and someone who becomes an anchor for an improved bench unit.

“I don’t think anybody knows exactly what’s going to happen,” Bower said of free agency’s opening bell. “We know our priorities and we know the players that we’ve researched and would like to have an opportunity to talk about the Pistons with.”

They’ll find a broader audience of willing listeners now. The next 48 hours just got that much more interesting.