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The absence of Aron Baynes loomed large over loss to Spurs; why would the Suns trade him?

Baynes’ role on this team is still important even as he cools off offensively, and the Spurs game solidified that.

Phoenix Suns v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s still unclear what exactly the Suns’ plans are for Aron Baynes. After trading for him on draft night in 2019, there were initial rumors of a buyout, but since then, Baynes has discussed how talking with Monty Williams and James Jones removed any trepidation about coming to Phoenix. That hasn’t stopped opposing NBA teams from leaking their interest in the Aussie as he plays out the final year of his contract.

On New Year’s Day, Eric Pincus of Bleacher Reported noted that the buzz around the G League Showcase in Las Vegas over the holidays was that the Clippers wanted Baynes. Contenders like the Clippers, Celtics and even 76ers could look to add to their frontcourt depth at the trade deadline, and Baynes is probably the best value expiring contract in the league. It should come as no surprise that teams are interested.

But fast forwarding to the Suns’ difficult loss Monday to the Spurs, the value of Baynes to Phoenix’s roster is just as strong as the interest in him around the league.

Not much behind Baynes

Without Baynes, the Suns’ backup center against San Antonio was Cheick Diallo, whose fit in the Valley has been questionable since his signing. Diallo’s lack of size makes it difficult for him to protect the rim, and he noticeably still lacks chemistry and comfort here.

Diallo was a plus-3 in nine minutes, but there’s a reason he didn’t even crack double-digit minutes. Ayton played the other 39 at center in a do-or-die game for the Suns because Diallo’s play wasn’t going to be enough against a high-level Spurs offense with burly bigs.

Especially now that Frank Kaminsky is out for what in all likelihood will be the rest of the season with a stress fracture in his knee, the Suns cannot afford the domino effect of being without Baynes.

Even if Baynes’ threes aren’t falling, the defense and lineup flexibility are huge pluses that just aren’t available with Diallo or Dario Saric as the backup center. Baynes helps the Suns’ rebounding (opponents rebound 24.2 percent of their own misses when Baynes if on the court versus 26.4 when he’s on the bench) and defensive connectivity immensely. As he gets acclimated to a new role behind Ayton, his productivity could improve as well, knowing he can expend more energy in fewer minutes.

Trade value could be pretty high

All that said, the Suns could probably get a nice return for Baynes. Take the Clippers, whose top priority will probably be a 3-and-D forward, but who could really benefit from having Baynes take Ivica Zubac’s place in the rotation. They have Detroit’s 2021 second-rounder (getting better by the day) and interesting young players like Terance Mann, Jerome Robinson and Mfioundu Kabengele. Those pieces would certainly help restock the Suns’ stockpile of draft picks and young players at positions of need.

Though it would be bizarre to see the Celtics reacquire Baynes so quickly after giving him up, they will certainly explore the center market. And why wouldn’t a team that’s thinking about signing Baynes this summer (such as, say, Charlotte, Atlanta or Dallas) give something up now to acquire his bird rights and get him into the organization now?

There aren’t many other centers on the market. Andre Drummond is a bigger name who will require organizational buy-in at a much higher level based on his salary and star status. Tristan Thompson could get moved, but he’s a bit more of a finesse player than Baynes and isn’t a floor-spacer at all. Not many other starting-caliber centers have been in the rumor mill this season.

The Suns could also keep Baynes past 2020

All along, the most logical decision on Baynes was for the Suns to just keep the big man long-term. Swapping first-round picks with Boston removed the Suns of their final extra asset, Milwaukee’s 2020 first-rounder, acquired in the Eric Bledsoe deal. While Phoenix also drafted Ty Jerome as part of the trade, Baynes was a key part of the trade from the Suns’ perspective, as evidenced by them keeping him and starting him throughout the year.

A cap hold for $10.3 million will sit on the Suns’ books this summer in place of Baynes if they choose to hold onto him past the deadline. With his bird rights, the Suns can go over the salary cap to keep him, similar to the process that unraveled with Kelly Oubre Jr. in 2019.

They can do other business, such as renouncing Tyler Johnson’s rights, extending a qualifying offer to Dario Saric to make him a restricted free agent, and even signing other teams’ free agents, before returning to Baynes. That’s a valuable mechanism for a team that intends to spend.

The Suns will likely get much worse if they get rid of Baynes. Unless Kaminsky returns ahead of schedule, there are just no other options at backup center on this roster, and though the Suns have been inconsistent, they’re still close enough to the playoff pack that selling off major contributors would be too difficult to stomach.

Baynes appears set to stay with the Suns for the remainder of the season and perhaps beyond.

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