Tom Haberstroh

NBA playoffs need a draft and here's how it would look

NBC Sports

NBA playoffs need a draft and here's how it would look

As the NBA finalizes its plans to restart in Orlando, it should pay close attention to what’s happening in Germany. 

On May 16, the Bundesliga became the first major soccer league to resume its season following the coronavirus shutdown and, to this point, the restart has gone off largely without a hitch. Unlike the NBA, where the focus has been resuming the season in a one-site campus, the Bundesliga is instead allowing teams to travel within German borders and play out its schedule in the teams’ respective home stadiums. What the two leagues have in common, however, is the absence of fans in attendance. 

And the results are fascinating.

Since the coronavirus shutdown, with no fans in attendance, home teams have won just 29.4 percent of their decided matches (not including those that ended in a draw). 

Before the coronavirus shutdown, with fans in attendance, home teams won 66.4 percent of their decided matches this season (not including those that ended in a draw).

That’s right. Home teams in Germany’s top soccer league have won just five of their 27 matches, with 10 matches ending in a draw and 12 outright defeats.

On Tuesday, Borussia Dortmund faced off against Bayern Munich at Westfalenstadion. The monstrous stadium holds 81,365 people, making it Germany’s largest stadium and the seventh-largest in all of Europe. On Tuesday, the stands were empty. Borussia Dortmund lost 1-0.

So far, home-field advantage has been decimated, even when you account for team superiority. According to Bundesliga bet tracking, road favorites are 7-0-2 (win-loss-draw) since play resumed while home favorites are a measly 5-5-8, using gambling data. Without fans rooting them on, the home underdog has yet to punch above its weight and pull off an upset.

This has important ramifications for the NBA, which is currently discussing different scenarios and playoff structures if and when the season resumes, but one constant has emerged: no fans. According to league sources, the NBA has not decided on a playoff format or given any indication to teams as to which direction it is leaning toward, but it’s clear that fans will not be allowed to attend.

This has important ramifications for the NBA, which is currently discussing different scenarios and playoff structures if and when the season resumes. According to league sources, the NBA has not decided on a playoff format or given any indication to teams as to which direction it is leaning toward.

There are many options on the table, including the traditional 16-team format divided into two conferences, a conference-free 1-thru-16 seeded tournament and an expansion involving 20, 24 or as many all 30 teams in some fashion. In conversations with several team execs, there’s an expectation that widening the playoff field would be partially motivated to include the starpower of Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans, who are currently the West’s 10th seed, and Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, currently slotted 9th out West.

But when the NBA decides the playoff structure, it should seriously consider replenishing home-court advantage in some way.

In normal playoff circumstances, the higher-seeded team receives three perks: playing a worse (lower-seeded) team, playing on its home court first and enjoying Game 7 on the same home court. In a closed campus situation, the higher-seeded team won’t enjoy those last two perks, most notably that Game 7 factor. 

It’s been said that the two best words in all of sports is “Game 7,” but road teams aren’t trying to hear that. In 135 Game 7s in NBA playoff history, the home team has gone 106-29, for a win percentage of a whopping 78.5 percent. That’s a boost beyond the playoff norm; last postseason, the home team went 46-36, winning 56.1 percent of its games, a far cry from the observed Game 7 edge.

If teams convene in Orlando without fans in attendance, the higher-seeded team will lose one of its hard-earned benefits. That’s a problem.

Here’s a solution:

Reseed teams 1-through-16 (or 20 or 24) and let the higher-seeded teams (Nos. 1 through 8) choose their opponents in every round. 

The No. 1 seed would choose its opponent from a pool of the bottom half of the playoff field (eight teams in a 16-team playoff or 10 if the league decides to expand to 20 teams). The No. 2 seed would choose from the remaining teams and so on. You could broadcast the selections -- call it Selection Saturday if the NCAA doesn’t have rights to that as well -- in real-time, just like the NBA did for the All-Star draft.

“I absolutely love the idea,” said one Western Conference GM. “I love it now and I loved it then in the G League.”

For years, the NBA has long been intrigued by the choose-your-opponent idea. Beginning in the 2008-09 season, the G League (then called the NBA D-League) decided to spice things up for their eight-team playoff by letting the top three seeds choose their opponent from the bottom four seeds (the No. 4 team would face the lone remaining team). 

The experimental tweak actually stuck. For the next six postseasons, top seeds chose its first-round opponent based on matchups with unforeseen roster changes providing a key variable. In a minor-league system, NBA call-ups dramatically shifted the competitive landscape. A fifth-seeded team, for example, may have just lost its best player to the NBA, making it a more favorable draw than a fully-stacked eighth seed. 

