Baynes as starter has worked wonders for Celtics

Aron Baynes has proved to be a difference-maker as a Celtics starter.

While the vast majority of the league is going small, the Boston Celtics have found success in going big.

Last season, Al Horford played the role of small-ball center for Boston. Coach Brad Stevens probably would have toyed around with putting him at power forward at some point, but the Celtics didn’t really have a viable center to play next to him.

Enter Aron Baynes.

Just about any Celtics fan reading this will remember Kendrick Perkins well: The tough, defensive-minded “enforcer” always played hard, played his role and wasn’t looking to do much more than that. He was key to Boston’s success in the big-three era.

Now, imagine Perkins was Australian, had a great beard and was hiding an entire continent beneath the belt. That’s Baynes.

In the first two games of the season, Horford played center. The Celtics lost both of those games. Baynes wasn’t being utilized well; he was a combined -21 over those first two games.

The next game, Stevens slid Horford over to power forward and started Baynes at the 5. The Celtics won. Next game, same thing. The following game, against a non-traditional Milwaukee Bucks lineup that features Giannis Antetokounmpo at the 4, Stevens went back to Horford at center, starting German rookie Daniel Theis at the 4.

The Celtics won that game too, but Baynes was a factor in that win too; he played five minutes more than Theis, scored 12 points, grabbed seven rebounds and was a team-high +12.

In the Celtics’ two games since the Theis-Horford experiment, Stevens has gone back to starting Baynes, and it’s worked. The Celtics now sit on a five-game winning streak, and Baynes is averaging 6.7 points, 5.1 rebounds and a block per game on 58.1 percent shooting.

The Celtics have been straight-up better since Stevens started experimenting with Baynes:

Baynes brings the sort of size and defense at the center position that the Celtics haven’t seen in years. To put it simply, he does the dirty work.

At last, the Celtics have a “traditional center” who can clear the lane for slashers with his boxing-out abilities and pull down rebounds on both ends:

Baynes is able to alter opposing shots at the rim, even when he doesn’t block them. Even against early MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo, Baynes is able to force an airball on a drive:

It didn’t take long for the Celtics to find their optimal lineup for this Hayward-less season: Kyrie Irving, Jaylen BrownJayson Tatum, Horford and Baynes.

This lineup has started four of the Celtics’ seven games this season, and the C’s haven’t lost any of those games.

The success of this lineup has been clear; it has a net rating of +23, by far the best of any Celtics lineup. With this lineup on the floor, Boston has grabbed 56 percent of available rebounds this season, also the best mark of any Celtics lineup.

The impact of Baynes playing center goes beyond his personal contributions on the court. It’s a trickle-down effect. Having Baynes on the roster allows the Celtics to go big; Horford plays the 4, Tatum plays the 3 and Brown plays the 2. Having bigger wings has led to immense improvements from Boston on the glass and on the defensive end.

The Celtics rank fifth in defensive rebounds per game this season, up from 22nd a season ago. Last season, the Celtics ranked 12th in defensive rating. In the offseason, they lost elite defensive guard Avery Bradley and above-average defensive wing Jae Crowder. Despite those subtractions, The Celts suddenly find themselves with the NBA’s best defensive rating.

Perhaps most importantly, Baynes playing center allows Horford to be the best version of himself. Obviously, we’re just seven games into the season and it’s too early to jump to conclusions. But Horford is averaging 15 points, 9.4 rebounds (his highest mark since 2012-13) and 4.1 assists per game. He’s also shooting 51.3 percent from the field and a career-best 40.9 percent from 3-point range.

This lineup is working wonders for the Celtics. With any luck, Stevens will stick with it once Marcus Morris is finally ready to play. He probably will. I hear he’s a pretty smart guy.