It’s the bar debate that will continue, inexorably, until the end of time: In a game of 1-on-1, who wins? When you open this question up to every era of NBA basketball, the results can get screwy — the game has changed a lot over the years. But that’s no fun. Comparing players from different epochs just means you have to think a little bit harder about who is matching up.
Rather than institute a bunch of rules and caveats about this question, we just asked UPROXX writers to give us their dream 1-on-1 matchups. It’s part of the #Dime1on1 debate we’ve been having, so tell us about your dream mano a mano battle in the comments or on Twitter, and let us know what you think about the paired competitions we’ve come up with below:
Kobe Bryant Vs. Michael Jordan
Imagine you’re an aspiring rapper in, say, 2004. Jay Z is arguably the consensus best rapper alive, and you idolize him, You call yourself the next Jay Z, you learn his flows — hell, you even try to work with his same producers. And a lot of people hear you, and dig you, and some even call you the next Jay Z. Well, guess what: Jay Z heard about you, and that same quality you worship in him and emulate — his ruthlessness, his absolute, steely-eyed determination — that tends to mean he doesn’t take kindly to rivals.
So you find yourself in a rap battle with him, either on the corner or on Yo! MTV Raps, or across Soundcloud tracks, it doesn’t matter. It’s you going toe to toe against Jay Z. But the thing is, you already laid out how much you want to be him, how much you love him, and now it’s just ammunition for him to fire back at you. All he has to do is sneer some variation of, “I’m already me. You ain’t me. And you’re never gonna be me.”
It’s over. What could you possibly do, call him a punk? No one’s gonna buy that sh*t. And what’s worse, hearing you right alongside him just reminds everyone you’re not the genuine article. Your best moves are his best moves, and he does them better. You lost the second you stepped to the mic. Anyway, I don’t think Kobe could beat MJ one-on-one.
Gary Payton vs Russell Westbrook
I have two specific requests for this matchup. One, both guys are mic’d up, and the second is obviously if Payton wins, the Sonics return. That being said, how could this not be the best one-on-one game? Westbrook will bring the pace and the special kind of fury that comes from having magma for insides, while Payton brings stifling defense. Can Gary keep up? Will Russ get flustered by the Glove? Will eyeballs melt while watching this game?
Dennis Rodman Vs. Rasheed Wallace
Choosing two graceful NBA stars to battle it out one-on-one would certainly not be a wrong answer. Like every other basketball fan in the world, I would love to watch the prime versions of MJ vs. Kobe or Kobe vs. LeBron or any combination of those three. But for this exercise, I’ll leave those imagined battles to a more poetic Uproxx Sports writer. I’m going with Dennis Rodman vs. Rasheed Wallace.
Rasheed had the height advantage and more refined offensive game. Or, more accurately, any kind of offensive game at all. Rodman’s advantage would be on the defensive end and the boards. It wouldn’t be the most artistic brand of basketball ever played, but what it lacked in finesse, it would make up for in excitement. Excitement that at any moment, one of them might beat the crap out of the other guy. I’m picturing a non-fictionalized version of Sidney Deane and Billy Hoyle taking on The Flight and Willie. Let’s give them their prize money and get the hell out of here.
Allen Iverson vs. Pete Maravich
Two gunners who believed in themselves unquestionably and weren’t afraid of anyone, anywhere, or any shot — at any time — deserve to go one on one against each other. I know you’re going to want to put Kobe in here, or MJ, or LeBron, or Durant, or whomever, but if I’m watching a one-on-one game, I want to see quickness, shots from deep, and footwork battles. Maybe I’m biased toward guards, or maybe I just am that big a fan of these two guys in general.
A quick first step by AI matched by the on-a-string brilliance with the ball from Pistol Pete is only the beginning. These two ultra-competitive dudes would go at it, punch, counterpunch, and jaw all the way. If we’re bending time and space, this is the matchup I’d love to see.
Luc Longley vs. Bill Cartwright
It’s pure fiction but I’ve always imagined that there was some animosity between the Bulls teams from the first three-peat and the second one. While Jordan, Pippen, and Phil Jackson were constants, their running mates (while mostly consistent through each run) differed greatly. John Paxson’s reliable presence from beyond the arc was replaced by Steve Kerr and Toni Kukoc, the latter of whom also became the third scoring option that Horace Grant had been before he was replaced by Dennis Rodman, an obsessive rebounder with virtually no interest in scoring. Ron Harper or Dennis Hopson? Craig Hodges or Steve Kerr? I’d pay money to see any of those matchups (not, like, a lot…) but the real battle I’d like to see play out is Bill Cartwright vs. Luc Longley.
Essentially, both Cartwright and Longley existed to clog up the middle, commit a few fouls, and generally get out of the way as Jordan and Pippen filled it up. They did these jobs… adequately. To watch them go at it would be a bit of old-man basketball ballet. Cartwright, in particular, “ran” like a man absent cartilage, and Longley’s stout body burdened him with the dynamism of a boulder. Quickness and athleticism would not feature prominently in this matchup.
