For professional athletes, especially NBA players, free agency is a complex decision-making process with long-reaching consequences. Be it organisational culture, team fit, playing minutes --or that most important metric of all, money-- it's never an easy answer.
During the recent NBA summer, Patty Mills chose to return to the San Antonio Spurs; increased playing opportunities obviously were a piece of the equation. Fellow Boomer Joe Ingles similarly re-signed with the Utah Jazz, citing the organisation and the way his family were taken care of, as a prime factor.
Aron Baynes however opted out of a final year with the Detroit Pistons to enter free agency, choosing to explore new pastures during a time when the big man market seemed fairly quiet. The Boston Celtics on paper, seemed like a fairly decent fit.
Having lost several of their rotation players in Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson and to a lesser degree, Tyler Zeller, the Celtics needed a big man who could fill Johnson's shoes, at minimum. As a bruising rim-protecting, rebounding big who could set nasty screens, and one who always possessed an efficient mid-range game, Baynes checked all of the boxes and more. He had minimal competition on the roster, and maximum opportunity to show his worth.
It's now twelve games into the NBA 2017/18 season, and it's fair to say Aron Baynes delivered on initial expectations, perhaps even more than what everyone had hoped for.
Following All-Star big man Al Horford's entry into concussion protocol, Baynes stepped right up into Horford's role as the starting five man. The Celtics were on a nine-game winning streak, and Horford's impact as a playmaker, defender and offensive threat was instrumental to the run. It would not have raised too many eyebrows, had Boston lost this home game to the visiting Los Angeles Lakers, behind Horford's absence.
Instead, Aron Baynes delivered.
In 23 minutes of action, Baynes tied his career high of 21 points, leading the team in scoring, and making 8 of his 12 shots. The Celtics, who were sputtering at times on offence, took advantage of Baynes' physical advantage over the youthful, undersized Lakers. He established himself firmly as a threat, and muscled his way into the paint, scoring with ease.
It wasn't just the scoring either; Baynes ended the night with eight rebounds and three assists, in 23 minutes.
Baynes, who has experienced borderline viral fame among NBA fans since Boston commentator Tommy Heinsohn's "All of Australia" comment, has been an integral part of the Celtics' defensive identity this season, and holds the best defensive rating on the team (stat). He's delivering all the earmarks of the typical efficient Aron Baynes stat line, averaging 7.1 points, 5.8 rebounds so far, but with increased minutes. He's averaging 19.3 minutes this season, the most he's ever handled in his NBA career (next highest being 16.0 mins per game with the Spurs in 2014/15).
The NBA big man is evolving with the three-point shot, and having a consistent outside shot is en vogue these days. Aron Baynes' game might be viewed as a monument to earlier generations of big men, but there will always be a spot on teams for players like him.
There's much to be said for a gritty defender who knows his role inside out, and knows exactly what he has to do to contribute on both ends of the floor. Be it rolling to the rim, taking advantage of a packed paint to hit the mid-range shot, or simply parking his hulking frame to bump defenders aside, and get teammates that sliver of daylight - you know Baynes does it all.
The Boston Celtics have officially won ten straight games in a row, taking this most recent victory on a night without two of their stars in Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and a vital scoring option in rookie Jayson Tatum. It's unreasonable to expect a Warriors-esque victory lap for Boston this season, and it's more than likely the team eventually regresses to the mean, should the mounting injury bug not subside.
Despite all that, things can only get better for Baynes, should he stay healthy. The Boston Celtics, under head coach Brad Stevens have managed to improve every season, and that's no mean feat, when you consider general manager Danny Ainge's propensity for roster improvement over continuity. Ainge's relentless quest to improve the team culminated in an incredible amount of roster churn last summer, one that only returned four players to a Celtics uniform this season. Through it all, Stevens is the anchor that holds the Boston ship together.
Brad Stevens' coaching abilities have been recognised not only by other teams, but also players.
"It's from a coach's perspective, from how he sees this player fitting in. And Brad does it through video, he does it through statistics and analytics, and he shows it on the chalkboard," Ainge had said, earlier this year in July. "He shows exactly what he's looking for from that player and how that player can be utilized.
"It's not fluff. And I think the players see that. It's not trying to make a case like, 'You have to come here because of this statistic.' It's real stuff. And I think that that's what players appreciate is that openness."
Stevens, who has displayed an innate ability to design schemes that hide the shortcoming of his players while maximising their talents, will continue to do so with his stoic, even-keeled brand of coaching, regardless of how the roster shifts, be it due to injury or churn. Look at how Isaiah Thomas, miscast as a bench sparkplug on other teams, blossomed into a fearsome scorer. Or how Evan Turner, once labelled a draft bust, surged into brilliance as a versatile defender and go-to scoring option for the Celtics.
Expect Baynes to prosper and find his opportunities in the coming weeks, as Horford continues to sit out and recuperate through his concussion symptoms.
Baynes isn't going to make plays and swish threes the way Horford did, but trust Stevens, who's adapted and tuned his system to fit his players, to make it work. The Celtics may be trending towards a fast-paced, five-out style of basketball, where every player shoots the three-point shot, but Baynes' lack of three-point shooting is not going to be an issue. Baynes isn't morphing into a 20-point-a-night scorer, but given the right matchups, he can and will put on a show, much like he did against the Lakers.
Let's not forget about Kyrie Irving either, who's determined to be the best version of himself this season. He's seemingly stepped out of his all-scoring Uncle Drew image, and is striving to make the best plays on the court. Expect to see Irving driving more frequently with intent of baiting defences, only to dish handoffs for Aron Baynes' Down Under Dunks of Destruction™.
Baynes obviously, has his own reasons to do all he can. His one year with the Boston Celtics expires at the end of this season, and if his next contract is to be a multi-year deal, he needs to show that he's more than capable of thriving in the modern NBA as a quality big man, and not just someone who comes off the bench in limited minutes, much like what he did in Detroit.
It's too early to say what awaits Aron Baynes in free agency, but the Celtics are definitely looking like the best decision he could have made last summer.