Athlon Sports sat down with Kenny Smith, who covers the NBA on TNT — along with Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Ernie Johnson and Co. as a member of the Emmy award-winning Inside the NBA — as well as the NCAA Tournament on CBS. “The Jet” was a first-team All-American point guard under Dean Smith at North Carolina and a two-time NBA Finals champion with the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995.
With this weekend’s NBA All-Star festivities — where Smith’s daughter, Kayla Brianna, will perform — and the March Madness of the NCAA Tournament around the corner, we get Smith’s take on weverything that’s happening in the world of basketball.
Athlon Sports: Kenny, how are you?
Kenny Smith: I can’t complain, any better I’d be kissing myself all over.
First off, tell me a little about the Coke Zero School Shoutout?
Oh man, this is great. It is giving college basketball fans a chance to enjoy more madness, where you show your school spirit for the NCAA Tournament by starting with texting to win. Up until March 10, you text “0” plus your team’s name to “2653” and you can have a chance to win free access to March Madness Live, which now you have to pay for, you can view games on your iPhone or your Android phone. Then you can go to EnjoyMoreMadness.com and you can have a chance to win tickets to the Final Four. A lot of prizes, a lot of giveaways, go to EnjoyMoreMadness.com, enter to win.
Sounds fun. The Final Four is in New Orleans this year, which happens to be the same place Dean Smith won both his titles. What do you think about these Tar Heels? Think they’re going to New Orleans?
I really do. Every year I think we’re going to win, but this year I think more. We have great guard play, we have great inside play and we have a great coach. Those are the three things that you need. So that puts us in the mix, man. That puts us really in the mix to win it all.
Do you think Harrison Barnes can take it up to the next level and carry a team to the title?
I think Harrison is right on track. He defends well, he rebounds well, he handles the ball and he takes big shots. He does all the things that you need a great player to do, so I’m excited to see what happens.
What do you think about Tyler Zeller’s NBA prospects?
I think Zeller has a great opportunity. He catches the ball well, he can shoot with either hand, he has great jump hooks, he runs the floor, and he can defend and block shots. How well he’s able to do it and of what magnitude is going to tell what kind of player he’s going to be in the NBA. But he’s an NBA prospect and player, for sure.
Kendall Marshall is the latest in a long line of great North Carolina point guards — you’re familiar with that. Where do you think he stands right now among some of the great Carolina point guards?
It’s tough to rank players. Everyone has their own era and what they’re doing. I think for this team, last year when he took the helm he showed the value of what Kendall Marshall brings to a team. Is that more valuable than what Kenny Smith brought to it? Or Jimmy Black? Or anyone else who played the point? Who knows? But he showed his value last year on what he was able to do and how we turned our season around in less than, what, five games.
Who else besides North Carolina would be your Final Four picks?
It’s tough to pick the Final Four, only because you don’t know where everyone is going to be seeded. … But Kentucky’s been the most consistent basketball team throughout the year. And everyone else has been good at times or great at times, but not as consistent. Even teams like Murray State have played great basketball at times, but they haven’t been consistent, losing games against teams they should beat. I think we have to play out this week or two to know where everyone’s seeded.
Speaking of consistency, this year’s Duke team is about as inconsistent as any Coach K team has been in recent years. What do you think the limit is for Duke this year?
They have a lot of talent but they’re young at certain spots. And I think that’s why you see the inconsistencies at times. But look at Florida State. Florida State beat both Duke and North Carolina. But you’re not going to say that they’re a better basketball team than either one of those schools. What Coach K is able to do — which I hate to say, hate to give him credit — and what we’re able to do at North Carolina, they’ve proven that they can win five games in a row, six big games in a row. That’s what you need for the NCAA Tournament. Not always that you’ve lost six games in the regular season. But can you win big game after big game?
Speak on Austin Rivers’ game-winner against North Carolina. That was a brutal blow. What were your thoughts?
I thought we had won the game. I was leaving the room because I had to go film NBA TV. Greg Anthony comes in and said, what did he say, he kind of said it like, ‘A shot at the buzzer!’ But leading me to think that North Carolina had won. So I’m thinking on the air that North Carolina wins and they were like, ‘No. No dude.’ Yeah, it broke my heart.
That was a heartbreaker. On the other end of the spectrum, how great has Jeremy Lin and Linsanity been?
He’s a great story; encompasses what we’ve all felt in our time. We’ve all thought that our talent was misevaluated. There it is. That’s Jeremy Lin. And at the same time, the fact that he’s Asian-American, so his ethnicity might not have gotten him where he needed to be. Oh, I can relate to that. He didn’t go to a powerhouse school. Oh, a lot of people can relate to that. He was in the D-League and got cut. Oh, people can relate to being cut from their job. So he encompasses a lot of underdog stories of a lot of Americans. And that’s what makes it fun.
People are making a big deal about Carmelo Anthony’s return. How do you think these new-look Knicks will play out in the next weeks and months?
First of all, let’s remember that Jeremy (Lin) is a point guard. And a point guard’s job is to make sure that great players and great scorers will be able to score. That’s your first job. Your second job is scoring and all those other things. I think that he will be able to do that and it will lessen the burden for Carmelo.
