Small-sample-size theater: The Aron Baynes effect

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We’ve explained at length the effects of Tiago Splitter’s recent absence — one that will reportedly end Monday night against the Los Angeles Clippers — on the Spurs’ elite-level defense. But, because of a small sample-size, it’s been difficult to tell whether or not Aron Baynes’ impact has been real in the two games he played while San Antonio’s normal starting center was resting. This isn’t to say he’s suddenly broken ground as some unexpectedly great defender, but his presence appeared to bring this team back to the basics of position-oriented defense.

We’ve seen Jeff Ayres start each of the last four games, and it just hasn’t worked well for the most part. He’s been very effective as a defensive rebounder and the team has secured the boards insanely well while he’s on the floor, which is important in this system, but the Spurs have been significantly better when he’s off the court. He seems lost when San Antonio has the ball (which is typical of new players in the system not named Marco Belinelli), but it’s on the other side of things where his style comprises the integrity of the team’s defensive structure.

Ayres isn’t a rim-protector, so his value as a defender is in the fact that he’s mobile enough to cover out on athletic power forwards in the NBA, thus allowing the other Spurs big men to sit back against the more traditional bigs. But in matchups like the ones we saw against Toronto and Minnesota (and to a lesser extent, Utah), size really comes into play. As most analytically aware teams do, San Antonio heavily values rim protection and is willing to give up mid-range looks, as they are the more risky offensive option, obviously. Ayres is not a strong fit for this strategy, as his interior defense has been quite shabby thus far this season.

The Spurs are allowing opponents to shoot 64.6 percent on field-goal attempts within five feet of the basket when Ayres is on the floor, as opposed to 51.2 percent when he’s on the bench. And much of it has to do with the fact San Antonio’s interior defensive positioning is not conducive to protecting the rim well when he’s on the floor.

One of the main benefits to Splitter’s development and Tim Duncan’s weight loss is the ability to put Tiago on the bigger bodies while Duncan acts as weak side help at the basket. Yes, they give up a lot of open looks to big men from 18 feet this way, but they’ll live with that. Not only is Duncan having to deal with bigger, more physical (and younger) players with Ayres in the game, he’s also acting as the last line of defense with entirely too much space between him and the basket.

This was the Raptors’ first possession of the game on Tuesday. They ran a loop play and immediately got Kyle Lowry into an angle-left quick pick and roll. Duncan showed probably a little too aggressively as Parker was beaten off the dribble, and Lowry found Jonas Valanciunas for a major bro dunk. Notice where Ayres is on the play (in black box, inside Johnson). Valanciunas received this ball no less than 18 feet from the basket, giving the help defender plenty of time to get over and force a play at the rim or an extra pass with Danny Green dropping down.

ValDunk

Again, Duncan’s got no help here as Johnson has stretched out to the opposite elbow, and Ayres is all the way out there with him. Illegal defense is obviously something you’ve got to watch for here, but this might be extending a little too far given the three-second allowance defenders are given, and that’s under the strictest of situations. With Parker acting as the only form of back-side help defense on the play, the Spurs are in a difficult position.

DuncanVal

Opposing offenses can obviously game plan in various ways to stretch San Antonio’s interior defense thin, as they did in the above screenshot. But the Spurs with Splitter in the lineup have been masterful at eating up space and eliminating these lanes to the basket. They’re one of the least athletic teams in the NBA, so they can’t rely on recovery speed to help make up for any extra room that’s created when the big men stretch out on mid-range-style “fours.”

And this is where Baynes came into play in two of the last four games. Baynes’ nickname is the “Big Banger” (or “Big Bangah” with the accent, actually) and it’s quite appropriate. Not only is he bigger than Ayres, but he’s way bigger than Duncan as well. He’s quick enough to keep up with most centers in the league, and he’s wide enough to make it very difficult to traverse around him. And by using Baynes on the ball in defensive post-up situations, Duncan is able to get back to where he’s most comfortable — as a help-side rim-protector.

Another factor here: guys like Baynes and Ayres are much better served playing on the ball defensively. Duncan and Splitter have much better spatial awareness, given all the time they’ve spent playing in this league, and are more comfortable playing off the ball with more responsibility than Baynes and Ayres. Nobody is saying Baynes is an elite-level defender, but if you put a player in front of him and give him the singular task of bodying him up and making life difficult, he’s game.

During Baynes’ last two games (Toronto and Utah), the Spurs have allowed just 83.9 points per 100 possessions while he’s on the floor, and they’ve allowed the opposition to shoot just 40 percent from inside of five feet. And he hasn’t just been a factor on the defensive side of the ball. San Antonio scored more than 132 points per 100 possessions with Baynes in the game against the Raptors and Jazz, as he was great in the pick and roll and aggressive around the basket. But those two teams are hardly defensive juggernauts, and offense hasn’t been the problem this season when Splitter has not played.

Baynes started the second half of the Raptors game alongside Duncan, and the space available for Toronto immediately shrank with the two on the floor together. Notice how, even if Valanciunas was able to get around Baynes, Duncan is already moving toward that imaginary line down the middle of the court that your high school coach was adamant about.

P.S. When will they start enforcing illegal defense in high school and college? It needs to happen.

Half

The Spurs have improved defensively each season over the last three years, and while much of that is because of Splitter’s individual development, it’s also a result of this group — the starting lineup especially — molding a team strategy that works incredibly well for them. Basic defensive concepts revolve around taking away the offense’s space, and when you don’t have a ton of great athletes forming your core, you must stay very disciplined. Because of roster continuity and years of practice in the same system, San Antonio could operate its defensive scheme in a collective sleep state. But when one part is taken out and another replaces it (Splitter out, Ayres in), there’s a weak link, especially when the replacement is new to the team.

During Splitter’s absence, Baynes was the player more capable of simulating what the starting lineup had before, but it was also good to give Ayres court time alongside these guys. San Antonio is building toward future success, and they managed to get through this four-game stretch without a loss. It will take time for Ayres to fully grab hold of what’s going on, but there’s a lot of season to go, and he really hasn’t been as bad defensively as he’s looked at times. Offense might be a different story, but the Spurs aren’t relying on him for that.

Splitter will be in uniform against the Clippers, and I presume it will be in a starting role. So it will be interesting to watch and see where Gregg Popovich goes with his rotations on Monday night. With his recent play on both sides of the ball, Baynes may have earned a few more minutes on the court.