The Golden State Warriors, as they often do, shook the NBA landscape last week, signing All-NBA center DeMarcus Cousins to a one-year, $5.3 million contract. Coming off a disastrous Achilles tear midway through last season, Cousins will enter the 2018-19 season with significant concerns about his health and long-term outlook. Nonetheless, Golden State has acquired a legitimate fifth superstar for the mere mid-level exception.
While the signing may not truly alter expectations for next season — the Warriors already looked like title favorites once again, especially as the Rockets’ off season has flown further off the rails — there are some interesting ripples here worth examining.
The pendulum of the NBA has been swinging towards long, athletic wing players for several years now, but between the Cousins signing and a rookie class notably deep on talented big men, we might be seeing the first signs of a return to glory for NBA front courts. With that in mind, the question we’ll look to address here is: with the arrival of Cousins in Golden State, and facing Eastern Conference fron tcourt maulers like Joel Embiid and the Toronto Raptors’ center platoon, do the Celtics need to consider getting bulking up to keep up?
The short answer, I think, is no. The longer answer is that the Celtics have already done exactly that by re-signing one of last season’s unsung heroes, Aron Baynes.
Rewinding back to the halcyon days of May 2018, the Celtics had just completed a gentleman’s sweep of the Philadelphia 76ers — in which, lest we forget, the Sixers dropped confetti in a game that they ultimately lost. While the Celtics would go on to take LeBron James to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Sixers series arguably represented the pinnacle of their season — a complete dismantlement of their most vocal rivals throughout the year, without their two best players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, to boot. It was a season-defining victory for a team that faced seemingly constant adversity.
The driving force behind the Celtics’ series win was — as we saw for much of the season at large — the defense, which stymied Philadelphia’s two young stars, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, for long stretches all series long. The Sixers fell far short of their prodigious offensive ability; the best performance they managed on that end of the floor came in their series-clinching Game 5 loss, a 112-point performance that featured 16 turnovers.
It’s the Celtics’ work on Embiid that we’re particularly interested in here. While Embiid’s surface-level stats seemed in line with his regular season standards — he scored 20 or more points in four of the five games and grabbed at least 12 rebounds in all five — he struggled with efficiency, shooting 40% or worse from the field in three games, hitting only five of 21 three-point attempts, and turning the ball over 14 times. Baynes — who started all five games of the series — was the piece that made their defense against him possible.
Embiid is a matchup nightmare in many respects. He’s agile, skilled, has nice touch from range, and — perhaps most importantly — he’s punishingly physical in the paint. It’s a combination of skills that few in the league possess, one that makes him a demanding defensive assignment, to say the least.
It’s Embiid’s physicality that enables his other offensive skills to shine. He’s at his best when finishing at the rim, and the Sixers know it; over 43% of his shots last season came within 10 feet of the basket, and he shot just a point under 69% on those looks. Teams have to perpetually respect what Embiid can do to them at the basket, and this is what creates the space for his mid-range jumpers and underrated passing ability.
With Gordon Hayward out of the picture, Brad Stevens shuffled the starting lineup based on matchups all season long. One constant, though, was that whenever the Celtics played a team with a strong frontcourt presence like Embiid, Baynes was going to start. Al Horford, while a stellar team defender, isn’t physical enough, and at 33-years-old, probably shouldn’t be wrestling a 24-year-old force of nature for 35 minutes per game. Daniel Theis is a little too small, giving up five inches and 20 pounds, while Robert Williams and Guerschon Yabusele are much too inexperienced.
Baynes is the Celtics’ best option against such players, and it doesn’t take long to understand why. He’s one of the few players in the league with the right combination of strength and recklessness to challenge a player like Embiid. His strength and physicality are obvious — he’s the Celtics’ tallest player at 6’10” and he’s a VERY sturdy 260 pounds, to the point where LeBron once said he should be on Game of Thrones — but he also moves laterally quite well for his size.
He lacks the switchy versatility of Theis, but Baynes won’t fall to pieces when one-on-one against wing players, which keeps him serviceable on the floor. In the playoffs, he ended up one-on-one against Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James on several occasions, and while that typically didn’t end well for the Celtics, it’s not like Baynes embarrassed himself there either.
Then there’s his fearlessness in protecting the rim, which is an attribute fans often overlook when it comes to paint protection. Players who wind up on the receiving end of poster dunks are typically the butt of the joke, but actual commitment to rim protection will inevitably land players there on plenty of occasions. Some guys will get themselves out of the way to avoid these moments — “business decisions,” you could call them — and others pick and choose their moments pretty strategically.
And then there’s Baynes, who takes so many hits at the rim, you have to wonder if he actually just enjoys it.
These are the factors that make Baynes a valuable defender against players like Embiid and Cousins. He doesn’t concede an inch in the paint, with the strength to back it up, and he won’t allow any shots to come easily. He understands completely well how Embiid is a different kind of threat if his shots are coming from 15 feet out, as opposed to at the rim. Nobody can pitch a complete shutout against players of that caliber, but in Baynes, we can see how good defensive process puts the team in a position to succeed.
Beyond Baynes’ natural fit, the other thing to consider when contemplating a frontcourt upgrade is the relative dearth of available targets. With Brook Lopez freshly inked to a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, the top remaining big on the market may well be Greg Monroe, and we already saw just how that worked out last season.
While I was a fan of adding Monroe in the buyout market, his struggles in space against modern offenses left him out of the rotation for much of the stretch run and playoffs, and he’s never been a prolific rim protector or defensive presence in the paint. The free agent bigs who might have filled this need more appropriately — Kyle O’Quinn, Amir Johnson, Ed Davis — have long since been scooped up, while Clint Capela will likely far exceed their price range as a restricted free agent — assuming the Rockets would even let him leave, which I doubt.
There’s simply no real need for the Celtics to pony up for another piece in their front court right now. It’s possible that during the season and before the trade deadline, a need could arise, but as the roster stands today, they’re fine. While the 2018-19 Celtics are a team built around their guard and wing rotations, and players like Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Jayson Tatum will garner most of the highlights, the front court is deep and versatile, capable of hanging with any match up. When a team like Golden State shakes things up so dramatically, though, the temptation to do something to keep up will always exist, but Boston has kept themselves well-positioned. It may not be the flashiest solution around, but when players like Joel Embiid and DeMarcus Cousins come knocking, Aron Baynes will be ready to answer.