Kenny Smith has been a part of the professional basketball world for more than 25 years. A consensus first-team All-American out of North Carolina, Smith won two NBA championships with the Houston Rockets and played 10 seasons in the league before making the switch to broadcasting. He’s spent the past 15 seasons as a studio analyst for the Emmy award-winning Inside the NBA on TNT and for the past three years, he’s been a studio analyst for the CBS’ NCAA Division I Championship coverage.
I recently had the chance to talk with Smith about his picks for the Final Four, his thoughts on Brittney Griner playing in the NBA, and the NBA playoffs.
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Dime: For Wichita State vs. Louisville, who do you think is the most important player for Wichita State to shut down in order to win?
Kenny Smith: They didn’t get there by one player, you know what I mean? It’s difficult to point out one guy on Louisville and I would say the same thing with Syracuse. They have a lot of good players on Syracuse and Louisville so I don’t know if there’s one player you can single out. I think overall it’s about who can impose their style of play. And with Louisville in terms of style of play, you have to play fast to beat them. They’re like a defensive-minded Phoenix Suns team back when they had Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire and all those guys (laughs). They’re a Mike D’Antoni team that plays defense. So they force you to play at a tempo that no matter what you do, you have to play at that pace.
Dime: Moving to the Michigan vs. Syracuse matchup, how do you think Michigan is going to be able to break the Syracuse zone?
KS: I think Michigan has great guard play with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., but I think overall this will be the first time that those two guys will be evenly matched or overmatched at times. I think throughout the whole tournament, or even throughout the whole year, those two guys have never felt that they’ve been evenly matched.
One of the reasons that I’ve picked Syracuse is I think that they have the greater ability to change styles. Let’s say Syracuse makes it a half-court game. They are pretty good at it, but they’d rather play a little uptempo even though they play a zone on defense. But with Michael Carter-Williams and their wing players, they’re able to still play half-court. So simply I think that the diversity of styles a team can play is what wins games in the NCAA because you’re going to have to adjust your style of play. Syracuse is like a chameleon.
Dime: So you have Louisville vs. Syracuse in the championship. Who do you think wins that game?
KS: Louisville. And I had Louisville from the start. It wasn’t an analytical choice really, honestly, at first. It was because Russ Smith played at my high school and we both played for the same high school coach. He was there for 53 years, Jack Curran, and he passed away just a few weeks ago. So, Russ dedicated the rest of his season to Coach Curran and I dedicated the rest of my season as an analyst to him. So I was like, how great would it be if he had both of his players here at the Final Four? One of his first players is calling the game and his last player in the NCAA is playing in it. That’s why I did it.
Now, I’m here with Powerade and the 3v3 Championship so that kind of makes me want to root a little bit for Wichita State as the underdog. But then there’s Kevin Ware, another guy who is fighting through adversity. So I could still root for Louisville (laughs). I can be politically correct all the way around.
Dime: Before we get to the NBA, I’m assuming you heard what Mark Cuban said on Wednesday about the possibility of him drafting Baylor’s Brittney Griner in the second round of the NBA Draft. Do you think she would be able to compete in the NBA as even a ninth or 10th man?
KS: There have been women basketball players who probably could have made a roster in the NBA. But with respect to her, I think that her playing in the WNBA would bring so much interest, obviously, to that league that it would behoove us to not let her play with her peers because it would bring more interest to the league itself. Kind of like when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird came into the NBA, the interest and the viewership went crazy. She would fit into this Powerade thing; she would definitely be an underdog trying to push through adversity. But her size and her ability to score in the post and to just be a good basketball player, I don’t think it would behoove me to think that she couldn’t do it. But I think it would be better suited for the league in general and her peers if she played in the WNBA.
Dime: On to the NBA. Assuming the Heat make it to the Finals out of the East, who do you think will make it out of the West?
KS: Wow. The West is wild (laughs). Crazy stuff could happen. There’s not a team in the West that if they lost in the second round I would be surprised. There’s not a team. San Antonio? I could see it. They got a little old, they ran out of gas. Okay. Oklahoma City? You know what they don’t have Harden anymore, they didn’t have that third guy that really made it blah blah blah. So when you look at it, there’s a chink in a lot of people’s armor that could give the excuse as to why they didn’t make it.
Dime: Maybe a better question is who do you think would be the toughest challenge for Miami?
KS: Anyone with size. The Knicks have a lot of size. San Antonio has a lot of size. That gives the Heat problems. It’s hard to win multiple championships without being the best rebounding team.
Dime: Let’s talk about the Clippers. They’ve struggled recently and I wonder what you think is the biggest adjustment they need to make before the playoffs?
KS: The Clippers are great in full-court and not great in the half-court. That’s the adjustment. How do you become a great half-court team? And I don’t know if they can do that right now. That’s been their issue. That’s been their only issue. That’s been a consistent issue. Can they be great in the half-court?
Dime: Staying in L.A., do you think the Lakers will make the playoffs?
KS: My first instinct was to say zero percent chance. However, when the late, great Dr. Buss died and they had that ceremony with all the great Lakers from the past, I said that has to give some type of energy to those players to power through. So, for me, that was the difference to say that they have a chance to get that eighth spot. If that tragic incident doesn’t occur, then I would have given them zero chance.
Dime: If they don’t make the playoffs, what kind of changes do you expect to see to their roster and coaching staff in the offseason?
KS: They have to bring some stability to it. I think the problem is that there’s no stability. Stability brings success and I think the problem is that they don’t have it. So I think the less movement would be the best movement. A tweak, sure, but the less would be better.
Dime: Of the teams not making the playoffs, which team’s future do you like best?
KS: The Cavs have a great future. I think they would probably be one of the leaders of that. Great young big men, great young guards, obviously with Kyrie Irving, so I would say they do.
Dime: How far away do you think they are?
KS: Ah, two years. They should make the playoffs next year. And then they’re two years away from saying, hey, we’re playing hard against you Miami. We’re coming at you. We’re getting older now.
Dime: Final question and it’s a hypothetical. If this summer the 64 best NBA players entered a March Madness style, single elimination one-on-one tournament, who do you think would make it to the Final Four?
KS: Okay. Can I prerequisite this with a statement?
Dime: Of course.
KS: That’s the problem with the NBA now (laughs). Guys are playing too much one-on-one and that’s the part that I hate (laughs). Guys don’t play with a great deal of teamwork and that’s the problem. And for anyone who wants to be in this kind of competition, I would have a different eye towards them. So I want to prerequisite with that. But I think the final four would be Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
Dime: That’s fair.
KS: But the problem is … they’re playing too much one-on-one basketball (laughs).
In a one-on-one NBA tournament, who would you have in the Final Four?
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