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Player Review: The rocky union between Aron Baynes and the Raptors

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It seemed like a good match when Aron Baynes signed with the Raptors. Now the nightmare marriage can’t end soon enough.

Toronto Raptors vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

Aron Baynes and I go way back.

I wrote the news bit on his initial signing with the Toronto Raptors back on November 22. I followed that up with a deep dive into his fit with the team on November 24.

And then I proceeded to regularly lament that signing and lambaste Baynes all season long, both in my five thoughts columns and on Twitter.

Suffice to say, the marriage between Aron Baynes and the Raptors did not go as planned. There was no spark, no romance, and just four months into the union, they were barely speaking to each other. Divorce seems inevitable, perhaps as soon as free agency begins.

What went wrong with the Aron Baynes signing?

The short answer is “everything,” but you didn’t come here for the short answer, did you? No, you came to relive the greatest misses from the centre spot, in a Raptors season with a heck of a lot of lowlights.

First, the basics. As alluded to above, Baynes does not have very good hands. He struggled to catch passes on the move or in any kind of traffic. This was especially cringe-worthy to watch because, as Raptors fans, we’ve seen Kyle Lowry deliver picture-perfect pocket passes to big men for years, from Jonas Valanciunas to Amir Johnson, from Serge Ibaka to Chris Boucher, heck, even to Bismack Biyombo, not exactly known for his hands either. To see Baynes fumble away pass after pass was extremely disheartening.

Then there’s the shooting. Baynes had seemingly transformed his game last season, adding a three-point shot to his game and becoming a stronger outside, pick-and-pop threat. That shooting disappeared this season; his three-point shooting percentage decreased from 35% to 26%; he also took half as many three-point attempts per game.

Rebounding? While I remember thinking at times in the past couple of seasons that Serge Ibaka was a poor rebounder for his size and athleticism, Baynes quickly banished those thoughts and had me wishing for Ibaka’s rebounding numbers. Baynes pulled in only 5.2 boards per game, good for sixth on the team; that number surely would have been higher were it not for the strikingly high number of balls that Baynes seemingly punched out of the air in no particular direction, rather than attempting to, you know, grab the rebound.

Now, an Aron Baynes defender (if there is such a thing) might tell you that per 36 minutes, Baynes’ 10.0 rebounds per game would have been 3rd on the team. That same defender might also tell you that Baynes led the team in rebounding rate (tied with Chris Boucher), at 15.3%. To them I say, A) this Raptors season was bad enough, now you want us to imagine it with Baynes playing 36 minutes per game!? and B) the Raptors were the 28th-worst rebounding team by rebounding rate in the entire league. Being the best player on the team at something the team is objectively bad at isn’t much to write home about; Baynes had the 31st-best rebounding rate out of 50 centres who played in 25 games and played 18 minutes per game.

Finally, the hardest thing to quantify might have been the negative impact that Baynes’ presence had on his teammates’ offense, particularly the starters, when he was on the floor. All too often, it felt that rather than being a contributor, Baynes was in the way on offense. He couldn’t seem to find the right spots to get to that would allow Pascal Siakam to operate effectively. He didn’t move the ball well (when he did catch it).

Here’s one way to sum up Baynes’ presence, by looking the net rating of the Raptors’ top players when Baynes was on the court, compared to when he was off the court.

First, the net ratings with Baynes on the court:

  • Pascal Siakam: -3.2
  • Kyle Lowry: -6.6
  • Fred VanVleet: -2.8
  • OG Anunoby: -5.9
  • Norman Powell: -9.9 (!)
  • Chris Boucher: -1.5

And the net ratings when Baynes was on the bench:

  • Pascal Siakam: 5.5
  • Kyle Lowry: 2.3
  • Fred VanVleet: 6.1
  • OG Anunoby: 6.5
  • Norman Powell: 4.8
  • Chris Boucher: 4.2

In other words, Aron Baynes made everyone worse (especially poor Norm Powell). Good times!

OK, but why did everything go wrong?

