NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh submitted a wonky, but undeniably intriguing idea Friday morning. As part of a solution to the post-coronavirus sports world’s depletion of live action, why not explore a one-on-one tournament of sorts -- a shot in the arm fo sports-starved fans, with the potential to raise money for charitable causes at a moment many are grappling with the health and economic ramifications of COVID-19.
In non-pandemic times, the idea has been attempted. Once, as Haberstroh notes, the pitch came to fruition, with then-retired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving squaring off in an plodding affair:
And then there was the instance which Haberstroh used as the overarching hook for his proposal (which fell through on the doorstep of it occurring): Hakeem Olajuwon vs. Shaquille O’Neal, fresh of The Dream’s Rockets shaking down O’Neal’s Magic in the 1995 NBA Finals.
An Olajuwon back injury stopped this absolutely blessed event from happening back in the day, but now, the man who incepted the plans, Leonard Armato, former agent to both O’Neal and Olajuwon, is ready to see it again.
“I think it would be huge for the league to do this,” Armato told Haberstroh. “It could be a massive revenue stream. Think of it a little like Phil vs. Tiger.”
For an in-depth look at the potential and pit-falls of the idea, check out Haberstroh’s piece. But we at NBC Sports Chicago are going to seize on the smallest of nuggets among the ocean of information in the feature -- for blogging purposes, of course.
Here are our picks for the ideal NBA one-on-one fight card, amassed from matchups O’Neal told Haberstroh he wants to see. The rules, we’ll adapt to fit Armato’s current vision: No retired players, with games consisting of 10 two-minute rounds (with one-minute breaks in between), and a 12-second shot clock on each possession. We’ll assume the total score wins, as opposed to breaking up bouts round-by-round.
Let us begin:
Joel Embiid vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo
The matchup: In Habertstroh’s piece, O’Neal quickly dismissed the idea of an Antetokounmpo-LeBron James matchup, despite the embedded ‘incumbent vs. disruptor’ trope it could evoke. In Antetokounmpo and Embiid, O’Neal argues, you have two like-sized bigs of varying (but in some ways overlapping) skillset, which would provide unique spectacle. And this rivalry is not without intrigue: When healthy and engaged, Embiid and Antetokounmpo are perhaps the two most gifted players in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks and 76ers, as burgeoning contenders (er, at least Philly is on paper), share something of a rivalry.
The verdict: In this non-traditional format, Antetokounmpo probably has the edge. With only 12 seconds to create a shot, it’s easy to envision his extendo reach bothering Embiid’s dribble on face-ups starting at or around the 3-point arc, and his quickness presenting issues as the rounds wore on. Embiid is nimble for his size with the mass (280 pounds), wingspan (7-foot-6) and array of in-between moves to overpower Antetokounmpo on occasion, but the bet is Antetokounmpo’s conditioning would win out.
Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James
The matchup: A timeless classic. James and Durant are the two signature forwards of this generation, and have faced off in three NBA Finals, with Durant leading their personal head-to-head 2-1 (both wins with the Warriors, his one loss as a member of the Thunder in 2012). This matchup would rest comfortably at the top of this hypothetical card.
The verdict: This one could easily go either way. With a score to settle, James probably comes rearing out of the gate, he’s a terror defensively when engaged and even at an advanced age his mass could give Durant trouble. But assuming Durant is fully healthy and on par with the legitimate unicorn we were accustomed to pre-achilles tear, his arsenal of pinpoint handles, pull-up shooting and impossible length would be a handful to deal with. I’d probably lean Durant because of how tailored his game feels to the mono a mono format of this competition.
Steph Curry vs. Kyrie Irving
The matchup: If the Durant-James bout is the headliner of this card, this has the potential to be the spiciest matchup. These two have waged many a battle in their day, with Irving’s game-winning step-back over Curry to cap the Cavaliers’ 3-1 comeback in the 2016 Finals the punctuating point.
Further, these are the two slickest-handling guards in the league, both with an array of in-between floaters and obscene layup packages. Especially given each’s penchant for matador defense, oo’s and ah’s would abound from start to finish.
The verdict: Another one that could go either way, especially depending on whether or not Curry is dialed in from deep. But Irving is probably the safer bet. The things he can do with a basketball simply defy reality. In real games, his exploits can inspire ball-watching or showmanship that belies true downhill shot creation, but with only Curry in his path in this hypothetical format, the immediate impact of his wizardry would be ever-apparent. Curry is a peskier defender, but Irving is a slightly better tough-shot maker (crucial for the quick 12-second shot clock). For that, he gets the slightest of edges.
Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas
The matchup: O’Neal rather wistfully pontificated about this matchup to Haberstroh. “Then,” he told Haberstroh to cap his list of dream matchups, “since it’s come up and there’s a lot of bad blood, Isiah (Thomas) and Mike (Jordan).”
And wouldn’t it be something? A bulldog defender with a supremely tight handle and diverse layup package in Thomas (who backs down from no one) against the smoothest scorer (and greatest player) to ever do it -- with the weight of decades of personal contentiousness and inter-city vitriol as backdrop.
The verdict: You know the deal. It’s Jordan -- assuming both players are in their prime in this alternate reality -- and it’s probably not particularly close. Thomas is as tough a customer as they come, but Jordan’s got five inches on him (6-foot-6 to 6-1) with a 6-11 wingspan that would likely engulf the Pistons star as the game wore on. Thomas pestering his way to an early-round advantage wouldn’t be surprising, but as we know, Jordan gets better as competitions wear on -- especially when spurred by internal motivation. His devastating isolation scoring and tenacious physicality on the other end would win out.