Celtics’ fans held their collective breath when Aron Baynes hit the deck in Boston’s matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers this week. The burly Australian big man grabbed at his left ankle in clear discomfort.
Baynes is so large and so strong and plays with such a reckless style that the concept of him experiencing pain feels almost counterintuitive. He relishes contact. In fact, his willingness to let opponents ram into his barrel chest without concern for his own well-being is quite possibly Baynes’ greatest strength. He’s incredibly effective at getting in people’s way, a boon to the Celtics on both ends of the court.
And yet, for all his bruising approach to the game, Baynes has been sidelined by a variety of maladies for more than a quarter of Boston’s games this year. Perhaps that should come as no surprise. When getting run over by Joel Embiid and standing in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo while he attempts to obliterate your soul on a dunk attempt are key responsibilities on your job description, injury may just qualify as a general occupational hazard.
That doesn’t make Baynes’ absence any less impactful. On a roster filled with effective scorers, shooters, and slashers having a defense-first behemoth willing to do the dirty work becomes increasingly valuable, a truth reflected in Boston’s performance during his minutes. The Celtics have been 6.8 points per 100 possessions better with Baynes on the court, the best mark on the team per Cleaning the Glass.
There are caveats that need to be applied. On/off stats are influenced by who you play with and against, and Baynes has the good fortune of matching up against most opponents’ second units. Add in the fact that Boston is deep enough to keep Baynes tethered to the bench if a matchup doesn’t suit him well, and there is reason to believe that his overall impact might be slightly overstated by this particular metric.
Even with such a lens of contextual conservatism applied, there’s no getting around the fact that Baynes is a significant net positive. He’s an incredible defensive player - a human roadblock that clogs up driving and passing lanes, and swallows up smaller players by the rim. Baynes is substantially less gifted offensively, but he sets good screens and does a decent job of staying out of the way. The Celtics have plenty of options willing to take shots that would be inefficiently allocated were they to come from Baynes.
And that truly is the crux of his value. Baynes is a perfect fit for what the Boston needs, and his teammates have the ideal blend of skills and mindset to cover up his warts. That he is not at full health so close to the start of the NBA Playoffs is worth noting.
Baynes isn’t as critically important to the Celtics success as a player like Kyrie Irving or Al Horford, but he drastically increases the flexibility with which Brad Stevens has to operate. Without Baynes, only Horford has the size, strength, and smarts to bang with the league’s largest centers. Daniel Theis is a touch too light in the shorts, and Guerschon Yabusele and Robert Williams III still don’t really have any idea what they’re doing on either end of the court.
All of Boston’s biggest potential competitors in the Eastern Conference have at least one massively sized human that plays consistently. Milwaukee, Toronto, and Philadelphia sport Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol, and Joel Embiid respectively. That’s a ton of size, and the Celtics would much prefer Baynes to take the beating of dealing with it, leaving Horford to conserve his energy for facilitating the offense, stretching the floor, and handling quicker big men on the defensive end.
Every member of the Lopez-Gasol-Embiid trio has been known to spend some time floating around the arc, and in that sense Boston may be able to survive against them without Baynes, but in a postseason matchup it’s not all that hard to imagine an opposing coach identifying making Horford work on the block as a strategy that merits switching things up a bit from the status quo. The importance of Baynes’ health really boils down to the number of options he gives the Celtics and the ways in which opponents must account for them.
He’s big enough to take on any individual assignment down low, nimble enough to handle most stretchier options, and experienced enough to take a seat on the bench if he’s not the right fit for a particular moment. That’s hugely helpful. Slight degrees of flexibility and effectiveness matter in the Playoffs. Role players can dictate matchups in ways that influence the impact of stars in meaningful ways. Baynes is the epitome of that truth. Boston will need him at full strength when the postseason tips off because of it.