In preparation for tonight's game between the Thunder and Bulls, we got a chance to sit down and talk with NBA on TNT analyst Steve Smith about the Thunder. Steve will be calling the Thunder-Bulls game tonight on TNT at 7pm CT along with Kevin Harlan and the return of the great Craig Sager.
Joey Conger: Steve, you played on a Portland team in the early 2000's that was loaded with talent and had championship aspirations, but couldn't quite get over the hump. What went wrong, and can you see that happening with OKC?
Steve Smith: The thing with that Portland team was, we were really talented but only together in that one year. They really didn't keep us together long enough. This group with OKC has been together. Perkins obviously has moved on. That’s basically the difference between the two teams.
JC: You won a championship a few years later in 2003 with the Spurs. What was different with that team?
SS: Same thing. San Antonio’s nucleus had been together with David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Same thing as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. David obviously was obviously kind of on the tail end of his career, but we had up and comers like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, along with a good mix of vets.
JC: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich handed the reigns of your championship team over to a young, sometimes out of control, point guard in Tony Parker. Do you see any similarities between him and Russell Westbrook, and do you think Westbrook could be a championship point guard?
SS: For sure. He definitely can be a championship point guard. As far as similarities go, they both attack the basket. Of course Russ is one of a kind - he definitely could be MVP. He attacks the basket unlike anyone I've seen in a long time. Tony was obviously much younger and raw, as well.
JC: How important is veteran leadership on a team like OKC, and do the Thunder have enough of it?
SS: They definitely have enough. They've been together for a long time - KD, Russ, Serge, obviously the coaching staff. It’s obviously important to have veterans that have been there, done that, but most of their young guys have been there, done that. They have enough post up guys, with Enes Kanter, and Mitch McGary. They have Serge out there to stretch the floor and block shots, as well as the Kendrick Perkins-like banger in Steven Adams. The depth of their front court is outstanding. So I don’t see it as much of an issue.
JC: The Thunder-Bulls game obviously isn't the same game it was when initially scheduled due to injuries on both teams. OKC won’t have Kevin Durant or Steven Adams playing, and the Bulls won’t have Derrick Rose or Jimmy Butler. Who do you foresee stepping up for both teams?
SS: Taj Gibson is out as well for Chicago. They still have Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. Tony Snell has been great stepping up off the bench. I think, as far as people stepping up, I’d watch for Tony Snell and Mike Dunleavy.
For OKC, Russ is the obvious answer. I’m looking for Ibaka to step up and hit some big shots. I love DJ Augustin as a player, and his fit with this team. Unlike Reggie Jackson, he likes to set up his teammates, so he fits in great.
JC: OKC tried and failed to get Pau Gasol in the offseason. They now have Enes Kanter filling in that role. Are they better or worse off than had Gasol decided to play in OKC?
SS: Well, if you’re looking one or maybe two years down the road, Gasol is obviously the better option. I think the Thunder were gearing up more for the future with that move. I’m a huge fan of that trade by Sam Presti because of what Kanter can become.
JC: Score prediction for tonight's game?
SS: Well, they always say ‘First one to 100 wins’ so I think that’ll be how this game goes. OKC will really look to get out and run, and I think they’ll win. As far as scoring goes, I think somewhere in the low 90’s to low 100’s.
Big thanks to Steve Smith and the people at Turner Sports for their willingness to talk with us on the eve of tonight's big match-up between the Thunder and Bulls.