Recapping the 2017-18 season: Aron Baynes' gamble pays off with standout season

Rewind all the way back to the end of the 2016-17 NBA season, and Aron Baynes had a significant, and potentially career-altering decision to make.

According to Spotrac, Baynes had made $16,105,460 over his first five seasons in the NBA: the first three with the San Antonio Spurs, and the latter two with the Detroit Pistons. On the back of three straight seasons averaging more than 15 minutes per game, Baynes had become a bonafide rotation big man in the league. Baynes had a $6.5 million dollar player option on his contract, that if exercised, would see him line up with the Pistons for another season.

That $6.5 million dollars equated to approximately 40 percent of his career earnings at that point. It was set to be another major pay day for the Aussie big man who grew up playing rugby in far North Queensland. Somewhat surprisingly, Baynes declined his player option and hit the open market, an unrestricted free agent, free to sign with any NBA franchise coveting his talents.

On the ninth day of free agency, Baynes was snapped up by the Boston Celtics. A one-year agreement was reached, for the reduced sum of $4.3 million. It's significant to note at this point that Baynes had given up $2.2 million dollars, to seek a greater role and the opportunity to land a bigger deal, come 2018 free agency.

Unequivocally, the gamble was a raging success, as Baynes became a key component of a dominant Celtics squad in the Eastern Conference. With his career year now in the bank, and Baynes about to hit the free agent market on July 1, let's take a look at the season that was for the man they call Bangers.

Earning the starting role

Prior to the 2017-18 season, Aron Baynes had started in just 23 of his 295 NBA appearances. Via the Boston Globe, Baynes admitted greater opportunity was a clear narrative for his decision to move on from the Motor City.

“I’m excited for the opportunity and hopefully I can go out there and earn some minutes. We’ll see if what I bring is what Brad [Stevens] wants. I’m hoping it is and looking forward to it.” Baynes said.

It didn't take long for Baynes to draw Stevens' attention, as he was plugged straight into the starting lineup after two games. The Celtics had lost their first two games of the regular season and were thought to be reeling in the wake of losing star free agent acquisition, Gordon Hayward to a horrific lower leg injury.

Those fears were quickly allayed, as Boston reeled off a 16-game winning streak to race to the top of the standings. During the streak, Baynes topped the 20-minute plateau in eight contests, his longing for an expanded role coming immediately to fruition. The high water mark for Baynes came in Boston's 11-point win of the Los Angeles Lakers, as the big man knocked down 21 points, to go with eight rebounds in just 22 minutes.

Baynes doubled his career total for games started before Christmas, and ended up starting in 67 of his 81 regular season outings. He also recorded career high marks in minutes (18.3), rebounds (5.4), assists (1.1), and field goal attempts per game (5.5).

Defensive dominance

There are guys in the NBA whose impact just can't be defined by box score statistics; players that bring intangible, on-court value to a team in ways that aren't immediately quantifiable. The Celtics have a high-end player of this ilk, with Al Horford getting paid $27 million in 2017-18, to average 12.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. Needless to say, Horford was a key component of the Celtics success, an All-Star representative and dominant big man in the playoffs - particularly in Boston's seven game series win against Milwaukee.

Outside of Horford, Marcus Smart could be easily named as another Boston player who's made countless winning plays for the team, despite his mediocre shooting statistics.

Baynes could be described as the Celtics' 'Horford Lite', as he's received minimum accolade for his solid body of work. Stevens' move to insert Baynes into the starting lineup beside Horford was vital in allowing Horford to defend opposition forwards, rather than tangling with the true centres of the league.

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Boston finished the regular season with the league's number one defense, holding a defensive rating of 101.5. Individually, Baynes was a key reason for their stout defence, as he posted the best personal defensive rating on the roster, with Boston conceding a meagre 97 points per 100 possessions while Baynes was patrolling the paint. To say this defensive number was elite would be selling Aron's performance criminally short. Among players league wide to play more than 50 games during the regular season, Baynes was ranked first for defensive rating.

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The impact Baynes made on this Celtics squad in just one season is evident, when listening to his peers describe their affection for the role he carved out on the 55-win Boston squad. During the playoffs, The Pick and Roll asked coach Stevens about Baynes' ability to adjust to his ever changing role - particularly in the playoffs where he was in and out of the starting lineup.

“He’s truly a guy that does not care, he just wants to win," Stevens said. "That’s one of the things that I’ve always appreciated about him and we’ve got a locker room full of those guys, and I think his leadership is a big reason why."

You can't judge Baynes' value by looking at rudimentary statistics - his importance to Boston ran far deeper than that.

Emergence as a stretch five

Heading into the postseason, the Celtics were seen as an optimal target for rival teams - a weak link on the road to Eastern Conference supremacy. That proved to be wildly inaccurate, as Boston rode their previously earned home court advantage all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. It took a number of breakout performances, including Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum morphing into playoff studs, while Terry Rozier gained cult figure status through his 'Scary Terry' moniker.

But it was Baynes that provided perhaps, the most surprising break out performance of all.

Prior to the first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, Baynes was 4-for-29 from three over his career. He had however displayed a surprisingly inflated confidence to let fly from beyond the arc through the regular season, jacking up 21 attempts - though he only knocked down three of those tries.

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Out of nowhere, Baynes transformed into a sniper from deep, connecting on 11 of his 23 attempts through the playoffs. Baynes' .478 percent mark ranked second in the entire playoffs, among players who attempted more than 20 triples in the postseason. Only the absurdly hot Khris Middleton topped the big Aussie, as he was able to bury 25 of 41 3-pointers.

For a guy on the verge of entering free agency, there couldn't have better time for Baynes to display an reveal another string to his bow.

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What's next?

The NBA free agency season opens up on July 1, and Baynes will be immediately available to sign from midnight on that date as an unrestricted free agent. Coming off the best season of his professional career, Baynes will attract interest from teams that should eclipse the original $6.5 million he knocked back.

In speaking with The Pick and Roll, Boomers team mate and fellow big man, Andrew Bogut was effusive in his praise for Baynes, highlighting the risk he took in walking away from his player option.

"He bet on himself by knocking back the player option in Detroit to take almost half for one year in Boston, and it looks as though that bet is going to work out," Bogut had said. "He should be a double digit million dollar player per year for the next four or five years.

"The 3-ball's not only going to extend his career, but it will also put an extra zero on his contract."

Whether or not he does cash in on that extra zero will be Baynes' choice. Via The Athletic, Baynes expressed his desire to stay in Boston, while understanding the situation at play.

“It would definitely be a privilege to be able to come back here and keep playing with these guys,” Baynes said. “Like I said, it’s the unfortunate side of things, the business side, but I’ve definitely loved my time here and loved wearing the green jersey for sure.”

The Celtics roster is delicately poised, with an asset chest big enough to bring rival front office staffers to tears. Boston are in an certifiably strong position to make a power play in any direction they see fit, as they inch towards their goal of attaining their 18th championship banner. With LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George all potential targets, the Celtics will no doubt be keeping their eye on the big fish on the market.

Meanwhile, Baynes joins Marcus Smart as key players who are due for a pay day this summer. It would appear a difficult task for Danny Ainge to retain both guys, and they could be grudgingly forced out the door.

The Big Banger placed a $2.2 million dollar bet on himself this time last year, a gamble of significant proportion that has undoubtedly paid off. But now, having found himself in a dream situation in Boston, the almighty dollar may drag him elsewhere, just as the Boston faithful were crowning him a new cult hero.

Keep an eye on the free agency craziness in the first week of July, in particular for Aron Baynes, who has bashed and crashed his way to a hefty pay rise. A well-earned pay raise, at that.