Aron Baynes knows it’s not the best idea to make firm commitments in 2020. It’s why his impending free agency after a career year is barely something he can even think about, and booking a flight to play in the Tokyo Olympics is pointless until the sporting calendar has more stability.
“The best thing about 2020 is, no matter what plans you have, they’re gonna have to change,” Baynes told ESPN. “No matter what’s coming, or what I’ve thought of previously, it’s gonna change.”
One thing Baynes is sure about: don’t put anything except salt and pepper – lots of pepper – on your brisket. “Nothing fancy,” the budding pitmaster says of the central Texas method, before explaining why a smoke ring in a piece of meat looks good, but doesn’t actually add any flavour. As you can imagine, the extra time a lot of us have been afforded amid a global pandemic has allowed Baynes to continue to dabble in cooking an assortment of meats, in an assortment of ways. Even in the Phoenix, Arizona desert, Baynes has been cooking up everything from mussels, whole fish, and molluscs, to pigs heads and a variety of briskets; but of course, 2020 has thrown a less-than-ideal spanner in the works.
“You can’t have visitors over, so there’s no-one else to share the food with,” he said. “I have a lot more leftovers when I do cook something, which isn’t bad. I call it meal prep. But, in terms of the quantity that I get to cook, it’s gone way down.”
This off-season has been a unique one for Baynes. He and his immediate family contracted COVID-19 in May, and have since been based out of their Phoenix home. Baynes begins most days by dropping his children off to school, before working out and spending time with his wife, Rachel. Then, he’s back into what he calls “dad mode”.
“It’s been good being able have the opportunity to stay home and be around the kids for such an extended period of time,” Baynes said. “I get to just be dad. I’ve never been able to do it for such a long duration. It’s been fun being able to be with the kids every day.”
That lifestyle may be coming to an end sooner than we all thought, though, with the start date for the 2020-21 NBA season looking more and more likely to be toward the end of December. That means NBA Free Agency, where Baynes enters as a hot commodity, could also begin sooner than expected.
The Australian big-man is coming off what many have called his best season to date – averaging a career-high 11.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, while shooting above 35 percent from beyond the arc – and, at 33, is likely in a position to turn that into a quality contract.
“Everything’s so fluid right now,” Baynes said of his free agency.
“That’s why you’ve got to lean on people you trust. For me, it’s my agent, and I know that’s the business side of basketball. I’ve been through it too many times to tie anything emotional to it, as much as you want to. You do have these connections throughout basketball and throughout the teams you’ve played for, and where you’ve gone, and also the outlook for your family. Everything weighs into it.
“At the end of the day, it’s a business decision, and we aren’t even sure how that business is panning out right now, so hopefully it’s for the best. It’s what I’ll be leaning on the agent for; whatever we do, we’ll try to make the best decision for myself, for my family, and everyone who’s helped me get to this point.”
When Baynes was traded from the Boston Celtics to the Suns in the 2019 off-season, the team was coming off a Western Conference-worst 19-63 record, boasting a promising yet young and inexperienced roster.
Baynes was quick to demonstrate his ability to make an impact as a big-bodied, defensive-minded centre who can stretch the floor, but his value was just as evident from a leadership standpoint.
“I was fortunate to be in a great situation my first three years in San Antonio, and I’ve been in a bit of a rebuild while I was in Detroit, and I’ve been in a situation where we competed for Finals spots in Boston, so I’ve seen what it takes to get to the ultimate.” Baynes said.
“I knew I could come in here and impart that on some of these young guys. The best part was, I didn’t have to push any of them; they were trying to push me as well. Deandre’s a special player and he has so much talent; it’s just about getting him to lock in and focus on every possession and, when he does that, he goes out there and really dominates.”
Whether it be leadership or the expansion of a skillset, Baynes demonstrated a plethora of traits that, up until this point in his NBA career, he hadn’t shown before. Coming off an impressive 2019 FIBA World Cup campaign, Baynes carried his momentum into the NBA season, notably attempting 168 three-pointers, after putting up just 61 attempts the year before.
“I’m never satisfied,” Baynes said of the growth in his game, even as he approaches the age of 34.
“I don’t think you can be satisfied in this league because, as soon as you get comfortable, the next person has that advantage. For me, I’m always trying to work and get better.
“I haven’t played a lot of minutes, so my body feels really good, and I’m able to keep going out there and keep getting better. That’s what I’ve been keying in on during this hiatus; trying to get everything feeling even better, to the point where I’m feeling the best I have in a long time.”
And while the uncertainty surrounding free agency and the upcoming NBA regular season is entering the front of mind for Baynes, there’s a separate-but-not-insignificant period of volatility brewing back home.
In the middle of October, Brett Brown stepped down as head coach of the Australian Boomers, leaving a gaping hole less than 12 months out from the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics. Basketball Australia’s preference is a man who’s held the position before – Brian Goorjian – sources tell ESPN, but the selection process remains an arduous one because of the stakeholders involved; namely the Boomers’ NBA core, which includes Baynes.
“It’s a tricky one,” Baynes said.
“For the core group of guys, we’ve been playing together for so long now, that we’re so comfortable in what we need to do. We’ve been so close a number of times that, it’s one of those things where hopefully we can get back together and all get out there, and give it another crack.
“In terms of what we need from a head coach, it’s someone who can come in and give us a system to run; although, between Patty (Mills), and Delly (Matthew Dellavedova), and Joey (Ingles), whatever you’re going to do, if you put the ball in their hands, they’re going to make the right decision.
“At the end of the day, we’re not too worried about what we need from an Xs and Os. Those guys that come in, they’re gonna know their stuff… (the Boomers coach staff) have always been good quality guys, and first and foremost, that’s what we want: someone who’s good quality, gets along with all the guys, and holds everyone accountable. Although, within the group of players we have, we all hold each other accountable anyway.”
Even when a coach is selected – Basketball Australia says the recruitment effort will be completed by December – big questions still remain. Can an Olympic Games even go ahead? If the NBA season and Olympics clash, do Australia’s best players still choose to attend?
“Like I said, no matter the best plans you have in 2020, it’s gonna change,” Baynes said, when asked whether he or his Boomers counterparts would choose an Olympics over the end of an NBA season.
“It’s looking like the way for 2021 as well. As much as you can talk about the chance that the seasons overlaps, there’s a chance that both might not go ahead at the same time right now. I’m really not trying to count my chickens before they hatch.
“Being able to play for Australia is obviously a highlight for me in my basketball career. I wouldn’t be where I am without playing for Australia; I wouldn’t have the friendships and second family I do have because of playing for Australia.
“It’s always a priority for each and every one of us, and there’s no greater privilege for us to be able to put on that green and gold and represent Australia at an Olympics, because that’s one of the first things we all grew up watching… We love it, and it’s something we put first and foremost in our basketball careers, but you can’t put any stock into ‘is it gonna happen?’ or ‘is it gonna overlap?’, because we just don’t know right now.
“We are a bunch of brothers that want to go out there and play for each other, and we’re just trying to do what we can to get everyone ready. Hopefully everyone can be healthy, so we have the opportunity to go out there and compete again.”
Baynes’ recipe for the remainder of 2020, and beyond, seems to be about cautious optimism, with an extra sprinkle of caution. And no matter what appears to be on the horizon, Baynes is prepared to treat it like a mirage until given reason to think otherwise.
What we do know is certain, is that the next step for Baynes is a new NBA contract. The suitors are out there, and the Australian’s camp believes he’s done enough to warrant a substantial deal; and he can rest assured, probably, that 2020 won’t take that away from him.