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Aron Baynes’ unique, effective approach to defense

He’s not a conventional rim-protector, but Aron Baynes has played a major role in building the league’s stingiest defense.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Aron Baynes has been one the NBA’s least effective offensive players to start the 2016-17 season. His modest .484/.000/.692 shooting splits have dragged down his points per 100 shot attempt rate to just 102.2, ranking him in the twelfth percentile, as compared to fellow bigs. The Celtics have scored a mere 101.7 points per 100 possessions with Baynes on the court, equivalent to the twentieth best offense in basketball.

To suggest that Baynes has been a massive negative on the offensive end of the court would be a simple truth, and yet, the Celtics have won all but one of the fourteen games Baynes has started this year- a reality reflective of just how good they’ve been defensively with the big Australian in the fold.

Boston has allowed only 94.2 points per 100 possessions in the minutes that Baynes has played, a full 10.5 points less than when he’s on the bench. He isn’t a conventional, shot blocking rim protector, but Baynes is an enormous person with surprising mobility. He eats up space with the his lateral quickness, and plugs lanes with his barrel chest.

“Baynes was one of the best in the NBA last year at defending the rim, without blocking a ton of shots,” Brad Stevens told Celtics.com’s Mark D’Amico. “The whole verticality deal, he’s very good at, and he works really hard at it, and he’s a big body when you run into him.”

You see it in the play perhaps most frequently associated with Baynes this year, a foul he (allegedly) committed on Giannis Antetokounmpo, in which the Milwaukee star attempted to dunk from an outrageous distance. Take a look.

Obviously this is a victory for the opposing offense. Drawing a foul is an efficient play, but Baynes’ approach is what matters. Rather than laying back and attempting to go after the ball, Baynes pushes forward, and meets Giannis chest to chest. It’s emblematic of Baynes’ philosophy on defense, which seems to be best summed up as get in peoples’ way and don’t be afraid of contact.

It’s working, and it’s bearing out in the numbers, albeit unconventionally. Baynes only has a defended field goal differential of -1.2% within 6 feet (well below an elite-level), and opponents are actually shooting 5.9% better on shots at the rim when he plays (per Cleaning the Glass). Baynes’ real impact comes from taking away shots near the basket before they develop, using his sneaky quickness, massive size, and short choppy steps to eliminate paths to the hoop, and discourage would be drivers.

Boston has also been a substantially better defensive rebounding team when Baynes plays. The Celtics have grabbed 84.5% of opponents’ misses in when he plays, and only 77.4% when he sits. That’s significant, and it means the difference between a handful of second-chance opportunities each game.

Some of this may be a bit overstated. Opponents are shooting 11.7% worse from three-point range with Baynes on the court (per Cleaning the Glass). That is driving up the team’s defensive rating substantially, and has very little to do with Baynes’ individual strengths.

At some point teams are likely to ascend to the mean a bit, and Boston’s defensive brilliance in Baynes’ minutes may reduce as a result. Playing defense is far too much of a collective effort for opponents’ shooting percentages to be completely divorced from Baynes’ presence however.

He’s a fantastic communicator, and the Celtics are very rarely out of position when he’s barking out orders, particularly if he’s doing so beside Al Horford, a solid back-line organizer in his own right. It’s possible that Boston is defending the three-point line more effectively when Baynes plays because he helps perimeter defenders get to the right spots.

They also have faith in his ability to step in front of oncoming traffic should they close out a hair too aggressively and get beaten by their man off the dribble. Teammates know that Baynes will put himself in the right position to support them, and that is ultimately where his greatest value lies.

Baynes won’t ever lead the league in blocks or steals, but he’ll always fill his role, and do his best to help his teammates fill theirs. Reliability is hugely important on defense, and the Celtics have benefited mightly from Baynes’ ample reserve of it thus far.