When a team has a season as successful as the one the Boston Celtics just had, it’s hard to see much of a reason to make many changes. It’s even harder to see a reason to make changes if you were so severely limited by injuries that your team nickname became the “Hospital Celtics.” It stands to reason that once you’ve got a team that came within one win of making the NBA Finals and will add two All-Stars to that squad, there’s a reason to double down on that same core. If that’s the line of thinking the Celtics front office wants to take, then there only two rotation players not under contract for next year who need to be sorted out.
One is Marcus Smart, who is a restricted free agent, meaning the Celtics will always have the final say on whether or not he is back, (pending financial flexibility).
The other is the unheralded, and overlooked Aron Baynes.
The Celtics signed Baynes using the Room Mid-Level Exception, as a follow-up move to their big acquisition of Gordon Hayward. Baynes had previously been paid much more in Detroit, but had also seen his play dip a bit with the Pistons. The Celtics were looking for a proven big to replace Amir Johnson, shore up the defensive minutes along Al Horford, and help the Celtics previously ghastly rebounding.
After Gordon Hayward’s traumatic injury, and a brief experiment with Marcus Smart in Game 2, Baynes was inserted into the starting lineup for the Celtics 3rd game of the season against the Philadelphia 76ers. His promotion to starter coincided with the beginning of the Celtics 16-game winning streak. He became a regular fixture in the Celtics starting lineup and would end the season with 67 starts, the fourth most on the team. Most importantly, Baynes also would lead the team in anatomical remarks by Tommy Heinsohn.
A large part of the Celtics success with Aron Baynes came from his steadying presence for a Celtics defense that would finish #1 in the NBA. In fact, Baynes finished #1 the league in Defensive Rating among qualified players with more than 10 MPG, per NBA.com. ESPN’s RPM statistics agreed with Baynes’ defensive value, as he was 6th in the league in DRPM this year, just a hair behind 5th place Anthony Davis.
Exactly how Baynes contributed to the Celtics defense so consistently is no mystery to Celtics fans who watched the burly Aussie night in and night out. Intelligent positioning, a thick meaty frame, dedication to leaving his arms up, surprisingly nimble feet, and a steely courage to challenge every shot at the rim (regardless of potential for poster embarrassment) make Baynes a near-perfect defensive center in today’s NBA.
For as much of a defensive standout Baynes was, he struggled tremendously on the offensive end of the floor as a finisher, shooting a horrendous 50.2% true shooting percentage. Of the 75 centers in the league who played more than half the season’s games and more than 10 minutes per game, only rookie Zach Collins and sophomore Thon Maker were worse than Baynes in TS%.
Much of the reason for these woes come from Baynes’ struggles while around the rim, as he finished the season shooting 54.7% in the restricted area. For comparison, there were 69 Centers with at least 100 shot attempts in the restricted area and Baynes finished 68th in shooting percentage, as only the previously mentioned Maker was worse.
While Baynes was a steadying presence for the Celtics on the defensive end, these difficulties finishing around frequently exacerbated the Celtics scoring problems and contributed to the Celtics scoring droughts. Many of the Celtics poorest offensive stretches during the years featured at least one or two point-blank misses by Baynes.
This leads us to the question that the effectiveness of Baynes’s contributions in Boston hinged on; was Aron Baynes defense good enough to be worth his offense woes? The short answer is yes.
The Celtics scored at a clip of 1.077 points per possession when Aron was on the floor and 1.109 PPP when he was off.. Similarly, opponents only scored 1.010 PPP when compared to the 1.090 PPP when Baynes was off. It’s tough to understand what points per possession means in a vacuum, so I’ve adjusted for the Celtics pace in the chart below.
As you can see, there is simply less scoring on the floor when Aron Baynes is in the game, as both the Celtics and their opponents score at a significantly lower clip in those minutes. However, the numbers are pretty clear that Baynes helps the defense more than he hurts the offense, as we can see from the sizable difference in the net of the lineups.