Naysayers might argue that teams would be risk-averse cowards and wouldn’t choose anything but the lowest-seeded team possible. Why give any opponent even more bulletin board material? Why give them a chip on their shoulder?

Gamesmanship is part of the league’s DNA. This is a league that sees its playoff teams dress in funereal black for closeout games and taunt their Finals opponents for being sick. So it may not be a surprise that, more often than not, G League teams used their agency and picked a non-default opponent. 

Surprisingly, in six G League postseasons, the No. 1 seed didn’t choose the No. 8 seed four times, opting instead to play the No. 7 seed (three instances) and No. 6 seed (once). Among No. 1 seeds, picking a higher-seed backfired only once in 2012-13 when the No. 6 Austin Spurs swept the top-seeded Bakersfield Jam 2-0 in a three-game series. (The 2012-13 Spurs coach? Current Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins). 

Overall, among the 12 picks that weren’t the lowest-seed possible, only three backfired in upsets (25 percent upset rate). Of the six picks that chose the lowest-seed possible, two upsets occurred (33 percent upset rate). Choosing a higher-seeded opponent than the default option actually yielded fewer upsets. In other words, the chip-on-your-shoulder motivator actually didn’t result in more upsets.

The G League doesn’t operate this way anymore. Once the league moved into two conferences in 2014-15, they ditched the playoff format to more closely align the NBA’s two-conference playoff system. 

But it’s time to bring the idea back, in the big leagues. 

To be clear, this is not a shameless play for ratings and eyeballs. This is also a play for fairness. 

The league is sailing into uncharted waters here. The conditions in which teams played 65-ish games in the regular season will be vastly different than the environment in which they’re about to decide a champion. Several teams I’ve spoken to have mentally treated it as a separate season because the closed-campus circumstances promise to be so alien. 

The three-month shutdown will surely hit teams very differently. Will certain teams suffer unfortunate injuries in training camp or in the games leading up to the postseason? Will younger rosters be better off with fresher legs? Will veteran teams with playoff pedigree have an advantage? Will certain teams not have their head coach joining them in the playoffs because of coronavirus-related safety concerns? 

The coronavirus will have impacted teams in uneven ways. Will teams that were able to train in their practice facility early have an edge over teams that were forced to stay closed because of their market’s public health situation? Portland opened its complex on May 8, while Boston, Dallas and six other teams are still shut down as of May 28.

(Speaking of geographics, this shouldn’t be seen as a pandemic-only gimmick. If the league is worried about long-distance travel in strict 1-through-16 matchups down the line, letting travel-conscious teams pick opponents could naturally prune that problem away.) 

With so many uncertainties that will undoubtedly fog up the situation, the NBA should let top teams navigate the gray area on their own terms, just like the G League. At the very least, give them the choice -- anything to replenish some of that lost home-court edge, and sprinkle in some drama along the way.

* * * 

So what might a Selection Saturday look like for the NBA?

Here’s how I’d pick the matchups starting with the No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks. Now, keep in mind, this is using current playoff teams if the season ended today. If the season resumed with regular-season games or restarted with group play, the playoff picture might look different. New Orleans could make a run. So could the Blazers. But for now, in this exercise, they’re out.

With the No. 1 overall selection, the Milwaukee Bucks select … the Brooklyn Nets

The Nets are in a bad spot. Kyrie Irving (shoulder surgery) and Kevin Durant (Achilles surgery) are expected to be sidelined. Former head coach Kenny Atkinson was fired two games before the shutdown and replaced by assistant coach Jacque Vaughn. The Nets weren’t allowed to open their practice facility until late May. 

This team might have a classic “Nobody Believes In Us” card (shouts to Bill Simmons). But there’s a reason no one believes in them. In these two teams’ lone meeting in late January, the Bucks won by 20. And that was in Brooklyn. With Irving. And only 25 minutes of Giannis Antetokounmpo. The juiciest part: Atkinson was Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer’s top assistant at their previous stop in Atlanta. Hire him, Bud. And have him announce the selection. 

No. 2. Los Angeles Lakers
Opponent: Orlando Magic

Remember, there are no fans in this hypothetical, so the only home cooking the Magic might enjoy is they won’t need to travel to the location. Even still, the Lakers would be wise to pick the team with the worst record in the playoff field. Yes, the Lakers lost their last meeting against the Magic, but Anthony Davis didn’t play and the Magic nearly blew a 21-point lead, hanging on to win by just one point. 

Interesting note: Davis has struggled against Nikola Vucevic in his career, winning just four of his 11 career matchups against the Orlando big man in his career. However, all of those games came when Davis was a member of the Pelicans. If the Magic get lockdown defender Jonathan Isaac back from a knee injury, I might think about going in a different direction, but in the end, 30-34 is 30-34.

