Let’s refrain from sugar-coating anything here: the Toronto Raptors centre rotation this season has been atrocious. Aron Baynes has not lived up to a skeleton of his expectations, and the mysterious waiving of Alex Len has not proved to be beneficial to the team in any sort of way.
Chris Boucher on the other hand has been incredible. Two years ago he couldn’t crack an NBA roster, and now he’s the fifth or sixth best player on a playoff-level team. The Montreal native has certainly been one of the feel-good stories of this year’s Raptors team, and has catapulted himself into the Sixth Man of the Year conversation, as well as the Most Improved Player debate. The energy that Boucher provides to the team every time he steps on the hardwood is unmatched. As a coach, he’s a guy that you never have to worry about. There aren’t any plays you have to run for him, there’s nowhere on the court that he can’t play, and he’ll just find his rhythm in the flow of the offense without being catered to. He crashes the glass, he makes hard cuts, and he almost always makes the right decisions with the ball in his hands. I wanted to get the Chris Boucher praise out of the way, because there’s genuinely nothing bad to say about him. In a perfect world he’s 50 pounds heavier, the bench isn’t as reliant on his hustle, and he’s capable of being the Raptors starting five, but that’s not the world we live in. He’s a round peg, so it’s best not to try and shove him in a square hole. Chris Boucher is about as good as a player like Chris Boucher gets.
Back to Baynes: coming into the year, there was a considerable amount of excitement for the Australian big man to be joining the Raptors. Kyle Lowry has played with many big men in his All-Star lifetime, and he has made almost all of them look like indispensable pieces to a good team. Lowry said himself before the season that he wants to make sure Baynes has “the best year that he’s had in his career.“
In November, it seemed like an attainable, or even a probable goal. Baynes was coming off the best year of his professional life, where he shot the ball at a 35.1% clip from distance, and was among the best screeners in the NBA. With his ability to free up Lowry on the perimeter and play out of the short roll, the two were destined to lead the Raptors to a great deal of success. Baynes could score inside a little, he could stretch the floor, he could set good screens, he could rebound well, and despite having no defensive versatility, his interior positioning seemed Gasol-brothers-esque. On paper, everything looked like it would work out terrifically.
Enter the 2018 Boston Celtics vibes… paper is only used for exams, grocery lists, and starting campfires, not evaluating basketball teams. I’ll put this in the kindest way possible, with all due respect to Aron Baynes because he seems like a really cool dude, and just pray that his fan account never finds this article, but he has been downright unplayable at times this season.
Through 23 games, Baynes is averaging 5.6 points and 5.5 rebounds. He’s shooting a lowly 23.1% from deep, and almost all of his looks from beyond the arc have been wide open. As a result of his poor shooting, his defenders are understandably sagging off from him, and it crowds the paint for slashing players like Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam, inhibiting them from operating efficiently. It’s part of why Aron Baynes and Pascal Siakam share a net rating of -5.9 when they’re on the floor together, but the pairing of Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher in the frontcourt have a net rating of +10.6.
Defensively, Baynes is incapable of protecting the rim, he can’t switch on the perimeter, and while it might sound stupid, he’s not nearly as good of a defensive communicator as Marc Gasol was. Baynes and Gasol are both players who live in the paint defensively, simply because their slow-footedness renders them useless anywhere outside of eight feet from the rim. When you’re constantly in the paint, you have the benefit of seeing the entire floor in front of you. Gasol used that to his advantage and became one of the best on-court defensive orchestrators that the league has ever seen, calling out rotations to his teammates, or warning someone when a screen was coming. The way that he organized the Grizzlies, then the Raptors defense was like a symphony conductor. It’s what led him to winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2014. Don’t get to thinking it was his stats, or switchability that took home the hardware. Baynes on the other hand, does nothing of the sort.
The difference is most visible through defensive miscommunications. How often last year did the Raptors have a defensive breakdown that resulted in an opponent finding himself wide open under the rim for a layup? Maybe once every four or five games? This season, it appears as though it’s happening four or five times in some games.
Ultimately, there just isn’t a whole lot that one can trust Baynes to do. For his size, he’s a below-average rebounder. He’s not a good playmaker, he’s a subpar shooter, and he’s probably the worst defender on the roster, aside from Matt Thomas.
This seems to be same the light that Nick Nurse sees Baynes under as well. Despite having been healthy for every game this season, there was a stretch of four games in early January that Nurse decided to bench Baynes entirely and give Alex Len a look at starting centre. Len didn’t play horribly, but just a couple of weeks later, he was cut from the roster. No explanation was ever given, and everybody seemed to just move on. Now, 28 games have gone by, the Raptors are still three games under .500, and the trade deadline is looming. Is it time for Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster to make some roster changes, and get this team the starting caliber centre that they deserve?
If you ignore the centre position, this year’s Raptors team is equivelant to last year’s, if not better. The offense is far less reliant on Kyle Lowry creating shots out of thin air, Fred VanVleet has evolved into an elite scorer and a legitimate All-Star candidate, Norman Powell looks like he is regaining some of the consistent scoring ability that he showed last season, OG Anunoby is as developed of an offensive player as he’s ever been, and Pascal Siakam is essentially the same guy that he was before the bubble, albeit a worse shooter and a better playmaker. This is without even mentioning the likes of DeAndre’ Bembry, who is bringing what Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offered defensively, but is much more of a punch on the other end, and once again, the breakout of Chris Boucher.
Obviously, when you make a mid-season trade, there are too many hypotheticals to account for and accurately predict whether that trade will launch the Raptors into contention. In this scenario though, it seems like a given. The Raptors rank ninth in the league in net rating, and somehow have the 19th best record in the league. They are fourth in the Eastern Conference in point differential, yet find themselves sitting in the eighth seed. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that they are rolling without a capable starting five right now.
There are a couple of names that the Raptors could probably make expendable to net a decent player in return. The first on that list is obviously Aron Baynes, as with another centre coming to Tampa, there would be no need for the 33-year-old Aussie anymore. Another guy, who surprisingly has been playing in a far-diminished role this season and probably still has considerable value on the trade market, is Terence Davis Jr. Davis landed himself a spot on the All-Rookie second team last year, however between the Raptors’ newfound guard depth, and his off-court legal issues, he’s struggled to find a real spot in the rotation this season. Among other throw-ins to a potential trade package could be Patrick McCaw, Jalen Harris, Paul Watson, or any collection of second round picks through until 2028.
Some names on the trade market to look out for ahead of the March 25th trade deadline are John Collins, Hassan Whiteside, P.J. Tucker, JaVale McGee, Gorgui Dieng, and Mitchell Robinson.
Alas, the Raptors once again face a dilemma: should stay the course and ride it out thinking that Baynes might one day re-grow into a fraction of his 2020 self, and help them make a run in the playoffs, or do they pull the trigger on a trade and decide that this may be their last chance in the Kyle Lowry era to make a legit title run? Only time will tell.