Sports Media Watch caught up with Turner Sports NBA analyst Kenny Smith Thursday afternoon. Topics of discussion included Smith’s upcoming NCAA Tournament duties, the NBA age-limit, the perception that small market NBA teams can’t compete, and coverage of the Miami Heat.
SMW: There was some concern from Billy Packer, who used to work for CBS, that by virtue of calling the NBA, the Turner broadcasters would not be as prepared for the college game.
Kenny: (laughs) That’s pretty funny, because how could someone make a statement without talking to the person that’s doing the game, and know what their preparations are? I don’t know how you could make that statement. I just don’t understand how he could make a statement like that without talking to the people, and then say I don’t know if they’ll be prepared.
SMW: If I remember correctly, he said that if he had been asked to do the NBA, he would have said that he just wasn’t qualified for that. So I would imagine you would disagree with a statement like that.
Kenny: Well maybe he doesn’t watch any NBA basketball. But because you don’t call the games doesn’t mean you don’t watch the games. I know myself and Charles [Barkley] have a lot of ties to college basketball, and we have a lot of friends that coach, so we pay attention to what they do. I have a lot of AAU basketball teams, so I probably have 30 kids that are playing on different teams across the country. Right now, I’m watching UConn with Jeremy Lamb who played on my AAU team, Kemba Walker, I know his AAU coach – so I’m not sure how you can make a statement like that without talking to the people. Maybe he wouldn’t be prepared if he did NBA, because maybe he doesn’t watch NBA basketball. But all we are now is just calling the game that we watch. So it’s not really difficult for me.
SMW: There’s been the debate over the [NBA] age limit for many years. Greg Anthony, who you’re going to be working with during the tournament, is one of the people I can really remember coming out against the age limit many years ago. Charles is in support of an even longer age limit. Where do you stand on the issue?
Kenny: I think that when you are the best at something, I don’t know that there is an age limit – other than in sports. So I’m not really a proponent for it. I understand why, but I’m not a person that says that someone has to be somewhere before they’re allowed to be the best at it. I think a lot of times, the general managers in the NBA have done a poor job of recognition, because of potential. Drafting on potential instead of drafting on what is, and just staying away from kids that are just potential-based.
SMW: Every single year, I read at least one article where there’s a college basketball proponent kind of arguing that the college game is superior to the NBA.
Kenny: Superior in what way? Not skill wise, I know you’re not thinking skill wise, but –
SMW: Just going off of some of the stuff I’ve read, there’s the perception that the players work harder, that they play for the love of the game, things of that nature. Why do you think there’s this rivalry between fans of the pro and college game that you really don’t see in football? Do you think that exists, and why do you think that is?
Kenny: I think any time there’s financial gain by what you do, there’s going to be people who are going to question your intensity and your worth. When you watch college, the worth is a scholarship, so it’s kind of easy to measure. Yes, they do play more for a love – because a lot of those kids, they will never play after college. Their only stage is those four years. So it’s a different mentality. For me, as a basketball viewer, I don’t think there’s a rivalry in that sense. When you go to a university, you have more of an affinity to that school. Right now, I’m watching Pittsburgh play UConn. If I went to the University of Pittsburgh and I’m an alumnus, I’m going to love that school a little bit differently than I love the New York Knicks. I go to the Garden, I’m entertained – it’s more like a theater.
But there’s a more personal relationship with universities because of alumni. Which is different, and creates a different bond when you’re watching the game. Because you remember that English class you were in, your first girlfriend that you met, the first time you drove a car, your dorm room – that you don’t get when you watch an NBA game.
SMW: The last time we spoke – the NBA has changed so much since then. Now, instead of Tim Donaghy being the league’s biggest problem, it’s this perception that small market teams can’t compete. Do you buy that whole argument, that small market teams are somehow disadvantaged compared to say, the Knicks or the Heat?
Kenny: (laughs) Well, the San Antonio Spurs are the number one team in the NBA right now, and they’re probably the smallest market in the league. And the Knicks haven’t made the playoffs in, I can’t remember the last time.
SMW: Seven years.
Kenny: So when people say that, it’s just because now all of a sudden those teams have gotten good. They’ve gotten better. And then the Miami Heat – Miami is the 17th-largest market in the United States. It’s not a big market. It’s just a misunderstanding that even journalists fall into, thinking Miami is a big market. Miami is not a big market.
SMW: Miami is actually #16, and Sacramento is #20, in terms of TV markets.