No. 3 Toronto Raptors
Opponent: Memphis Grizzlies

The Marc Gasol Bowl. Or is it the Jonas Valanciunas revenge series? Either way, this matchup would be juicy. Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and the young Grizz stunned the NBA this season en route to the No. 8 seed in the West, but the Raptors would have plenty of reason to choose Memphis beyond its lack of experience.

The Grizzlies’ 32-33 record is a tad inflated for a couple reasons. Their minus-0.6 net-rating is more reflective of a 30-35 team. Secondly, they had the most difficult remaining schedule in the entire NBA before the final 17 games were wiped out. The one team the Grizzlies didn’t face this season: the Raptors. Gasol’s long-awaited return to Memphis was supposed to happen Mar. 28, but the shutdown nixed that. Gasol hasn’t faced his former team since being traded in Feb. 2019. What better time than now?

No. 4 L.A. Clippers
Opponent: Indiana Pacers

There will be no fans to motivate Paul George with loud boos this time around. After George tallied 36 points, nine rebounds and five assists in a 11-point Clippers win in a bitter Indiana arena back in December, maybe that’s a good thing for the Pacers. The Clippers won that game handily despite not having Kawhi Leonard, who was resting on the second night of a back-to-back.

The Pacers will be short-handed as it is. About three weeks before the shutdown, Jeremy Lamb, one of the Pacers’ top scorers, went down with a brutal knee injury (torn ACL and lateral meniscus and fractured knee). It remains to be seen how Victor Oladipo will look after the long layoff, but the Clippers’ depth -- bolstered further with the additions of Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris before the shutdown -- should overwhelm the Pacers, who were swept last season by Boston in the first round. 

No. 5 Boston Celtics
Opponent: Dallas Mavericks

The Celtics should be the loudest proponent of the pick-your-opponent format. If the league sticks with the traditional conference split for the playoffs, the third-seeded Celtics would, as of now, face the sixth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. In a 1-through-16 format, as of now, the fifth-seeded Celtics would face ... the 12th-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. For a Celtics team that has lost three of the four games against Philly this season, that’d be a rough draw. 

The Mavericks figure to be an easier foe than the Sixers. The Celtics have won both matchups against Dallas this season, but Luka Doncic only played in one of those tilts. Kristaps Porzingis, who was still taking occasional games off to manage his injury recovery from a torn ACL, is one of those players I worry about when it comes to the long layoff and accelerated training camp. In the end, as long as the Celtics don’t draw Philly, it should be seen as a win.

No. 6 Denver Nuggets
Opponent: Oklahoma City Thunder

I’m a little surprised Chris Paul’s new squad lasted this long in my draft, but they finally go off the board here. I don’t think the Nuggets are feeling great about any of the teams left -- Houston, OKC or Philly -- but the Thunder probably give them their best chance to prevail.

In two matchups this season, the Nuggets split the series 1-1 with their divisional rivals. So much of the Thunder’s success hinges on a 35-year-old Paul staying healthy in these unusual circumstances. With him on the floor the Thunder are plus-295 this season; with Paul on the bench, they are minus-138, per To me, this late in the draft, it’s all about picking your poison and the Thunder feel like the least dangerous choice of the bunch.

No. 7 Utah Jazz 
Opponent: Philadelphia 76ers

The Jazz better hope that there aren’t any regular-season games in Orlando, because I could easily see them losing a few games and being one of the first teams picked in this type of draft. Utah’s sharpshooter, Bojan Bogdanavich, is out after undergoing wrist surgery and who knows where the Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell feud ends up.

Philly is one of the few matchups where I feel Rudy Gobert could excel. Houston’s new five-out system would threaten Gobert’s ability to stay on the floor, despite his Defensive Player of the Year chops. Here are Gobert’s plus-minus numbers in his most recent games against Houston: minus-12, minus-6, minus-15, minus-15, plus-2, plus-6, minus-20, minus-23 and minus-15. Anything but Houston. 

No. 8 Miami Heat
Opponent: Houston Rockets

The Heat land the Rockets in a straight 1-through-16 format and they land them again here. The Rockets stumbled before the season shut down, losing three of their final four games, but I still wouldn’t want anything to do with the Rockets’ new look, especially if James Harden looks this fit when play resumes. 

If regular-season games are played, the 41-24 Heat could fall into the bottom half of the board and would be ripe for the picking given the way their defense fell apart in February. Only 2.5 games separate the Jazz, Heat, Pacers, Sixers, Thunder, Rockets and Mavericks in the standings, so this pack of teams could be shuffled dramatically if there’s some sort of lead-up into the postseason. 

