It was a weekend of change for the Toronto Raptors. While the team retained Fred VanVleet and Chris Boucher, they lost their two most prominent centres, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, to the Lakers and Clippers, respectively.
As always, Masai Ujiri had a backup plan waiting. Moments after Gasol’s agreement with the Lakers was announced, reports came in that the Raptors had a deal in place to sign Aron Baynes, the free agent centre who played last season with the Phoenix Suns.
As key parts of the Raptors’ only championship, both Gasol and Ibaka are beloved in Toronto. Gasol, of course, won fans over with his crisp passing and brain-expanding defense, not to mention his iconic championship parade performance; Ibaka, meanwhile, put up solid numbers in 3.5 seasons as a Raptor, showed a flair for hitting timely three-pointers, and became an off-court legend thanks to his extremely fun vibes and unbeatable style, both immortalized in his YouTube shows, “How Hungry Are You” and “Avec Classe.”
In other words, replacing them is an impossible task. But how well can Aron Baynes succeed them? Let’s dig into the team’s new centre, find out what he brings to the table and how his production might compare to those that came before him.
Let’s Meet Aron Baynes
Baynes, 33 years old, was born in New Zealand but grew up mostly in Australia. According to Wikipedia, he was a rugby player until 15, when he switched to basketball. He was obviously pretty good at it, because it got him a scholarship to Washington State University, an NCAA Division I school. During his four years there, Washington State compiled an 80-50 record and made two NCAA Tournament appearances.
Baynes was not drafted, and instead played parts of four seasons in Europe before being brought back Stateside by the Spurs in 2013. While in the Spurs organization, Baynes worked on his game during several assignments to the D-League Austin Toros, and was on the Spurs’ active roster during their Finals runs in 2014 and 2015.
Following the Spurs championship, Baynes signed a three-year contract with the Detroit Pistons, with the third being a player option. He turned that option down, and signed a one-year deal with the Celtics, where he started 67 games in the 2017-18 season. That led to a two-year contract with the Celtics, who traded him to Phoenix after the 2018-29 season for a first round pick.
It should also be noted — because this is Earth, 2020 — that Baynes did test positive for COVID-19 earlier this summer, and missed the start of the NBA re-start Bubble; although he did eventually join his teammates, he did not play in Orlando, meaning he hasn’t played basketball since March. Furthermore, Baynes was not asymptomatic; he said the virus put him “on his butt” for a week and that slept for four straight days. We don’t yet know what long-term effects COVID-19 may have on people, whether they’re professional athletes or not; we wish Aron full health regardless, and hope that he’s not slowed down by any lingering aftereffects.
Running Aron Baynes’ Numbers
Baynes owns career averages of 6.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 0.5 blocks, along with 49.5 percent shooting (32.7% from three-point range). Per 36, those numbers are a solid 13.6 and 10.3.
Of course, career numbers — especially per-game counting stats — don’t tell much of a story. If we take a closer look at Baynes’ more recent play and dig deeper into the numbers, we can see why he’s became a valuable player.
First and perhaps most obviously, Baynes has become a reliable three-point shooter. He took a total of 28 three pointers in his first six seasons; two years ago, he shot 61, and last season, 168 — a remarkable 4.0 per game, at a 35 percent clip. The centre position has evolved in recent NBA seasons, and Baynes has evolved along with it.
Furthermore, we can see that Baynes’ shot profile is very typical of the modern NBA. He took 19 total midrange shots last year; everything else was at the hoop (138 shots), from 5-10 feet (57 shots) or three-point range (168 shots). The Raptors will no doubt miss Ibaka’s excellence from the midrange; as much as modern NBA offenses eschew shooting from that area, I think we can all agree that having someone like Ibaka as an outlet valve to score from there in late-clock situations is valuable. It’s also worth noting that as a three-point shooter, last year Baynes was most effective above the break; he only shot 6-for-25 from the corners.
Overall, Baynes’ true shooting percentage of 58.1 percent last season is pretty solid for a centre who shoots threes; it’s not Karl-Anthony Towns-like (64%) but not so far off, say, Nikola Jokic (60.5%) or Joel Embiid (59.0%). He can also finish with either hand at the rim, which is another nice-to-have in any big man.
Now, playmaking isn’t really something we should expect much of from Baynes. He typically ends plays, rather than creates them; the Suns created only 4.2 points per game off of Baynes passes last year. That’s a big drop from Gasol (8.4 last season, 10.3 the year before) but better than Ibaka (3.5), so the net outcome might not look that different. Either way, Baynes is a willing passer, not a black hole, so I expect him to do just fine in Nick Nurse’s equal-opportunity offense.
How Does Aron Baynes fit in the Raptors’ Offense?
If you’re looking for better news, it’s that Baynes is an effective screener in pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop situations. When Baynes was a screener last year, he scored 48 percent of the time, for an average of 1.14 points per possession in 2.9 possessions per game. He also averaged 3.0 screen assists per game. The highlight package of Baynes’ career night against Portland shows some nice pick-and-pop action with Ricky Rubio:
All-in-all, expect plenty of Baynes setting screens for Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, and popping out to the three-point line to receive outlet passes. He’ll also be effective as a trailer on fast-breaks; the Raptors love to run off of those Lowry-Siakam outlet passes, and having a trailer who can bomb threes is a great secondary break option.
