After striking out on retaining two of their top priorities this fall in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, the Toronto Raptors have finally found their centre. Aron Baynes is headed to the North.
It’s been a boisterous past 48 hours for the Toronto Raptors to say the least. Immediately following the news that Serge Ibaka was going to Los Angeles to join the Clippers, his Spanish counterpart, Marc Gasol also decided to head for the bright lights of Hollywood, teaming up with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
For all of five minutes following Gasol’s departure, fans of the Toronto Raptors thought that their doomsday had arrived. Having lost two championship caliber big men, and two of the biggest fish in the entire free agency class, the Raptors were now stuck with a roster devoid of any big guys, aside from Pascal Siakam and Dewan Hernandez. The Raptors were just minnows in a pond full of sharks, and albeit with a massive amount of heart, things weren’t looking too favourable. What stung even more is that in both cases – with Gasol and Ibaka – the Raptors were supposed to be favourites to retain their centre duo.
There was only one man in the world who could have saved the Raptors. Built like a Greek God and hailing all the way from New Zealand, he was the best free agent remaining on the entire market. Heck, he was probably the best free agent available to begin with. Beyond an ode to his dedicated fan club which boists nearly 65,000 followers on Twitter, the Raptors decided to bring in Aron Baynes on a team-friendly, two-year, $14.3 million deal, with a team-option on the second year.
In all seriousness, Baynes is coming off the best year of his career. He appeared in 42 games for the Phoenix Suns, and started in two thirds of them, mainly due to the suspension that Deandre Ayton faced at the beginning of the season. In his increased role, Baynes averaged 11.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game.
While his numbers don’t absolutely jump off the page, and a name like Hassan Whiteside or DeMarcus Cousins may have sounded like a more appealing option to the casual fan, Baynes is easily the smartest, most consistent, and most reliable player of the three.
At 33 years old (he came into the league as a 26-year-old rookie), Baynes is pretty much a finished product. Because his game doesn’t rely too heavily on his athleticism though, it’s hard to subscribe to the idea that his game may be dropping off from here. Over the past couple of years, he has tremendously improved as a shooter, to the point where he could be considered among the most stable stretch five’s in the NBA. Two seasons ago with the Boston Celtics, Baynes only took a shot from beyond the arc once every few games, and only knocked them down at a 14.3% clip. The following year however, he took 1.2 attempts per game, and hit 34.4% of his looks from deep. This past season – one which many would consider Baynes’ breakout year – he took 4.0 shots from behind the three-point line, and further increased his efficiency to 35.1%.
Beyond his abilty to stretch the floor, Baynes is also a great screen-setter, despite setting a lot of his screens illegally. With his bulky 6’10, 260-pound frame, it’s tough for defenders to navigate their way around Baynes to begin with, and that is only compounded by his awareness of how to use angles to his advantage. As a roller to the rim, he doesn’t possess elite athleticism in any form and is rarely a threat to dunk the ball, so he plays mostly in the short roll, opting to catch the ball a few feet out from the rim. This is similar to what Raptors fans got used to seeing with Gasol, where he would then face up, make a brilliant pass to the weakside corner, or float the ball gently into the hoop. While not necessarily as great of a passer as Gasol is, Baynes is capable of doing much of the same.
On the other end of the floor, Baynes does not provide much rim protection, only swatting away a shot every two games throughout his career. He is however, a very solid and smart defender, who puts in a lot of effort on that side of the court. His lateral quickness is better than one might expect it to be when looking at him, which should be a huge plus for Nick Nurse to use when assessing different pick and roll coverage options. Rather than being forced to play a drop coverage, as the Raptors did with Gasol and got torched by the Boston Celtics on pull-up jump shots in the second round of this year’s playoffs, Baynes allows for more flexibility to hedge, ice, or even switch on the pick and roll.
Overall, Baynes is a very good pickup for the Raptors given the situation that they were in. He can provide energy and veteran leadership to an otherwise young team, and his size should complement the likes of Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby in the frontcourt, as the latter two are more perimeter-oriented players. Still, I wouldn’t expect the Raptors to be done making moves just yet. A centre rotation of Baynes, Chris Boucher, and Alex Len is better than nothing, but it is far from formidable enough to make the Raptors real contenders in the east.