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate remains unsettled after 'The Last Dance'

Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate remains unsettled after 'The Last Dance'

Why now? It’s one of the great underlying questions around the Michael Jordan-centric “The Last Dance” documentary.

The behind-the-scenes footage that provided the bedrock of the amazing 10-hour ESPN series had been locked away in Secaucus, N.J., for about two decades. For any of that film to see the light of day, as agreed upon by then-head of NBA entertainment and current NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Jordan himself would need to sign off on any sort of project using it.

For years, it sat there locked away without Jordan’s key to unlock it. We waited and waited and waited, until the morning of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship parade in 2016, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. That day, after an in-person meeting with Mandalay Sports Media executive Mike Tollin, Jordan finally decided to greenlight the documentary.

The timing is undeniably fascinating. LeBron James had just beat a Golden State Warriors team that not only featured NBA history’s first unanimous MVP in Stephen Curry, but one that broke the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record for most wins in a regular season. James also delivered a championship to Cleveland, ending the city’s 52-year professional sports title drought.

The triumph was enough for James to declare himself the GOAT in 2018 during ESPN’s “More Than An Athlete:” “That one right there made me the greatest player of all time. That’s what I felt. Everybody was just talking about how [the Warriors] were the greatest team of all-time, like it was the greatest team ever assembled. For us to come back the way we came back in that fashion, I was, like, ‘You did something special.’”

Did that backdrop make Jordan nervous about his place in the history of the game? Did Jordan feel that a generation of young fans needed a reminder of his greatness?

We may never know the answer to that, but we do know that the documentary has, in some circles, become something of a Jordan haymaker in the GOAT debate. In many eyes, this wasn’t just a documentary; it was a verdict.

In a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago’s Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson on Monday, Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, unsolicited, made his stance in the debate extremely clear.

“‘The Last Dance’ obviously should establish in the mind of any person with normal eyesight that Michael was beyond a doubt the greatest of all-time,” Reinsdorf said. “In my mind, anytime anybody wants to talk to me about comparing Michael to LeBron (James), I’m going to tell them to please don’t waste my time.”

He continued.

“I’m truly tired of people trying to compare LeBron to Michael when it’s not even close. They should try to compare LeBron with Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson. Michael was so head and shoulders over everybody, and that really came out in this documentary.”

It’s interesting that Reinsdorf didn’t mention Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain or Larry Bird in those quotes to NBC Sports Chicago. He mentioned LeBron James, perpetuating the notion that the Jordan documentary was, at some level, a James counterstrike. 

But is Jordan actually head and shoulders over everybody? Not even close with James?

At the risk of wasting Reinsdorf’s time, it’s definitely a topic worth exploring, especially since the overall numbers don’t agree with Reinsdorf’s assessment.

* * * 

“The Last Dance” might as well be named “Six” for the lasting image of Jordan flashing his digits after the 1998 Finals, symbolizing his championship total. Yes, the documentary used the 1997-98 season as a storytelling anchor, but it felt more like a celebration of Jordan’s glorious career than a blow-by-blow examination of the 1997-98 season. Jordan last faced the Bad Boy Pistons on the playoff stage in 1991, but they received far more play in the docuseries than the Bulls’ actual 1998 Finals opponent, the Utah Jazz.

Jordan’s 6-0 record is spotless and beautiful and irretrievable for James, who has instead gone 3-6 in the Finals. For Jordan's strongest supporters, this is the nail in the coffin. However, reducing the GOAT debate purely to one’s Finals record would mean that John Havlicek (8-0), K.C. Jones (8-0, Tom Sanders (8-0) and Robert Horry (7-0) all have better cases than Jordan. And that’s before mentioning Bill Russell’s baffling 11-1 Finals record.

The James-vs.-Jordan debate needs a little bit more nuance than that. Jordan may have 6-0, but James has longevity in his corner. James has simply lasted longer than Jordan, both in career seasons and in deep postseason runs. 

James is in the midst of his 17th season and still playing at an MVP level. Jordan played 15 seasons, electing to retire twice during his prime years. Part of that gap in career length can be explained by James skipping college and entering league as an 18-year-old, which Jordan did not. 

What gets lost in the discussion is the fact that both Jordan and James have made 13 postseason appearances, but Jordan fell short of the Finals seven times. Whereas Jordan failed to reach the Finals more often than he made them, James has only fallen short four out of his 13 appearances. So not only has James been in the league longer, but he has had much longer playoff runs than Jordan, even if they didn’t always end in a Larry O’Brien trophy.