With a healthy Carmelo, the addition of J.R. Smith, the emergence of Jeremy Lin, Tyson Chandler, Amare Stoudemire — do you think these Knicks can contend in the East?
It puts them in the top five teams (in the East) now, where before they were in the next five. They were 5-through-10, whereas this could put them 1-through-5, leaning more towards four or five.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade seem to have clicked. Will the Heat dominate in the playoffs? Or will it be a struggle as it was last year?
The playoffs are a different animal. You’re not crushing through the Chicago Bulls. I think that those two teams have clearly shown that they’re the best in the East and we just have to wait and see how it develops.
As of today, who do you think plays in the NBA Finals?
Miami, Oklahoma City.
Now that Shaquille O’Neal is in the studio, do you ever give Shaq a hard time about your Rockets sweeping his Magic in the NBA Finals?
You don’t give him as hard a time; he’s got four championships now. But at the time, when it was happening, he had none. When I used to see him in the summers, I used to give him a hard time then. But now, he’s got two more championships than I ever dreamed of thinking about. So I can’t go at him anymore like I used to.
Going back to your days with the Rockets, where do you put Hakeem Olajuwon all-time?
Dream is in the top five centers of all time. And then once you get in the top five, it’s like picking oranges and apples. It’s just a personal preference.
Robert Horry’s Hall of Fame debate is a unique one, since he has more championships (7) than any player in history who was not a teammate of Bill Russell. Do you think Robert Horry has a substantial case to make the Hall of Fame?
I believe so. I don’t think that you can be on that many championship teams by accident, and be a key contributor. He was a key contributor on every team. He wasn’t like, ‘Oh, let me find the right team this year.’ He was a key contributor on teams that at times weren’t the favorite.
The 1983-84 North Carolina team, with Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, yourself. If that team had fielded an NBA roster, how do you think that team would have fared?
That’s an NBA championship lineup, I believe. That’s the same type of talent that Michael had around him — if not better at certain positions — than he had with the Bulls.
What are your thoughts on Michael Jordan as an owner?
When he was in Washington as a general manager, part owner, I think there were a lot of players — we think about Kwame Brown — but I think there were a lot of players, Gilbert Arenas, bringing (Antawn) Jamison in and those guys. He was part of that. And they were actually a good team, and then he left. And then now, he hasn’t really come around and gotten the break that he needed in Charlotte.
It’s about longevity as an owner. I remember Danny Ainge, when people were ready to get rid of him in Boston and then all the sudden he makes a trade for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and then they become the “Big Three” and become this great franchise again. It’s just being around long enough to make the right deal.
After the lockout — and Charles Barkley has touched on this — it seems like the NBA has too many teams. With Commissioner David Stern controlling the Hornets and the Bobcats struggling to put something together, do you think the NBA should consider contracting one team, maybe two teams? At least the Hornets, if they can’t find an owner?
No. There’s always been terrible teams (laughing) and there’s always been great teams. I remember the Clippers used to be terrible, they’ve been in the league a long time, and now they’re a good team. Everyone can’t be a CEO. Someone has to be getting the mail. And then you work your way up. That’s how business is, that’s how sports are.
Speaking of the Clippers, do you think with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin that they team can contend for a title this year and in the future?
Yeah. They have all the pieces now, they just don’t have experience, but they have all the pieces.
Can the Clippers make an Oklahoma City-style run this year? The Thunder were young last year.
They were young but they’d been together at least one year. But the Clippers have all of the pieces you need. They have guys who can make big plays. They have great players. The only thing is that they’re small in the backcourt, that’s the only thing that could hinder them — especially since Chauncey (Billups) went down. They were small before, but when he goes down they’re even smaller.
What about the other L.A. team? What are the Lakers up to right now?
We have to wait and see if there’s going to be any trades. But when you have Kobe Bryant and those two giants, with (Pau) Gasol and (Andrew) Bynum, that’s going to put you in contention without even hesitation.
Do you think Dwight Howard is eventually an L.A. Laker? Whether it’s this year or as a free agent?
That’s a tough call. The only one who knows that question is Dwight. And I would guarantee that even he doesn’t know that right now, because there are multiple suitors and multiple situations that are appealing to him. And if the Orlando Magic make one great trade, the best situation would be to stay home — if they make one great acquisition before the trade deadline.
It’s All-Star Weekend and I have to thank you, as the Commissioner of the NBA Rising Stars draft, for adding Jeremy Lin. Was that a unilateral decision by Kenny Smith?
That’s what I wanted to see, so I made it happen.
Did you talk to Commissioner Stern? How did that work?
I put in a request and the request was met.
Who do you think had the edge in the Rising Stars draft, Charles Barkley or Shaquille O’Neal?
On paper, Shaq’s team is probably more appealing. But I don’t think Blake Griffin is going to play a lot of minutes. That’s why I would lean to Charles’ team.
How do you think Charles Barkley would fare as an NBA general manager?
Charles knows the game. You can’t hide it and be on television 12 years. You can say outlandish things but you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. Charles would make great decisions as a general manager. The only problem is, his tongue would get him in trouble, telling people how he feels throughout the year. He’d get fined a lot.
All right. EnjoyMoreMadness.com is the website for the Coke Zero School Shout Out?
Thanks, Kenny. Good luck to your Tar Heels.