Many fans are skeptical of floor stats, because they can be deceiving in small sample sizes and it can be difficult to account for strength of competition and strength of opponent. In the interest of addressing that, I also compiled the Celtics lineup data to reflect how often a player shared the floor (or didn’t share the floor) with Baynes as a percentage of total possessions.
There aren’t too many surprises, as Baynes mostly shared the floor with the rest of the starting lineup, and played less frequently with the bench units. It also stands to reason that Baynes saw opposing starters more often. Personally, (as the Celtics’ starters were generally better than starters on the opposing team) I think this means that Baynes probably benefited a bit from being buoyed by the other starters. However, it also means that his defense was very legitimate. The lineup data backs up a lot of what the eye test would have told most fans.
Aron Baynes is a limited offensive player, but an outstanding defensive presence who was a net positive for the Celtics in a starting role.
Not too bad for the price of the RME.
Unfortunately, Baynes will be an unrestricted free agent this off season, and the Celtics face some legitimate financial concerns regarding bringing the Australian back. Massive tax concerns loom for the Celtics in future off-seasons and with the Lakers pick’ (and high draftee salary) not conveying, the Celtics have a real chance to buy themselves an extra year away from the repeater tax. They can do this by simply staying out of the luxury tax this year, which will likely give them about $13-$16M of room to fill their three open roster spots (possibly four if the Celtics stash their pick this year) between Baynes, Smart, and any other free agents.
Baynes will be in line for a pay raise, and the Celtics can offer him about $5.2M before needing to dip into their mid-level exception. The Celtics could use the full mid-level exception to give Aron (or any other free agent) around $8.6M a year, however, that would hard cap the Celtics and place spending limits on them in deals for possible superstar players that may arise during the year. Additionally, any money given to Baynes takes away from funds that could be offered to the (arguably) more important Smart. If you, like me, think the Celtics will stay below the tax this year, this is a tight window to operate in.
Perhaps another team will offer Baynes more money, and he will leave the Celtics, but I don’t think the Celtics should overspend for his services. This may seem insane to the casual observer, who may think “run it back at all costs” is the way to go, but the market particularly for bigs, will be suppressed.
As valuable as Baynes is, I’m not sure that the Celtics couldn’t get a more balanced, but similarly talented center on the free agent market. Players like Dewayne Dedmon, Nerlens Noel, Ed Davis, and even old friend Amir Johnson could be possible fits. Perhaps these players are snapped up early, but bigger name players like Jusuf Nurkic, DeMarcus Cousins, Clint Capela, and Derrick Favors will all also be in free agency class. I’m not sure who has money left over after those guys come off the board.
Another fit could be Guerschon Yabusele developing into some minutes or a big man selected in the draft. No? Okay, worth a shot, but I’m a believer.
This all coincides with the rise of Daniel Theis, who quietly put up stellar numbers in a reserve role and (depending on his health) may be ready for a larger role next year. The Celtics will want to save Al Horford for the playoffs and will likely not play extended stretches of small ball with Papa Sportif banging at the 5. That said, the Celtics do have a glut of swing players like Semi Ojeleye and Marcus Morris who can play PF and might need to get their minutes at those bigger positions.
Combine all of these factors and I can’t see the Celtics feeling too much pressure to match hefty offers Baynes might field. I think the Celtics would certainly be interest in retaining his services, but I think it would need to be for the right price. If the Celtics offered him anything higher than the estimated $5.6M of the tax-payer mid-level exception would really surprise me.
Aron Baynes was an excellent addition for the Celtics this year and was a huge part of their #1 defense who proved to be valuable in the playoffs. His offensive struggles were pronounced however, and I think that limits his upside for a Celtics squad that still struggles to score the ball. On a similarly priced deal, I think the Celtics would love to have Baynes back, and I think he will be, given the muted market for big men.
After all, it’s comforting when you’ve got All of Australia between your opponents and the rim.