That has to matter in the larger conversation. Playing at a high level for that long begins to tip the scales in James’ favor, and that’s before we get into the individual barometers. 

The advanced metrics agree that this is a much closer affair than Reinsdorf would assume. Using win shares, which is an established all-in-one value metric that estimates a player’s contributions to overall team success, James has Jordan beat in cumulative value, according to Basketball Reference data. 

In fact, James eclipsed Jordan in that department years ago. At the moment the NBA halted play on March 12, James had 287.1 career win shares compared to Jordan's 253.8 figure.

Case closed, James is the GOAT, right? 

Not so fast. It turns out neither James nor Jordan possess the most win shares in NBA history. That distinction belongs to eternally-great Abdul-Jabbar, who played 20 seasons, with all but one of those being All-Star campaigns. 

If James plays two more full seasons at a high level, he will undoubtedly unseat Abdul-Jabbar in career win shares. Trailing Abdul-Jabbar by just 21.9 win shares at the career level, James averages 16.9 win shares per season in his career (this suspended season included) and appears to have several years left in the tank. If win shares aren’t your thing, James has already surpassed Jordan in other cumulative measuring sticks like career VORP and the championships added metric from ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. 

Individual all-in-one metrics aren’t meant to be judge, jury and executioner in these debates, but it’s certainly worth mentioning that James has distanced himself from Jordan in measures outside of title count. And it’s here where the GOAT discussion becomes more art than science. Do you prefer Finals records or overall playoff records? Do you prefer longevity or peak seasons? 

If you prefer looking at peak seasons, Jordan has the upper-hand on James. If you rank Jordan’s best seasons by win shares and compare it to James’ best, it’s clear that Jordan’s peak years are superior to those of James.

The chart above is my favorite way to distill the Jordan and James debate. As you can see, Jordan’s best seasons are superior to James’ best, with Jordan’s red line resting comfortably above James’ purple line until their respective 10th-best season of their careers. After that, James far outpaces Jordan’s best. If we include his MVP-caliber ‘19-20 campaign, James has 15 high-level seasons while Jordan only had 11, due to his foot injury and his two retirements. (Jordan’s final two seasons with the Washington Wizards at the ages of 38 and 39, after three years away from the game, don’t move the needle in the GOAT discussion, but appear here near the back end of his red line.)

The fact that Jordan’s heights are taller than James was hammered home in Pelton’s recent ranking of the best individual seasons in NBA history. In that study, Jordan made five appearances in the top 25 at Nos. 1, 5, 12, 17 and 31, while James sat slightly lower at Nos. 3, 8, 9 and 23.

Jordan has higher ceilings and James has higher floors. That’s the crux of the debate.

The former will always resonate far more with the masses on an emotional level than the latter. And with good reason. Though James has already registered considerably more career value than Jordan by advanced metrics, Jordan’s six championship seasons continue to stand out -- not just in the minds of basketball fans, but also in the numbers.

Looking at the conventional GOAT standards, James’ biggest flaw may be that he took his teams too far. Take the 2006-07 season. James was just 22 years old, with Larry Hughes serving as the Robin to his Batman, when James led the Cavs to the Finals only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs. 

If James had just lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals like most expected, James’ NBA Finals record would be shinier. Instead, by getting to the Finals and losing, it’s a strike against him. Same goes for the 2014-15 Finals run when James’ Cavs swept the 60-win Atlanta Hawks while Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were sidelined (Irving played two games of that Eastern Conference finals). If James simply lost earlier, again, his Finals record would be cleaner.

Because of his lopsided 3-6 record in the Finals, most fans may view James as an underachiever but, according to Vegas, the opposite is true. James’ teams were favored in just two of his nine Finals appearances (2011 and 2013) and overall, he actually surpassed expectations, ending up with three titles. Meanwhile, Jordan’s Bulls were favored in all six Finals and won all six. Jordan took care of business.

But, for the sake of argument, what if the Bulls didn’t lose to the Orlando Magic in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals? The Bulls entered the series as minus-165 favorites, according to Vegas, but the Magic went on to face (and get swept by) the Houston Rockets in the Finals. What if the Bulls didn’t blow that series and instead, like the Magic did, beat the Indiana Pacers and faced Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets for the title?

I recently caught up with former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich about that hypothetical (full podcast next week!) and he pointed to a conversation he remembers having with Michael Jordan at Charles Barkley’s house in Phoenix in 1996. Barkley had invited his new coach, Tomjanovich, and the team’s trainer to hang out at his abode, along with Jordan and Tiger Woods (!). That night, Tomjanovich and Jordan discussed the Finals match that never happened. 

“[Jordan] said we were the team they feared the most because they didn’t have an answer for Hakeem,” Tomjanovich said. “It would have been a great series.”

