Many media pundits and fans alike derided the signing of Aron Baynes to a 3 year, $20 million contract in the offseason. After all, this was a player coming off a sporadic year in San Antonio where his role was undefined and his spot in the rotation was fluid and subject to change. Therefore, it was met with skepticism that he could be a true backup to the beast that is Andre Drummond.
But Aron Baynes was not brought into the Pistons to be a star and challenge Dre for the starting spot. No. He was brought in to make free throws and be a gargantuan interior behemoth, and while he may have been slightly overpaid, he filled his job description to a T.
While there were other, better known alternatives that some fans preferred, such as Bismack Biyombo and Kosta Koufos, Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower identified Baynes as their top target for the backup center spot for one key reason. He can hit free throws at a very respectable rate, and when your starting center can't crack 40% from charity, you need all the help you can get. But Baynes offers more than just touch at the line, so let's see what else he brought.
A Steady Presence
While Baynes' awful start to the season culminated with the creation of various memes and glorious photoshops, he gradually improved to the point where he wasn't the flashiest player, but he was extremely safe, rarely made a mistake and stayed in his lane. A major problem early in the season it seemed were his hands, as most loose balls seemed to carom off them like pinball paddles, and rebounds were an adventure.
However, he improved to the point where his total rebounding percentage (the percentage of available rebounds a player grabs while he's on the court) was a respectable 17%, with his defensive rebounding percentage (the same, except only accounting for rebounds where the player is the defender) was a steady 22.5%, good for 38th in the league when you factor in players eligible for the league leaders in rebounds (Andre Drummond led the league at a ridiculous 34.2%, 1.5% ahead of second place DeAndre Jordan).
To put Baynes' defensive rebounding in perspective, he was less than 1% behind noted glass-eater Tristan Thompson, as well as former Piston Greg Monroe and Michigan native Draymond Green, whilst actually beating guys like LaMarcus Aldridge, Nikola Vucevic, and Nerlens Noel.
In total he contributed 4.7 boards per game (in only 15.2 minutes) as the anchor of a second unit usually including Stanley Johnson, Steve Blake, Anthony Tolliver and one of Marcus Morris/Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Add this with his 6.3 points per game, and you have a fairly reliable second center. He struggled a little with his FG%, shooting only .505 overall, but a respectable .606 from within 3 feet, and, after being told he had a decent midrange game, he actually shot 40% or better from all distances between 3 feet and the 3 point line.
The main selling point in the offseason, however, was Baynes' ability to hit free throws, meaning that, if need be (and sadly, we needed it far more often than perhaps was desirable), we had an option to play down the stretch if Bang-A-Drum became an issue, as Baynes' presence nullified the tactic.
For his career before Detroit, Baynes was an 85% foul shooter, an extraordinary mark for a big man, even considering the somewhat limited sample size (116-137 in three seasons as a Spur). In Detroit, however, his percentage may have dipped to a still very good 76.4%, but he actually shot and made more free throws in his lone Piston season thus far than in his whole Spurs career (this season Baynes was 126-165 from the line).
Baynes shot one free throw per game in San Antonio, doubling that in his first season here, a product of role and usage rates. Baynes also shot the fifth most free throws on the team, only bested by Andre, Reggie Jackson, Marcus, and KCP. While you'd expect those players to have more attempts, Baynes still had to knock them down, and he fulfilled his role admirably in this regard*.
*Tobias Harris shot 90 free throws in 25 games and Ersan Ilyasova had 109 in 52 games so it's reasonable to expect them to have more over a full season. Also, if Stanley Johnson had gotten even half the foul calls he deserved, he'd have shot more than the 102 free throws he did.
My final point is more to an intangible role in that it doesn't show up on the boxscore. Aron Baynes sets a mean screen, and you certainly feel it. At 6'10" and a beefcake-y 260 pounds, he's, to use an Australian idiom, built like a brick shithouse.
He was such a valuable offensive weapon if only because of his ability to create separation for guards in the pick and roll. Defenders can't go through him, because funerals are expensive. They can go behind, but that frees up the ball handler for a wide open three pointer due to the time it takes for someone to circumnavigate Baynes being roughly equivalent to the Jurassic Period. They can go over, but only after dislocating a shoulder trying to fight around Baynes' bowling ball of a bicep, leaving the ball handler with space for a drive to the basket, forcing defenses to collapse allowing either a potential foul call, or a simple kickout to an open shooter.
Oh yeah, and Baynes can also play the role of slow moving tanker and barge, I mean, roll, towards the rim for a pick and roll opportunity. But in pick and roll playcalls, he's generally there to screen and demean.
In conclusion, while Baynes' contract may have looked bloated last season, it won't anymore due to the absurdly rising salary cap, making $6 million look like peanuts (I like peanuts). Therefore, you have a solid and productive backup center under contract for two more years and something roughly equivalent to the lower end of the mid level exception spectrum.