No one knew where Aron Baynes came from when the Spurs signed him mid-season in 2013. But the Australian big man made quite an impression early on with his strength and rebounding ability. Unfortunately, he never cracked the rotation in any meaningful way, but he has showed flashes of heady inside play. So should the Spurs re-sign Aron Baynes?
Is Baynes just a late bloomer?
Baynes joined the team relatively recently, so a lot of fans think of him as a young player that is still developing. But the Big Banger is 27 years old already. By this point in most players' careers, they are at their peak physical form and with a pretty defined set of strengths and weaknesses. Teams know what to expect from veterans that age. But Baynes remains somewhat of a mystery. He has only played a total of 756 minutes at the NBA level and never had a defined role. If he was a 22-year-old player who just finished his second year in the league, he would be a very intriguing prospect. But he isn't.
Of course, it's possible that Baynes is simply coming into his own as a player, after playing four years in college and two in Europe. Different people develop at different rates and Baynes might be entering the best stretch of his basketball career. If he is still getting better, you hold on to a player with his physical tools. But there is no way of knowing for sure if he's still on an upward trajectory or has stagnated in his development.
Last year Baynes was a fifth big on a good team, at best. He can't provide rim protection, can't shoot from outside, can't guard quicker power forwards, doesn't make plays on defense, doesn't get to the line and can't finish inside at a high enough level. His saving grace is his rebounding and the fact that he takes up space inside and gives hard fouls. Going through the numbers, there's just nothing special about Baynes.
But there is an inescapable feeling of curiosity that comes from watching such a massive guy flash moments of offensive grace and defensive competence. He has showed a willingness to learn and adapt as well, perfectly illustrated by the adjustment he made in the way he contested shots, adopting the principle of verticality. Going by the past, Baynes is a fringe NBA player at best and shouldn't be retained. His age certainly doesn't help his prospects. But there is a sense that a burly, old-school enforcer with a solid all-around game could be hiding somewhere in there.
Where to upgrade?
The Spurs are bringing back four wings. Patty Mills will probably return but if he doesn't, they will have Cory Joseph in place to sop up those minutes. The off-season priority is to bring back Boris Diaw, who along with Splitter and Duncan will get the majority of minutes at the four and five spots. And Daye should be able to fill in at both forward spots. So the Spurs could have seven players for three perimeter positions and only three and a half (counting Daye) for two inside positions.
San Antonio could have either cap space (if Diaw and Mills don't come back) or the mid-level exception at its disposal to upgrade the roster and the spots in the biggest need of reinforcement are power forward and center. Jeff Ayres should be safe because he is on a manageable contract for one more season. The same applies to Austin Daye. But why bring Baynes back if the idea is to add another big? Baynes could barely get off the bench last season.
As mentioned, there is a chance all Baynes needs are minutes to prove his worth as a rotation big man. But he simply won't get them if the Spurs do the logical thing and sign a power forward. If that happens, his skill-set, unlike Bonner's, becomes superfluous. Splitter and Ayres can do what he can do, and Diaw and whoever the Spurs bring in will handle the minutes Duncan doesn't spend at PF. Even Daye could get some playing time thanks to his distinct skill-set as a potential power forward.
More than anyone else's, Baynes' future with the Spurs is intrinsically tied to what the front office decides to do in terms of acquiring talent. Unless they somehow target guards and wings in free agency, the front court will get crowded fast and Baynes could be the first casualty, simply because his skill set overlaps too much with the other bigs who are already under contract.
Should the Spurs retain Baynes?
It's hard to make a case for it, mostly because the whole situation is dependent on factors that have very little to do with how good Baynes is as a player. The Spurs have extended him a qualifying offer, making him a restricted free agent. If he were to accept that offer of $1.1 million, the Spurs would bring him back in a second. But someone is bound to offer more money, a longer contract or a larger role based on the fact that he is big and is able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
If that happens and the offer isn't outrageous, the Spurs might try to retain him and let Bonner go, trade Ayres or both. But is Baynes actually worth all that trouble? It doesn't seem like it, considering he will always be behind Splitter and Duncan on the depth chart. A case can easily be made that he was the better overall big in the Spurs big man rotation behind the three main guys. But that might not be enough to counter the circumstances that seem to point to his exit.
The only way I can see the Spurs keeping Baynes is if he takes the QO or whoever tends him an offer sheet doesn't go over two years in length or $2 million in yearly salary. If someone is willing to commit more to him, the best thing for both sides is to just part ways.