We will never know how the Bulls would have fared against a Rockets team that won back-to-back titles, but Jordan ensured his clean Finals record by retiring in 1993 and losing in the 1994-95 East semifinals. In a strange way, James reaching eight straight Finals doesn’t resonate nearly as much as the “five” in “three-and-five.” 

Fair or not, there’s only so much James can do to erase his Finals losses in the basketball world’s collective psyche.

* * * 

The hook to all of this is the fact that James is still playing -- at an MVP level, no less. Declaring Jordan the GOAT before James retires is like awarding an Oscar to a film after refusing to watch the last 30 minutes of its top competitor. 

James has a legitimate shot to change the conversation, but the pandemic shutdown hurts those chances. With regular-season games threatened, the league’s hiatus has all but ruined James’ chance to overtake Giannis Antetokounmpo and win his fifth MVP award. James was also on track to surpass 2,000 points for his 11th season as he chases down Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record. In the past 14 months, James has passed Kobe Bryant and Jordan on the all-time scoring list and trails Abdul-Jabbar by 4,300 points. 

Depending on what route the NBA goes with a potential season restart, James could lose all or most of the Lakers’ remaining 19 regular-season games. Based on James’ 2019-20 scoring average of 25.7 points, that could cost James as much as 500 points. At current levels and without those 500 points, James would probably need three more seasons to catch Abdul-Jabbar. 

If he did pull it off and pass Abdul-Jabbar, there’s a world in which James’ supporters could use the trump card of James being the top scorer of all-time despite that not being his best basketball skill (that would be passing). Outside of that, James could also win a title or two alongside Anthony Davis to nudge closer to Jordan. But given the six losses on James’ ledger and Jordan’s “perfect” tally, it might be best to leave Jordan with that and change the conversation all together. 

James has a strong track record of doing that. Following “The Decision” fallout in 2010 and his 2011 Finals meltdown, even James’ strongest supporters would’ve had a hard time imagining a world in which James was largely beloved in northeast Ohio. Yet, after winning a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers and opening the “I, Promise” elementary school in Akron for at-risk children, his reputation with local fans is fully restored. After James left Cleveland and joined a barren Lakers franchise, he helped lure Anthony Davis and returned the Lakers to title favorites. Equipped with his own production company, James is chasing Jordan on the silver-screen, starring in a Space Jam sequel with an on-the-nose title, “A New Legacy.” James has created an empire by patiently waiting to get the final word.

Ultimately, the verdict remains out on the greatest argument in basketball circles, although it is a lot closer than many, including Reinsdorf, would like to believe. “The Last Dance” may have ended with the enduring image of Jordan cackling at his vanquished foes, but James still has a chance to have the last laugh.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

'War on the Floor' concept could be just what the NBA needs

NBC Sports

'War on the Floor' concept could be just what the NBA needs

It was a scorching hot Thursday afternoon on Broadway in New York City back in September 1995, just three months after the Houston Rockets bested the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. The teams’ two superstars, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal, were sitting atop a dais at a makeshift stage for a press conference at the partially-constructed All-Star Cafe.

In two days' time, the two 7-footers were set to pull off what Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson could not. They were going to be the leading men in a pay-per-view blockbuster extravaganza featuring multiple NBA stars playing each other in games of one-on-one. 

Shaq would later go on to win four NBA titles and three MVPs, but looking back now, Shaq felt he had something to prove.

“He kind of edged me out in the Finals, but it wasn’t a really fair edge out because when I got the ball, they doubled me and we didn’t double him,” Shaq says. “I wanted to show people that I’m unstoppable. Nobody can guard me on one-on-one.”

At that point, Shaq was known as a rim-wrecker, not a skilled iso player. But he was eager to remind people he was a guard in his early high school days.

“My NBA game was nothing like my one-on-one game,” Shaq says. “My one-on-one game was similar to Grant Hill. I could handle it, put it between the legs, do a lot of tricks and all that stuff. (Olajuwon) wouldn’t have been expecting that. He wouldn't have been ready for that. I wanted to be able to showcase a different game.”

This was big money. Shaq and Hakeem would duke it out for a $1 million purse, furnished by Taco Bell. The two giants were at the top of the NBA at the time, but the heavyweight bout, titled “War on the Floor,” needed a slick promoter and a grand venue. 

It got one. 

Next to O’Neal and Olajuwon on the dais was the event’s host and promoter: Donald J. Trump. On Saturday, the Shaq-Hakeem basketball bout would be set for Trump's Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, N.J.