In addition, shoutout to Friend of HQ Joshua Howe for pointing out another fun aspect of Baynes’s game: Sealing off defenders to open space:
One of the things that strikes me about Baynes' game is that he's an expert at sealing off defenders to create space. So good at using his size and strength to create easier opportunities for teammates attacking the rim. Could prove to a boon in helping Siakam's finishing. pic.twitter.com/RizPv9Iujq— Joshua Howe (@Howevolution) November 23, 2020
That’s positively Lowry-esque!
There are several more examples in this video of Baynes using his size to open up space for his teammates:
This can only be a good thing for a Raptors team that struggled to find open space in the halfcourt last season.
What can Raptors Fans Expect of Baynes Defensively?
Speaking of Lowry-esque, Baynes loves to take charges. He drew .38 per game last season, good for fifth in the league, and .35 the season before (tied for sixth with our man Kyle). Offensive players will need to keep themselves under control around these two!
Overall, though, the Raptors will take a step back here, most likely. Marc Gasol is one of the smartest and most instinctual defensive players in the NBA (in fact, he might be *the* smartest). Aron Baynes is not that. But, he might be a more impactful defender than Ibaka.
During his two seasons in Boston, the Celtics were regularly better when Baynes was on the court than on the bench, particularly on the defensive end. In 2018-19, the Celtics were 3.3 points per possession better with Baynes on the floor (they allowed 105.3 points per possession with Baynes on the court, and 108.6 with him on the bench); in 2017-18, the Celtics were +7 points better with Baynes on court.
Now, those numbers dipped last season. The Suns were actually better with Baynes on the bench overall; they allowed 113.9 pts/poss with him on the floor and were 2.7 pts/poss better with him on the bench. What to make of this? Couple things: For one, outside of a few games at the start of the year when Deandre Ayton was suspended, Baynes wasn’t starting; he was playing more with bench players, which is sure to hurt the defensive stats. I also think it’s safe to say that the Celtics had more plus-defenders overall than the Suns did. The Celtics were top-six defensively in Baynes’ two seasons there; the Suns, meanwhile, were bottom two each of those two seasons. Then they added Baynes and jumped to 17th overall last season! Obviously you can’t solely credit Baynes for that; I use it to illustrate that, as always, defense is complex and difficult to judge only in stats.
I’d also like to pause here and note that we all thought Marc Gasol, upon leaving, was also taking with him the copious amount of space he occupied in Joel Embiid’s head, right? But perhaps Baynes has a small rental there as well!
Baynes is a GET. Tough as nails. Counters Embiid. Can shoot the three. Sixers fans hate him. Total package. https://t.co/r2CNOgHAvy— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) November 23, 2020
Baynes’ footwork is absolutely solid there, keeping himself between Embiid and the rim, and he clearly knows how to use his body to make opposing centres work. I definitely look forward to the first 76ers-Raptors matchup!
But let’s jump to rim protection. Baynes doesn’t pick up a lot of blocked shots, but he is a big body who can contest shots. Opponents shot 61 percent within five feet of the rim when Baynes was on the floor last year; for comparison, opponents shot 60.4 percent against Rody Gobert and 60.3 percent against Joel Embiid. Not bad!
If we look outside of the lane, Baynes is not the most mobile centre around. But at his size, I think he might surprise some folks with his footwork. Not everyone can block a Stephen Curry step-back three-pointer, after all:
Finally, anyone playing the five still needs to rebound, and that might be an area of concern for Baynes. Even though he played a career-high 22 minutes per game last season, his rebounding rate slipped to 14.1 percent, his lowest since his rookie season. (And it wasn’t just that shooting threes took him away from the offensive glass; his defensive rebounding rate was 20.0 percent, down from a career 21.2 percent before last season.)
So overall, I think we can expect a little less ability to switch and guard in space than Gasol, slightly worse rim protection than Ibaka, and similar rebounding numbers to both.
For the Culture
As noted above, Gasol and Ibaka made impacts here in Toronto off the court that were almost as large as their impact on it. Can Baynes do the same?
Since the team won’t actually be playing in Toronto during what is likely to be Baynes’ one season here, we’ll go out on a limb and say no. But at the same time, the Raptors fanbase is very online, and Baynes does have one of the most fun and out-there Twitter fan accounts you’ll see in the NBA:
TARONTO RAPTORS— Unofficial tAronto Baynes Fan Club (@BaynesFanClub) November 23, 2020
By all means, give them a follow.
As for Baynes himself, by all accounts he’s a humble, hard-working, blue-collar guy, someone who won’t back down from a challenge and who shows up to play every night. In other words, straight out of the Jerome Williams or Chuck Hayes mold. Despite the surreal circumstances this season is sure to present, it’s not difficult to imagine Baynes becoming a fan favourite.
Overall Grade for the Aron Baynes Signing: A
Baynes has limitations. He’s not as good a defender or playmaker as Gasol, and not as good a shot-blocker or scorer as Ibaka. But, given the options that remained for Toronto with Ibaka and Gasol agreeing to deals elsewhere, he’s a good, solid pickup who, despite those limitations, will fit in well with what Toronto does.
If they weren’t going to keep Ibaka or Gasol, Baynes was probably the best possible pick-up to replace them.
Furthermore, the construction of his salary — a non-guaranteed second year — fits perfectly with the Raptors’ desire to financial flexibility for the 2021 offseason.
Baynes is a good fit on the floor and on the cap sheet. Looks like a winning signing to us!