Kevin Durant

Picking the winners of Shaquille O’Neal’s ideal one-on-one matchups

Picking the winners of Shaquille O’Neal’s ideal one-on-one matchups

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:

Heavyweight

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.

Middleweight

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. 

Lightweight

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.

Classic Division

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.

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Kevin Durant says Jordan's 'attention to detail' was most underrated skill

Kevin Durant says Jordan's 'attention to detail' was most underrated skill

On a recent episode of ESPN's "The Boardroom," Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant and former Bulls guard, and ESPN analyst Jay Williams discussed what aspects of Michael Jordan 's game made him so "different" from other players in the history of the league. 

"His attention to detail. Michael was a pure shooter too. A lot of people didn't label him as a pure shooter because [of] his athleticism but I think that he was one of the best shooters to ever play."

- Kevin Durant on what aspects of MJ's game made him different from other players

Durant went on to say as he got older, Jordan's true mastery of the fundamentals is what captured him most. Jordan's remarkable footwork allowed him to hit difficult shots from all angles and he harnessed that skill to really punish opponents once Phil Jackson came into power and implemented the triangle full-time. 

"He moves with such grace. Putting him in a system like the triangle sharpened his tools up a little bit more."

MJ was already a big-time scorer and playmaker by the time Jackson became head coach before the 1989-90 season. But there were some noticeable changes—as Durant stated—in that 1989-90 season, as Jordan cut down his turnover percentage to 9.8% (from 11.9% the previous year) and attempted 245 attempts from 3-point range, 147 shots from 3 than he put up the previous season. On top of that, MJ knocked down 37.6% of his 3-point shots while averaging 6.3 assists per game. He was always a well-rounded player, but Jackson and the triangle helped Jordan work on his weaknesses until there were none.

Jordan wouldn't take home the MVP in the 1989-90 season—that would go to Los Angeles Lakers guard Magic Johnson—but he and the Bulls would push their rival Detroit Pistons to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Many pundits believe this grueling series was needed to inspire Jordan and co., as they would go on to gain a greater grasp of the triangle and win their first NBA title in 1991.

Durant says that while the "Air Jordan" moniker and MJ's athleticism gets all the attention, his excellent fundamentals and ability to keep improving late into his career is what truly made him king:

".....once you put him in a structured system where he had to play off other players, you just seen him go to another level. Because he mastered every aspect from making a pass, to cutting off the ball, to catching and shooting and playing in isolation."

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Which superteam ruined the game more: Chicago Bulls or Golden State Warriors?

Which superteam ruined the game more: Chicago Bulls or Golden State Warriors?

Editor's Note: Over the next week, NBC Sports Chicago and NBC Sports Bay Area will try to settle the debate about which is the best NBA team of all time: the 1995-96 Bulls or the 2016-17 Warriors. Check out NBCSportsBayArea.com for the Warriors perspective.

Before getting to the crux of this question, it’s first important to water it down a bit (yes, I’m fun at parties).

Neither the Bulls nor the Warriors "ruined” basketball — even in their most superteam-iest iterations. In fact, at each of their respective heights, they played the game at the highest level it’s been played. For that, we should all be grateful.

That doesn’t mean the question isn’t a valid one to ponder. But to me, at its heart isn’t the issue of who ruined a game that millions still clamor for so fervently. It’s a question of which team’s greatness grew most stale. Which team inspired the least genuine, untainted awe?

The answer to that is resoundingly, and without question, the Warriors.

Some of that has to do with how the dynasty era Golden State teams were constructed — specifically, the 2016-17 squad that featured Kevin Durant. 

The two contending Warriors teams pre-Durant could have been built in a basketball purist’s lab. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are sons of ex-NBA players and weren’t immediately heralded as superstars upon being drafted, but eventually grew into that moniker. Draymond Green was a second round draft choice many passed over — a true underdog story with a blue collar style of play.

Andre Iguodala was shrewdly acquired at a reasonable price just before their championship window blew open. Other role players who filtered through the Bay — from JaVale McGee, to Shaun Livingston, to David West and beyond — were perfect fliers to shore up the fringes of the roster. 

Light years, indeed.

The introduction of Durant seemed to shift the perception of the Warriors for a few key reasons:

  • The sheer flukiness of it. Without the perfect confluence of a massive salary cap spike in the summer of 2016, and with Steph Curry playing on what had already become a massive bargain of a four-year, $44 million contract, the Warriors would never have had the chance to even entertain pursuing Durant, much less sign him.

