Aron Baynes is in a pretty tricky position ahead of his first season in Toronto. No replacement for Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol could possibly be expected to match those two, both in on-court production and off-court charm.
Gasol was the team’s defensive quarterback, who turned the team into a buzzsaw whenever he hit the floor. Toronto’s entire think-piece inspiring defense was centered around Gasol’s ability to call out coverages and keep the team pliable. Ibaka, meanwhile, was the team’s most eager finisher, brightest off-court star, and handsomest fellow. Losing those two is a blow, and you’d be forgiven for being a little salty that they’re now in LA and the 2021 cap space their departures created is now likely to go unfilled by a big free agent. Baynes has some freaking shoes to fill.
Luckily for him, helping big men look good is kind of what the Raptors do.
If you’re Baynes, you couldn’t ask for a much firmer infrastructure within which to settle yourself. Kyle Lowry is his new point guard, and is sure to make it his duty to make Baynes’ next contract as lucrative if not more than the one he just signed. The only thing that seems to delight Lowry more than screaming at a ref he knows is wrong is getting dudes paid, whether it’s one of his beloved young pups in the Raptors core, or one-year stopover reclamation projects. Bismack Biyombo owes 85 percent of his career earnings to the eight months he spend catching lobs from Lowry.
Beyond Lowry, Baynes enters a team designed to make life easy on centers. Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam comprise as good collection of perimeter defenders as can be found on the planet. They’re joined by a couple bench options who are so good that Baynes probably won’t even be asked to close half of the team’s games. When he’s on the floor, opposing ball-handlers will more often than not be contained, and if not, Baynes will be helped by the prying arms and heavy palms of the Raptors who love to poke and steal balls oh so much. It’s a pretty plum gig being the last line of defense behind a concrete wall.
Off the court, he’ll never be Parade Marc or the Scarf Daddy, but Baynes seems like he’ll fit in snugly. He’s a fun quote, believes in the social causes the Raptors have put themselves behind, and comes with one of the more endearing Twitter accounts there is championing his every move. Toronto is a fun team to watch and an angsty one to play against — that very identity tends to coat members of the team in an aura of likeability. A year or two with the Raptors will surely help rehab whatever bad Celtics juju’s still clinging to his reputation.
Essentially, Baynes has it made in Toronto, same as just about any other mercenary center would. For him to uphold his end of the deal, it’s really not all that complicated. More or less: set good screens, play sound defense, take a lot of open threes and make an average chunk of them, and either grab rebounds or clear space for others to scoop them up.
The screening thing shouldn’t be much of an issue. Lowry boasted about that part of Baynes’ game after playing just a single preseason game with him on Friday. He’s sure to carry on the grand tradition of Raptors big men setting picks of debatable legality.
We’ve yet to see much of the eager three-point bombing Baynes leaned into in Phoenix last season — he’s was awkwardly married to rolling in the preseason as opposed to the popping that powered his career-best season in 2019-20. You’d assume that would resolve itself. Lowry’s gonna need a new buddy to feed pick-and-pop passes to like a momma bird taking worms to its nest, and Baynes attempted more threes per-36 than Ibaka did last year. On the glass, the five most-used Suns lineups featuring Baynes were somewhere between good and awesome at grabbing available boards. He’s got a history of helping to drive good rebounding at most of his stops, which was among the few things Ibaka and Gasol couldn’t claim.
Defensively, we’ll see. Phoenix was a couple points better per 100 possession with Baynes on the bench last season, but that was the Suns, who didn’t really learn how to play adult basketball until the Bubble, during which Baynes was sidelined with COVID. Toronto, as we’ve discussed, has better defenders than than Devon Booker and Kelly Oubre Jr. Baynes is mobile enough to hang when he needs to track a ways out, and will be wonderfully suited to doing the verticality thing at the rim.
The beauty of the whole Baynes experiment is that if things aren’t working on a given night, it’s not like the Raptors are beholden to playing him 30-plus minutes. In fact, they almost certainly won’t — he’s never averaged more than 22.2 minutes a night.
The reality is, while Baynes has the unfortunate duty of following up what Gasol and Ibaka did in Toronto, he’s not really being asked to do all the things they did. In his role, he should be a more than passable large person for hire, but he isn’t going to do it himself. Toronto can probably rely on Baynes, yeah. But they’ll be able to do so because of all the ways in which Baynes can count on the Raptors to help him out.