There’s probably a very simple explanation for this, which we’ll get to. But first, a few things that are probable factors:

Age: Baynes turned 34 just before the season started. While it still makes my shoulders tense up to say that 34 is old (because I am much older than that!), the truth is that 34 is pretty old by NBA centre standards. Only three centres/big men older than Baynes played 25 games this season: Marc Gasol, Al Horford, and LaMarcus Aldridge. Those guys have 15 All-Star and 8 All-NBA appearances between them. Baynes has none.

COVID-19: Baynes tested positive for COVID-19 in the summer of 2020; it caused him to miss the entirety of the NBA Bubble (when the Suns went 8-0 without him). Baynes had symptoms, saying it “knocked him on his butt” and that he was basically holed up in his room to keep distance from his then-pregnant wife. Although there were about six months between Baynes’ bout with COVID and the start of the 2020-21 season, we still don’t know much about the long-term effects that COVID has on NBA players (or anyone else for that matter). Multiple players have described the difficulty they’ve had getting their wind back. Who knows how it affected Baynes in training camp or during the season?

Rust & Life: Because of that COVID diagnosis and missing the bubble, Baynes went more than eight months without playing an NBA game. That’s a long time! Especially for an older big man. Add that to the fact that the Raptors’ training camp was strung together last-minute in Tampa, and it’s possible that Baynes just never got his conditioning back up to a satisfactory level.

Speaking of Tampa, I can’t imagine trying to move to a new city, in the middle of a pandemic, with my wife about to give birth to a child. But that’s what Baynes and his family did! I can’t imagine the additional stress that might have caused, and the impact it might have had on Baynes’ conditioning and his play this past season.

Ultimately, though, that simple explanation? The biggest reason the Raptors and Baynes didn’t work out? Baynes is simply not as good as the players he was replacing, Serge Ibaka and the aforementioned Marc Gasol.

Gasol is a brilliant passer and one of the smartest, most instinctual defenders in the NBA. While Baynes isn’t a half-bad defensive player, he’s nowhere near Marc Gasol — even the Marc Gasol who’d lost a step last year.

Ibaka, meanwhile, is a gifted offensive player, able to score effectively from multiple spots on the floor — including the midrange, an area that was clearly lacking in Toronto this season — as well as a high-level shot blocker. Defenses had to pay attention to Ibaka; Baynes is much more limited offensively, forcing the Raptors to effectively play four-on-five when he was on the court. And while he’s moderately effective at using his size, Baynes can’t play above the rim.

And both of those players, Ibaka in particular, had institutional knowledge of the Raptors’ system, having spent significant time in it. Baynes had a half-assed training camp in a hotel ballroom and a compressed season where every game was played on the road.

It’s not Baynes’ fault that he’s not as good as those guys; it’s more on the organization if they expected him to be (and on us, too, as fans, if we expected him to be). And it’s not like he’s paid as much as Gasol and Ibaka were as Raptors, so it’s not like the value for his contract compared to them is completely out of whack either. He was paid less, and he produced less.

Wait, was Aron Baynes a bargain then?

Well, no. It’s true that Baynes’ salary of $7.35 million was quite low for a non-rookie starting centre, but his production didn’t match even that low dollar amount. Of the 42 centres who started 20 or more games and played more than 18 minutes per game, Baynes was 38th in points per game, 36th in rebounds per game, and dead last in FG%. In fact, one need look no farther than Khem Birch to find a better value-for-money player; even if you consider Birch’s full-season salary of $3 million (rather than the $450,000 or so he made as a buyout candidate), he had far less practice time with the team, yet put up better numbers and seemed like an overall better fit than Baynes pretty much from day one. And that “Kyle Lowry effect” is surely going to help Birch get paid this summer, while Baynes’ poor play… well, let’s just say it would be surprising to see Baynes get another NBA contract.

Which is unfortunate. Baynes seems like a good guy who’s had a long journey to NBA success, having played overseas and in the then D-League, and worked his way up from afterthought to quality rotation player. And it’s not like he intentionally went out there to stink it up. Of course he wanted to play well and help the team.

Alas, the union between Baynes and the Raptors was not meant to be. As such, it’s best if the Raptors exercise their team option and release Baynes during free agency, and move on to another solution in the starting spot for 2021-22.