Give credit where credit is due: from an entertainment perspective, Stephen A. Smith is unparalleled in the sports media landscape. He and ESPN understand that Smith’s value is not as an analyst, but as a performer. Smith gives hot takes with a gravitas and passion that can be downright hilarious if the viewer understands not to take anything he says seriously.
The problem is: many of his viewers do. So when Smith says “I also know it’s time for Kawhi Leonard to get a whole bunch of attention pushed in his direction” after LA’s blowout loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, misinformed viewers begin to believe that A) the Clippers are falling apart and B) it’s Kawhi Leonard’s fault. Smith didn’t stop there.
Smith is right in the sense that the Clippers haven’t lived up to expectations roughly a year and a half into the Leonard/Paul George era. They fell far short of their goal of a title in last year’s playoffs, and they’ve struggled of late, losing seven of their last 12 games. And the blame should be spread throughout the entire organization for these shortcomings, including towards Leonard.
But to point the finger directly and exclusively at Leonard is, to borrow one of Mr. Smith’s favorite words, blasphemy. Leonard has had yet another spectacular year so far this season, averaging 26 points, six rebounds and five assists on excellent efficiency while playing his normal shark-like defense. The Clippers are beating teams by an average of 10.3 points per 100 possessions when Leonard is on the floor.
Leonard has been the Clippers’ engine, as he was in the postseason last year. It’s undeniable that he had a bad game 7 against the Nuggets in the second round, going just 6-22 from the field. But it’s easy, as a talking head, to continue to point to that game, that collapse and any other losses the Clippers have taken this season as a reason to panic, particularly when this year’s playoffs are still two months away. Until the Clippers prove otherwise, they are going to be a target with a huge bullseye for media performers like Smith. It’s too easy for them, and the Clippers haven’t been making it any easier for themselves. And if LA does disappoint yet again in the postseason, perhaps all of this criticism will have been retroactively validated.