Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"Rey Ain't Coming Home!"

Knicks Trade Renaldo Balkman

Renaldo Balkman is a Knickerbocker no more. He has been traded to the Denver Nuggets for two players and a future draft pick (but more about those things later). He ain't coming back to the Garden any more than once next season, unless the Knicks face the Nuggets in the Finals. Obviously. But before us stalwart few remaining Knicks fans start collecting stray dreadlocks for our hope chests and pre-heat the ovens for another batch of Mrs. Finkle's cookies - Look, they're little basketballs! - let's take a good look at Balkman's numbers in his two seasons treading the boards in the Mecca.

Games: 68
Games Started: 1
Minutes Per Game: 15.6
Points Per Game: 4.9
Shot %: 0.505
Free Throw %: 0.567
Rebounds Per Game: 4.3
Steals Per Game: 0.8
Assists Per Game: 0.6
Turmovers Per Game: 0.72
Fouls Per Game: 2.10

Games: 65
Games started: 0
Minutes Per Game: 14.6
Points Per Game: 3.4
Shot %: 0.489
Free Throw %: 0.432
Rebounds Per Game: 3.3
Steals Per Game: 0.7
Assists Per Game: 0.6
Turnovers Per Game: 0.57
Fouls Per Game: 2.0

In spite of the fact that the second-year small forward was a fan favorite at Madison Square Garden, Balkman's numbers in a Knicks uniform were poor and actually got worse during his sophomore season. The long-haired Balkman was a player for whom the numbers don't tell the story. Sort of. The small forward out of South Carolina, who was roundly and enthusiastically booed when Isiah Thomas selected him with the 20th pick in the 2006 NBA draft, become a fan favorite due in part to his frenetic hustle and his high-flying finishes. The energy that Balkman visibly played the game with was a much-needed counterpoint to the joylessness which seeped from the floor in so many first quarters before derision flowed from the crowd during so many second quarters.

So, perhaps some measure of Balkman's popularity sprung from the same place as the unfettered and unchecked devotion for every back-up quarterback in every NFL city that is home to a loser in November. Like those clipboard holders, Balkman never played enough to be tainted by the suckitude that enveloped every major member of the rotation. He was the breath of fresh air. He had long hair and he seemed distinct from the starting five and even from the core bench players, Robinson, Lee and Jeffries.

As a fan of the 2006-2008 Knicks it was, for several reasons, easy to like Balkman. He made you feel like he was trying. He made you feel like he was caring. He made you feel like something exciting might happen when he played. And, as fans we really needed to feel those things during the last two seasons. Although Balkman didn't often make you feel like the team would win, he did make any game in which he was playing something that you could bear watching. Or, at least, something you could bear watching more easily.

But remember what I said earlier about the numbers not telling the whole story with this guy? Well, neither do your eyes. Or your feelings. Just as he wasn't as bad as his numbers show, Renaldo Balkman wasn't as good as the way most of us felt about him. In the Bill James/sabermetrics/Moneyball sense, Balkman may have been somewhat of a mirage. He didn't really produce. He just looked like he wanted to more than some of his teammates looked like they wanted to. At the end of the day, it's rather damning to say that a young player couldn't get a firm grip on major minutes for the past two incarnations of New York City's home team! But Balkman never did grab hold of any major minutes. Old, undersized veteran power forward Malik Rose started more games than Balkman last season. And, so did rookie small forward Wilson Chandler, who seems to jump ahead of Balkman in the estimation of both Isiah Thomas as well as Mike D'Antoni.

Therefore, Balkman may have been more important to the fans than he was to the game plan. But no matter how you slice it. Balkman is gone. And I'll miss him. Even if it might not read like it, I liked this guy. A lot. The high point of the 2007-2008 season was the second home game of the season (yeah, that was when this team peaked) when Balkman's defense on Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony turned the tide in an enervating, come-from-behind win. He played hard in that game. He totally turned the tide against one of the game's premeir scorers and looked like he was going to be the lock-down defender that would guard the other team's best player on a nightly basis. But that never really panned out. Not surprisingly, I put most of the blame on Isiah Thomas's doorstep. The deposed Knicks despot never stayed with Balkman the way he did with Quentin Richardson and Jared Jeffries. He didn't nurture him or force-feed him minutes. He seemingly forgot about him for stretches both during games and between them. And, Balkman didn't always handle this well. I can remember attending a few games deep into the season, during a run when his minutes were way down, and Balkman was not really all-the-way there. He never ventured farther than the periphery of a huddle and mostly kept to himself at the end of the bench. He was shooting the breeze with Randolph Morris and Jerome James and paying more attention to the skits on the big screen the words in the huddle. Now, when given a choice between whatever cliches Isiah Thomas might have been offering in the huddle and the top-notch MSG in-game entertainment then I would likely have made the same choice.

(Ed note: We'll be back later to look at who came back in this trade and what happens next)