“Shaq versus Hakeem in the Taco Bell One-on-One Championship will be the most fabulous event Atlantic City has ever seen, and only the Trump Taj Mahal could host such a mega-event,” Trump said that day according to multiple media reports. “Once again, the entire world will be focused on Atlantic City for what is sure to be an event that will go down in history.”

In the background, workmen in hard hats were still piecing together the trendy sports bar that called O’Neal an investor alongside Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana, Ken Griffey Jr., Andre Agassi and Monica Seles. Behind the group, a banner read “Congratulations, Shaq and Hakeem.”

A scrawny 19-year-old Kevin Garnett was in attendance and so was No. 1 overall pick Joe Smith, fresh off the June draft. Garnett and Smith were billed as the middleweight undercard battle. Joining them was Kenny Anderson and Nick Van Exel, the so-called lightweight division.

This boxing-turned-basketball showdown was the brainchild of Leonard Armato, the former long-time agent for both O’Neal and Olajuwon, and it was months in the making. Shortly after the Finals, Armato struck a deal with Taco Bell to launch a calculated marketing blitz featuring the two star centers, eventually leading up to the Atlantic City battle.

A month after the Magic were swept by the Rockets, Armato took out a full-page ad in USA TODAY. Adorned on the page was Shaq’s typewritten and signed challenge to Olajuwon: “Hakeem- The series may be a done deal, but it ain’t over between you and me. Sure, you’re pretty good with your team behind you, but I want you one on one. -Shaq.”

Next, Armato signed Spike Lee to make Hakeem and Shaq household names in the same way he made Michael Jordan the coolest athlete in the world with Mars Blackmon and the “It’s gotta be the shoes” Nike spot. Lee directed and starred in the national TV commercial campaign for Taco Bell showing bitter rivals O’Neal and Olajuwon finally reconciling over Double Decker flour-and-corn tortilla tacos and becoming chummy pals.

They flew to New York City right after the Finals and taped the commercial in Central Park that summer. Spike put Shaq and Hakeem in suspenders and propeller hats and had them riding around Central Park on a tandem bike holding Taco Bell bags. In another scene, Shaq rowed Hakeem in a dingy.

“People were like, is that Hakeem? Is that Shaq? It was pretty funny,” Shaq recalled.

It turned out the 1995 NBA Finals wasn’t just a battle for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. It was a launchpad for a marketing tour de force.

And on that Thursday afternoon in the fall, it was all coming together. Armato launched a successful TV campaign hyping the two players, signed the other participants, booked the venue and promoted the heck out of the $19.95 PPV.

“It was moving toward a great success,” Armato says now over the phone. “until it got derailed.”

The evening before the event, Armato got a call. It was from Olajuwon’s teammate Clyde Drexler. It wasn’t good news.

“I want to talk to you about something,” Drexler said, according to Armato. “Hakeem. He’s not feeling well. His back.”

Apparently, Olajuwon had hurt his back working out earlier that week. He’d hoped it would feel better by the weekend, but it wasn’t improving. After having Olajuwon examined by a physician, Armato decided to cancel late Friday night, the day before the showdown. There would be no “War on the Floor” or undercard matchups. 

Later that night, a disappointed Shaq flew back to Orlando on Trump’s private jet. At the time, when asked whether Olajuwon’s injury was legitimate, he said he didn’t know, perhaps playing into the soap opera. But now, he claims everything was on the up-and-up.

“When Leonard called me and told me Hakeem can’t do it, I was like, ‘Cool.’ Hakeem’s not the guy who I'd say, ‘Aw, he’s scared!’,” O’Neal told NBC Sports. “One, I know he’s not scared. Two, I know if he could do it, he would do it. But if it was Christian Laettner, I would have said he’s scared.”

Back in 1995, Trump, of course, didn’t pass up an opportunity to turn up the controversy.

“There’s a rumor out there that the NBA had something to do with it,” Trump told the Associated Press. “But it’s just a rumor.”

Twenty-five years later, Armato laughs at the suggestion.

“That did not happen,” Armato says. “That 100 percent did not happen. I know that for a fact.”

Refunds were issued. Money was lost. But Armato nearly pulled it off, and not because of his relationship with NBA commissioner David Stern. It was because Armato had something his predecessors did not -- a loophole created by opportunity.

* * * 

O’Neal and Olajuwon were not the first superstars to try and attempt a one-on-one special. In 1990, there was a proposal for Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson to face off at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The idea hit all corners of the basketball universe and ended up being squashed by Stern under the guidelines of the collective bargaining agreement, but not before the disagreement moved from conference rooms to courtrooms. 

