Stephen A. Smith on the set of NBA Countdown during the 2024 NBA Finals. Photo by Allen Kee / ESPN Images

Stephen A. Smith has never minced words regarding how he feels about Kawhi Leonard.

There’s no love lost between the First Take host and the Los Angeles Clippers forward, though the latter has never really engaged. But that hasn’t stopped teammates from engaging, and with Paul George part of ESPN’s NBA Finals coverage, he had to endure an awkward moment when Smith made an off-handed remark in Leonard’s direction.

Smith commented that “nobody on the planet knows what it’s like to play without a star [more] than Paul George,” about George’s oft-injured Los Angeles Clippers teammate. While George laughed it off at the time, he said on an episode of Podcast P released earlier this week that the comment was out of line.

Here’s more from Awful Announcing’s Brendon Kleen:

“I didn’t like that moment. I rock with Stephen A. obviously, but just let it go,” George said. “Kawhi wants to play; I will keep beating that over the head until I’m out of breath. He wants to play. (Smith) keeps making it something like Kawhi doesn’t want to play or he doesn’t want to be there. I think we rode Kawhi a lot this year to where it kind of got to the point of, ‘There’s only so much my body can take right now.’ We exhausted a lot out of Kawhi this season, and I just think at some point, your body breaks you down.”

George said he originally laughed to keep the show moving and the tone light, but he did not think Smith needed to take the potshot.

“I didn’t appreciate that moment. I know I laughed just because of the situation; it was light-hearted,” George said. “But deep down, it was just like, ‘man, you gotta let that go, Stephen A.’”

As he often does, Smith took to his The Stephen A. Smith Show to address comments about him. Smith acknowledged his mistake and offered a sincere apology to George.

“When you’re right, you’re right. Paul George is right,” admitted Smith. “Here’s where it really hits home. I put him in a bad spot. That’s Kawhi Leonard’s teammate. And it was the furthest thing from my mind. What happened was that ESPN had alerted us to the fact that if Kawhi Leonard is not healthy enough and available for Olympic competition this summer in Paris, a likely replacement for Kawhi Leonard would be Derrick White of the Boston Celtics.

“They were talking about that, and I was like, ‘Congratulations to Derrick White because we all know that Kawhi Leonard is gonna be hurt. He ain’t gonna be available. You know what I’m saying?’ And that was basically the lightheartedness that it was coming from.

“Where Paul George is absolutely right — and I do owe him an apology as a professional — that’s Kawhi Leonard’s teammate. And it was the furthest thing from my mind, thinking about how Paul would look on the set with us because I’m just busy being lighthearted and having a good time while talking about the NBA Finals… I’m not thinking about how Kawhi could be looking at it towards Paul George; it was the furthest thing from my mind.

“So, when I saw that clip of Paul George saying what he said, I said, ‘Damn, I didn’t think about that. He got a good point.’ Because Paul George loves Kawhi Leonard, he loves his teammate, always speaks highly of him, and has nothing but love and respect for him…And I should not have put Paul George in that position. So, Paul George is absolutely right, and anybody who thinks that I take issue with anything with what Paul George said is wrong; they don’t know me, and it’s not true.

“Paul George is right—my bad, bro. I should’ve been more thoughtful. I really should.”

But having said that, Smith said if George weren’t there, he wouldn’t have given a sh*t and that he meant every word he said.

“Although it was tongue-in-cheek and playful, oh, I meant that sh*t,” he said. “And for clarification purposes… I’m never questioning the legitimacy of Kawhi Leonard’s injuries. I know the injury is real. I know he wishes he could play more. I know he’s not faking it. I would never accuse a professional athlete — any athlete — of such an egregious thing. What I’m saying is he always makes sure to get his damn money, though. And he always makes sure to get the perks that he clamors for…”

[The Stephen A. Smith Show]

About Sam Neumann

Since the beginning of 2023, Sam has been a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. A 2021 graduate of Temple University, Sam is a Charlotte native, who currently calls Greenville, South Carolina his home. He also has a love/hate relationship with the New York Mets and Jets.