Kenny: You’re hitting my point exactly. I think what people are afraid of, that the players are going to bond together as free agents. I think what we saw last year is not the norm, it’s an abnormality. I think you’re not going to have that many great players available at one time. I think the Denver Nuggets are still doing well without Carmelo Anthony, and there are players that become great because now, they have an opportunity to have more responsibility. Derrick Rose became a better player because LeBron James didn’t go there. Now he has more responsibility in Chicago. No one was saying Derrick Rose was a possible MVP candidate until this year. So more stars are made, more responsibility is made.
There are only three or four really big markets, and the Knicks are not that good yet; the Lakers are the only team in that great big market, and the Clippers are terrible, and they’ve been terrible for a long time. So I just have to disagree with all of the logic behind that.
SMW: I would also say that the Knicks, Bulls, Lakers, Sixers and Celtics – they’ve all been lottery teams at least once in the past decade.
Kenny: And the Clippers have been a lottery team for how many years. They’re in the biggest market you can imagine. It’s really about great coaching, great ownership, and great general managers. That’s what NBA basketball is about. When it really figures all out, you have to watch the college game, you have to go overseas and watch, and project where guys are going to be.
SMW: The Miami Heat have obviously been such a lightning rod this year. They’re playing the Lakers today, in what should be a highly rated game on TNT. What do you think of the media coverage of the Heat? I know a lot of people say they brought it on themselves, but at some point it seems that the media is actively trying to stir up controversy, taking things out of context like LeBron’s ‘bump’ against Dallas last year, or the whole crying issue?
Kenny: When you’ve got the MVP of the league on your team – LeBron James won the MVP two times in a row – so when you have the guy who’s the best player in the league and he forms with arguably the best two-guard in the league, and all of a sudden Chris Bosh joins them, you’re going to get attention. I don’t care if you played on Mars. We need to figure out what that team is and why that team could lose five games in row. Because Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, they don’t do things like that. The great teams, the Boston Celtics, they don’t do things like that. So there has to be a sub-story behind it. When you’re good, people pay attention to you. When you’re that good, they’re going to figure out why.
It’s different from college, like you said, where kids are there for two, three years, four years, they’re gone. And a new crop comes in. These guys have established themselves as the premier players in the world, and you’re going to get attention for that. If they’re winning, they’re going to love it, when they’re losing, they’ve got to figure it’s coming as well.
SMW: One thing I find very interesting is this whole criticism that players are no longer competitive because they’re teaming up. But a lot of the people making this criticism, it seems to me, are the same people who criticized players for being too selfish to play together. Kobe with Shaq, even going back to [Stephon] Marbury with Kevin Garnett. Do you think it’s kind of a lose-lose situation for the players?
Kenny: It’s a situation that, if you don’t understand it, and you’re a player, you can be bothered by it. But in actuality, their whole thing was, they want to win championships. And multiple championships. So that’s the one thing we say players don’t play for, because they have the bigger salaries. When they did it, I think it was more of the way it was done that really rubbed people the wrong way. I always say it was a bad thought, and a bad production by the TV, that made it look very selfish, in an act where he was trying to be unselfish, and say ‘I want to win’ more than ‘I want to be famous’.
SMW: This whole perception that the players are holding the league hostage and the inmates are running the asylum – I think I’ve read that a couple of times at least – do you think that’s even possible considering the kind of power the owners have? From my perspective, it seems that it’s difficult for players to hold the teams hostage just by the intent of exercising their free agent rights. I mean I haven’t heard anyone threaten to hold out or demand a trade.
Kenny: The NBA is built for certain players and certain teams to have certain advantages. And when you’re not a free agent, certain teams have advantages over you. The team has advantages, and the players are able to exercise their options when they have contract years. That’s just the way the business is built. It has nothing to do with the inmates running the asylum.
It’s all about being able to be smart enough to not let your players become free agents, because Kevin Durant just signed an extension with Oklahoma City. He’s arguably the best small forward in basketball. This guy is going to be in a small market for a long time, because they put a team around him that he says, ‘I see the direction’. And that’s the key. Tim Duncan has played his whole career in San Antonio because Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford are smart enough to say, we understand what to put around guys to make them stay. That’s what NBA basketball is about. And when you don’t do that, and you don’t have great management, and you have guys leaving – general managers leaving, coaches leaving on a regularity – it’s tough to tell your superstar player that we’re in the right direction. You can control your best players’ thought process if you’re able to have stability and bring in the right people. It’s been proven year after year after year, and like I said, the Clippers have not proven that. And they’re in a great market. That’s all it’s about.