  • Durant signing with the Warriors was an act of defiance to the competitive dogma of the NBA that many still cling to. By signing with Golden State, Durant effectively neutered one of the most exhilarating rivalries in pro sports (Warriors vs. Thunder) and sucked any sense of parity out of the league in one fell swoop.

  • The signing also seemed an admission of inadequacy by all parties involved. Durant couldn’t beat the Warriors, so he joined them. Fresh off soiling a 73-win regular season by squandering a 3-1 Finals lead to LeBron James and the Cavaliers, Green called Durant from his car to recruit him. Many saw that as both sides "taking the easy way out."

To their credit, "the easy way out” worked. The Warriors promptly rattled off two consecutive chips with Durant in tow — dropping just one of nine Finals games to Cleveland in the process — before an injury-riddled 2019 postseason culminated in a six-game title-round loss to the Toronto Raptors. But their dynasty splintered early as seeds of resentment grew. The current return is three titles in five years.

The Bulls, meanwhile, rattled off six championships (going 6-0 in the Finals) in eight years and didn’t lose a series after 1990, except for one that featured a rusty, post-baseball hiatus Jordan in 1995). Underscoring the Warriors’ 73-win season is an unprecedented 3-1 blown lead to the Cavs, the immediate recruiting of Durant in defeat and the years of villainy that followed. The Bulls capped every full-throttle run they made with hardware, and they inspired worldwide enthusiasm at every turn — they were equal parts a superteam and a rock band, and it never got old.

Yes, the Bulls had their detractors (and, as “The Last Dance” is illuminating, their own share of tensions to contend with). But the widespread demonization that took place in the cases of, say, the Big 3 Miami Heat, the 2000s New England Patriots, the 20th century New York Yankees or the aforementioned Warriors never took hold amongst neutral NBA fans with the Bulls. The ’90s Bulls nearly single-handedly broadened the reach and influence of the NBA to unprecedented heights. If you weren’t a blood-thirsty fan of an opposing team, it was impossible not to appreciate them, while the Warriors inspired disdain with even the most casual observers (admittedly difficult to quantify, but try to deny it). 

Further, while both teams were revolutionary in their own right, the Bulls have an argument for being more so. At the time of their dynasty, almost no team in NBA history had won a title without a dominant interior presence as the No. 1 or No. 2 offensive option — the Bad Boy Pistons being the most glaring exception. The Bulls’ offense was built around two perimeter creators in Jordan and Pippen, unprecedented for the time.

As was the positionless brand of basketball they played, especially on the defensive end. Their death lineup during the second three-peat of Ron Harper, Jordan, Pippen, Kukoc and Rodman could switch anything, hold their own on the glass, flawlessly execute a smothering full-court press at a moment’s notice and, with creators at every spot, get quality looks every time down the floor. Even swapping Luc Longley in for Kukoc or Rodman, their versatility was unmatched at the time. A foreshadowing of the interchangeability of the modern game. 

And all of that’s without mentioning the on- and off-court fashion influence of Jordan, the aura of Rodman’s celebrity, and the never-to-be-replicated coaching style and personality management (again, the Warriors splintered fast) of Phil Jackson that netted 11 titles for two different organizations over 20 years. 

“Ruined" the game.

The Warriors own some similar claims to fame. Their 2015 title run, bolstered by an offense predicated on guard play and outside shooting, was progressive in its own right. Curry and Thompson redefined the value of jump shooting in the modern NBA. Green’s combination of defensive tenacity and playmaking was revolutionary for a small-ball center. But don’t dare call them finesse: They boasted an all-time defensive identity in many ways molded in the image of those ’90s Bulls. 

But there’s the rub. Without the Bulls, the Warriors might never get the coach who put them over the top (he said so himself). Without the Bulls, the Warriors don’t have a barometer of dominance to chase and, eventually, fall short of (don’t mean a thing without the ring). Right or wrong, the mythology that swirls about the Bulls’ six titles in eight years will endure far longer than the Dubs’ three in five. They were more dominant and demoralizing, without it ever growing stale. Call me when the 10-part Golden State documentary airs and dominates a worldwide cultural conversation.

Put simply: The Warriors changed basketball. The Bulls changed the world.

So which team ruined basketball more? Neither. Not by a long shot. But the Bulls laid the groundwork for almost every advancement the Warriors eventually made without sacrificing what many believe to be the essence of sport. 

For that, the Bulls get the edge.

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