Even though Longley was in his mid-20s and Cartwright was in his mid-30s during their respective runs, I’ll give the edge in this tussle to Cartwright. The old man wasn’t afraid to throw an elbow, he had a stronger shot, and he was, at one point, a legit scoring threat in the paint, averaging over 20 points a game twice for the pre-Patrick Ewing Knicks in the early ’80s. He wasn’t that guy for the Bulls, of course (Longley was actually a better scorer during his championship run with the Bulls), but I don’t think you ever lose that scent for the basket.
Kyrie Irving vs. Steve Nash
The Steve Nash passing academy that occurred during his lengthy prime stands as his lasting legacy, but the crafty Canadian was a dynamite individual scorer. His ability to finish with either hand. or launch a layup from a compromised position, is second to none. Nash and Kyrie’s scoring styles are actually quite similar. They both can score off either foot, either hand. or stop on a dime for a jumper.
A one-on-one matchup between Kyrie and Nash would produce the most aesthetically pleasing scoring possible. Both are smooth operators with ball in their hands, and really, they both struggle defensively. The buckets would poureth over with wrong-footed floaters and 30-footers. The final score would be irrelevant. Their matchup is purely art for the sake of art.
Wilt Chamberlain vs. Shaquille O’Neal
Wilt Chamberlain is the most statistically dominant basketball player ever and Shaquille O’Neal is the most physically dominant I’ve seen with these two eyes. It’s hard to render dominance as an objective filter in which to view the NBA — especially over separate eras. But pitting these two against each other in a one-on-one, winner’s out contest would finally settle an age-old question about the most authoritative big man in the game’s history.
It’s easy to wonder how a pair of guards would fare in a matchup because individual styles are sometimes more important than actual production. However, with Wilt and Shaq, aesthetics were never a question. A huge reason for the dominance of each big man is their superior footwork and ability to finish with finesse when power wasn’t necessary. Wilt was probably more athletic than Shaq, but Shaq’s feet were as nimble as anyone over 7-foot in his prime. It would be a war of attrition, but there would be few matchups more fascinating than Wilt and Shaq battling it out in the paint.
Micheal Jordan vs. LeBron James
I was going to say Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James. They are the two greatest basketball players to ever live. I am not sure who deserves to be No. 1, or even if we would be able to decide who was better by doing this (I could absolutely see MJ being better in a game of 1-on-1, but it’s not crazy to think a team of five LeBrons would be better than a team of five Mikes). It would be the classic battle for all-time supremacy, a complete bloodbath of a game to 11 between the GOAT and the person who has come closest to taking the title of GOAT from him – hell, we may never see anyone come closer than LeBron, and it’s not crazy to think that King James can usurp that title from Jordan once his career ends.
But like all indecisive millennials, I decided to do what I always do when I’m not sure about something: Ask my dad what 1-on-1 matchup I should pick. Would he say MJ/Bron? MJ/Kobe? Magic/Bird? Russell/Wilt?
No, he said this:
“Mark Eaton and Calvin Murphy.”
So yeah, MJ vs. LeBron. Thanks for all the help, dad.
Grandmama vs. The Old Guy Kyrie Irving Pretended To Be (Uncle Drew – Ed)
I just want to see two really good basketball players in old people makeup and clothes play 1-on-1. That’s it.
Latrell Sprewell vs. Ron Artest
Circa 2004. Reason: Isn’t it obvious? I’m not a nice person.
Michael Jordan vs. Reggie Theus
(I would normally want to see Bill Russell vs. Shaq, but this one is a lot more tawdry and flies in the face of all that I care about in the NBA. Sorry Pops)
And you’re probably scratching your head about why I want to see a scrub like Reggie vs. the G.O.A.T. Well, in Sam Smith’s seminal The Jordan Rules, he theorized that MJ’s antipathy towards Reggie wasn’t just relegated to his issues with his game. No, it was because Reggie, a notorious lady’s man, actually dated Michael’s first wife, Juanita, before the two of them got married.
“I hate his game,” Jordan said, by way of an old Orlando Sentinel piece on the book. “He’s so selfish, always berating the referees and yelling out there.”
Here’s Smith: “None of the reasons made sense. The story around the Bulls, though, was that Theus had briefly dated Jordan’s wife, Juanita, before Jordan met her.”
Jordan is the ultimate verbal and mental assassin, but he might not have that luxury against Theus (Maybe he would, he’s Michael after all). This would obviously be a one-sided contest, but it would be intriguing to see how Michael would handle any smack talk from Theus. The — albeit, remote — possibility of the ultimate competitor getting psyched out, trumps my usual disgust with rumormongering like this.
Bill Russell vs. Shaq would be glorious, though, because Russell — despite being a svelte 6-foot-9 — would give Shaq a real run. Don’t roll your eyes at me. The greatest winner in team sports history is smart enough and agile enough to figure out the best way to combat a tank like prime Shaq. It would be great.