Toronto Raptors: Aron Baynes and Ujiri’s free agency problem

Toronto Raptors - Aron Baynes (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - Aron Baynes (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images) /

Aron Baynes represents another miss on Masai Ujiri’s free agency record.

If Raptors team president Masai Ujiri does, in fact, decide to leave Toronto this summer, he leaves behind a legacy among the best executives in Toronto sports history. Since 2013, the Ujiri-led front office has not only engineered some of the greatest trades in franchise history, but also built a developmental system that most other NBA clubs want to replicate.

Still, no one’s perfect. The struggles of Aron Baynes this season have not only shone a light on the value that Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol brought to the Raptors, but also serve as further evidence of Ujiri’s iffy navigation of the free agent market over the past eight years.

To be fair, it’s not a well he has gone to often. On only six occasions during his tenure has Toronto lavished $5 million or more on a free agent outside the organization, choosing instead to lean heavily on homegrown development and low-risk flyers on potentially un-mined gems, not to mention the trade market. That’s the good news.

The bad news, however, is that Ujiri’s record on those six signings isn’t great. Let’s take a closer look at each one. In fairness to the club president, the $5 million minimum in total contract value ignores some pretty impressive bargain bin free agent finds including the un-drafted Fred VanVleet, 2016 playoff hero Bismack Biyombo and rising star Chris Boucher.

Nevertheless, it’s the bigger money, higher risk additions we’re focused on here.

The Raptors under Masai Ujiri have whiffed on some big free agent signings

Aron Baynes – two years, $14.3 million (2020)

Toronto Raptors
Aron Baynes’ struggles have largely kept the free agent pickup off the floor. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

The most surprising thing about the disappointing start to Baynes’ tenure with the Raptors is that he seemed to be something of a ‘safe’ free agent choice. While other big men might have offered more upside than the 34-year-old, the thinking was that he could at least guarantee a certain level of physical interior play and rebounding. Instead, his numbers are down across the board.

Even as part of Toronto’s depleted frontcourt, the Aussie veteran, signed to help replace Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, has been practically glued to the bench after getting quick hooks from the starting five most nights. Even without the need to hoard cap space for a run at Giannis Antetokounmpo, Toronto seems all but guaranteed to pass on his second-year team option.

DeMarre Carroll – four years, $60 million (2015)

The DeMarre Carroll stands as a blip on Masai Ujiri’s record. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

More than half a decade later, it remains fairly stunning that DeMarre Carroll never proved to be a fit for the Raptors. A tenacious defender and popular teammate in Utah and Atlanta, Carroll’s skill set seemed ideally suited for the team culture being fostered in Toronto. Unfortunately, a persistent knee injury in year one gave way to spacing and chemistry issues in the following season.

Those challenges resulted in disappointing numbers (9.4 points on 39.6% shooting over 98 games), forcing Ujiri to attach first- and second-round picks (Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs) just to unload his contract to the Brooklyn Nets. Carroll’s parting shot criticisms of the club’s offense – accurate or not – didn’t do his reputation north of the border any favors, either.

Cory Joseph – four years, $30 million (2015)

Cory Joseph, Raptors
Cory Joseph, Raptors /

If you’re like me, you probably remember Cory Joseph’s time in Toronto with some fondness, despite how the totality of his tenure looks. His free agent signing, coming eight days after Carroll was acquired, offered a nice story of a still-young local product coming home after developing a winning pedigree as part of Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs.

However, Joseph was what he was, offering steady but unremarkable backup minutes behind Kyle Lowry before essentially being made redundant by Delon Wright and VanVleet. While the Pickering, ON native wasn’t bad, he didn’t produce much value (8.9 points per game in two seasons) on a $30 million contract, and that earns him a spot in Ujiri’s loss column.

Jared Sullinger – one year, $6 million (2016)

Somehow, Jared Sullinger is still only 28 years old. That he hasn’t gotten a sniff in the NBA since being traded to Phoenix in the P.J. Tucker deal and subsequently waived highlights how poorly his Raptors stint went back in 2016. Foot surgery limited the burly big man to just 11 games in Toronto. Given that he struggled with conditioning at the best of times in Boston, there was little hope of him being game ready after missing so much time. In the end, he made about $167,000 for every point scored in a Raptors uniform.

Sullinger is now playing in China, where he’s been a dominant force for the Shenzen Aviators of the CBA. Despite an insanely productive college career at Ohio State, he never really took off in the NBA.

Tyler Hansbrough – two years, $7.5 million (2013)

You can understand what Ujiri was thinking with the signing of Tyler Hansbrough in the summer of 2013, his first significant free agent acquisition since returning to the club two months prior. ‘Psycho T’ offered a high energy presence in the frontcourt with youth (he was 27 at the time of the deal) and a reputation as a pain to play against working in his favor.

The second year on his deal proved to be a bit of a reach, particularly with little demand and a lack of interest from the Indiana Pacers, his previous team. A one-dimensional rebounder, Hansbrough struggled to stay on the floor due to persistent foul trouble and sub-par shooting skills, evidenced by his 4.2 points per game average. Hansbrough soon washed out of the league, showing that sustained success at an elite college program like UNC isn’t always a good barometer of NBA success.

Stanley Johnson – two years, $7.5 million (2019)

In contrast to Hansbrough, the second year – a player option – on Johnson’s contract might be something of a saving grace for the club. After adding nothing to a 53-19 Raptors squad last season, Johnson appears to have turned a corner early this season as a standout crunch time defender and occasional three-point threat. In gaining the trust of head coach Nick Nurse and expanding his role within the rotation, the 24-year-old might be changing the narrative and giving Ujiri at least one free agent success story. And to think, Johnson would likely have never had this opportunity if not for an exercised player option.

The recent rise of Johnson stands as the lone bright spot among this free agent group (sorry, Baynes’ seven rebounds in 13 minutes on Wednesday night against Miami doesn’t quite turn the tide for him yet). However, he could end up in this infamous club if his scoring starts to dry up now that the Raptors have hit their stride on the offensive end.

It’s not necessarily that it’s a bad group (even Carroll’s deal never reached a Hedo Turkoglu level of disaster), but this sextet sure looks underwhelming when compared to the rest of Ujiri’s eight-year track record.