Whether it’s Anthony Davis or Kawhi Leonard, calling players ‘Street Clothes’ is ignorant

When the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers take the court Wednesday in front of a national audience, it will be another opportunity to discuss the storied cross-town rivalry.

It is about two very distinct fan bases, about who is more “Los Angeles” and about what is and what isn’t trendy.

But recently, the conversation has shifted to be about who isn’t playing. That conversation has become more and more disrespectful, with the need for analysts to criticize players like Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard for why they miss games.

During halftime of Game 5 between the Lakers and Phoenix Suns in 2021, Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley ethered Anthony Davis, who was sitting out because of a left groin strain. With the Lakers down by 30 points, Barkley declared that “the Lakers can’t win this series without ‘Street Clothes.’”

Seventeen months later, Davis still has to react to the “Street Clothes” nickname. Some have tried to defend Davis — by bringing up Leonard, who, after playing in only two of the first three games of this Clippers season, is out indefinitely because of stiffness in his surgically-repaired right knee. It is not an effort to be sympathetic or understand what players go through in trying to return to play from injury, but to suggest that the “Street Clothes” nickname should be shared for some reason is uncalled for. That’s the direction Hall of Famer Paul Pierce went recently in a discussion with Kevin Garnett.

“How we talk about Anthony Davis not being available, we don’t put Kawhi in that group,” Pierce said in the Nov. 4 episode of Showtime Basketball’s KG Certified. “We don’t say nothing about him always being in street clothes.”

Barkley and Pierce aren’t the only ones who want to criticize star players for durability issues that keep them off of the floor. You can turn the television on or go on social media and consume some toxic trending topic of Davis’ next injury or trying to determine when Leonard will be ready to play again.

We really don’t have to do this though. If anything, we should appreciate players when they are healthy and durable. Praise stars when they’re able to play. But we’ll go from “not him” or “thoughts and prayers” or “turn injuries off” when players get hurt, only to criticize them when they hit a snag in their recovery, need time to rediscover their form, or suggest that they’re stealing money because they aren’t back when they were expected to be.

The Lakers have a championship to show for the James/Davis partnership, but their 77-87 win-loss record since that championship is better than only 12 other teams. And while the Clippers have a better win-loss record at 95-70 since Tyronn Lue took over as head coach, there are 10 teams better than they have been since the start of the 2020-21 season. It is fair to suggest that both teams have fallen short of expectations because of Davis’ and Leonard’s unfortunate circumstances.

Davis had missed 36 of 72 games for the Lakers in 2020-21, mostly because of injuries to his right Achilles’ tendon and calf. Davis actually tried to play in the next game after Barkley’s criticism with the Lakers facing elimination, but Davis was done after 5:25 and the Suns finished the Lakers in six. Davis is lucky that’s all that happened; Kevin Durant had a calf strain in the 2019 conference semifinals, came back to play in the NBA Finals against Leonard’s Toronto Raptors, and ruptured his Achilles’ tendon 33 days later. Durant has only played in 101 games for the Brooklyn Nets since the same 2019 offseason that saw Davis and Leonard go to Southern California.

Later in the same 2021 postseason that saw Davis slapped with the derogatory “Street Clothes” moniker from Barkley, Leonard was averaging 30.4 points per game against the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz. But Leonard’s career was altered when he suffered a partially torn ACL in his right knee. Leonard missed the remainder of the 2021 postseason because of the injury, and he did not make it back on the court the next season while rehabbing from the surgery.

Naturally, star player unavailability has been an issue for both teams. Even that has been a separator between the Lakers and the Clippers. When Davis hasn’t played for the Lakers since 2019, their record is 41-47 in the regular season and 0-1 in the postseason. When Leonard hasn’t played for the Clippers in that same timeframe, the Clippers have a regular season record of 66-60 and a record of 4-4 in the postseason. For good measure, the Clippers are 48-46 without George since 2019. George has not missed a playoff game yet, though he did miss the team’s Play-In loss because of health and safety protocols, and he would not have been ready to begin the postseason if the Clippers did advance.

Any way you look at it, Davis’ absences have hurt the Lakers more than Leonard or George’s absences have hurt the Clippers. The Clippers have at least built consistently acceptable rosters. But both teams have disappointed relative to the star power on the payroll. It’s why when you talk about the Lakers or Clippers, it’s not like the 2019-20 conversation about why one or the other is the best team in the league (even though the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors were better when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, but I digress).

The conversation always devolves to why Davis and Leonard in particular aren’t playing.

It’s not a new issue for either player. When Davis was in New Orleans, he wouldn’t necessarily miss a lot of games. Davis played at least 60 games in each of his seasons with the Pelicans except his final campaign in 2018-19, when his public trade demand blew up New Orleans’ season and Davis missed 26 games in all. Davis’ durability was more of an in-game concern. I even asked Davis once about his frequent locker room trips that would often result in him returning to the floor.

Leonard’s absences were also a consideration for him prior to his arrival in Southern California. Leonard’s final season with the San Antonio Spurs was a forgettable one, as he played in only nine games and missed the 2018 postseason because of right quadriceps tendinopathy. Leonard’s challenges with his leg did not stop in San Antonio, as he did not play any games on zero days rest in his only season with the Raptors or in his first season with the Clippers.

At least Davis played in 2021-22, but for the first time since his rookie season, Davis wasn’t an All-Star. He wasn’t an All-NBA player for the third time in four seasons. He missed 42 out of 82 games, with his most serious injuries being a sprained MCL in his left knee and a sprained right foot. Again, considering the way Davis was injured, he is fortunate that a sprained MCL is all that happened to his knee last year.

Davis has only missed one game this Lakers season, but he has dealt with lower back tightness since the preseason. Davis averages only 8.2 points per game after halftime this season. It’s the first time since his rookie season that he doesn’t average double-figures in a half and a major dropoff from his first halves where he averages 14.6 points per game. Perhaps Davis ‘back di lui is impacting his performance di lui as games go along, but he’s playing through it.

Leonard has been open throughout the start of this season about how much he wants to play and how much he misses the game. But he and the Clippers have an understanding that Leonard’s return from ACL surgery requires patience. It’s all about the big picture for the Clippers, because what sense does it make for Leonard to get hurt again

“He is progressing well,” Lue said of Leonard last weekend. “We knew coming off an ACL, it wasn’t going to be a straight line. We talked about it before the season. The biggest thing is he’s progressing well. We are going to follow the lead of our medical staff. We got to be smart about the situation, but he is progressing.”

I understand that analysts don’t care about why stars are out. I understand that fans want to see players playing, especially when the malady affecting those players is not clearly defined. But that doesn’t mean that fans and media should be ignorant. Give players the time they need to be great, celebrate players when they are, and appreciate the ones who are fortunate to play as consistently as they can.

(Photo of Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis: Kirby Lee / USA Today)

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