According to B/R’s Jonathan Abrams, dealings between the league, the players’ union and agents related to the MJ-Magic one-one-one concept got so contentious that it resulted in an antitrust lawsuit filed by Jordan’s former agency and the event promoter. The suit accused the league of paying the players’ union a seven-figure settlement to effectively put an end to any offseason competitions like one-on-one exhibitions involving NBA players.

In 1990, National Basketball Players Association president Isiah Thomas, who had a famously icy relationship with Jordan, was against the one-on-one idea, saying, “I believe that this sets a bad precedent.”

Jordan didn’t take too kindly to that.

"I wonder what Isiah's position would be if he were playing Magic," Jordan told the San Francisco Chronicle. "But, of course, if he were playing Magic, no one would want to see it."

Luckily for Armato and those interested in the one-on-one format, in the summer of 1995, the NBA was in the midst of a lockout. Without CBA rules blocking players from participating, Armato threw the door wide open by announcing a one-on-one event that no longer needed to be sanctioned by the league. 

Still, he wanted to run it by the powers that be.

“I went to David Stern and I said, ‘Look, there’s no collective bargaining agreement so I’m going to go ahead and do this one-on-one,’” Armato says.

Stern’s response?

“Well, technically I could stop you. But you know what, I’m going to pretend like I don’t know you’re doing this,” Armato recalls Stern telling him.

Armato described the deal with Stern as a “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” agreement between the two friends. For the league, it could have been something of a trial balloon, allowing it to gauge fan interest from afar and later assessing the merits of bringing such a competition in-house.

All along, Armato felt it was destined to become an annual tentpole event on the NBA calendar. A quarter of a century later, Armato believes it’s time to do it for real.

“Just imagine if you had a global pay-per-view event of LeBron James versus the Greek Freak (Giannis Antetokounmpo),” Armato says. “It’s probably bigger than (Manny) Pacquiao vs. (Floyd) Mayweather. It might be way bigger. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars off that one event.”

Armato is no stranger to big events, having served as Oscar De La Hoya’s agent during his ascent into boxing’s “Golden Boy” in the 1990s. In fact, the Olajuwon-O’Neal showdown was Armato’s second attempt at a one-on-one basketball showdown. In 1992, Armato put together a pay-per-view event called “Clash of the Legends” featuring 44-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and 41-year-old Julius Erving, with a tuxedo-clad Jim Gray providing sideline commentary. The two basketball icons were recently retired, putting them in the clear with respect to NBA rules.

With thousands in attendance at the Trump Taj Mahal, including Magic Johnson and Trump himself, the one-on-one affair between Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. J proceeded without a hitch from a production standpoint.

“When they came onto the court, there was a tremendous amount of excitement, like a heavyweight championship fight,” Armato says. “And I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’”

But then the basketball started. 

“For the first minute, they were going at it really hard and there was screaming and yelling and all of a sudden they started getting tired and they started leaning on each other.”

“And it just started getting really boring.”

Brent Musberger and John Saunders provided commentary courtside, trying to keep the audience, who had paid $19.95 to watch, engaged in the action. But it was a painfully one-sided affair, with Abdul-Jabbar leading 11-0 after the first of four five-minute quarters. The 7-foot-3 Abdul-Jabbar was simply too big, eventually winning 41-23. By the end of the match, Abdul-Jabbar and Erving were so exhausted they could barely stand on their own two feet.

The event wasn’t a total wash. There were wagers at the casino. There was a camera in the floor inside the paint that provided a different, if awkward, angle looking up from the hardwood. 

There was also a charity element that could prove prescient in today’s global pandemic. With Johnson recently diagnosed with HIV, a portion of the proceeds from the telecast was donated to The American Foundation for AIDS Research as well as the Magic Johnson Foundation. At the “halftime” intermission, Gray interviewed Johnson, who was sitting courtside for the competition. The Lakers star joked that he would need $30 million to participate in a one-on-one game. 

After the third quarter, the crowd chanted “Magic! Magic! Magic!” and Johnson finally got up out of his seat and walked onto the court, asking for the ball. The crowd roared. In what became a microcosm of the night, Johnson trotted over to the basket, missed a layup and quietly sat back down at his courtside seat. 

“It was just a complete slaughter,” Armato remembers. “But more than that, I noticed that that format wasn’t the kind of thing that could capture people’s interest for any length of time.”

Armato went back to the drawing board and later came up with the blueprint for “The War on the Floor.”

Using retired players wasn’t going to work; that much was clear. More importantly, he reformatted the competition so that it would align more closely with boxing. There would be 10 rounds lasting two minutes each with a one-minute break in between. To promote quick play, there would be a 12-second shot clock with alternating possessions. The winner of each round would win $100,000. If a round ended in a tie, the prize would roll over into the next round. The winner would receive $1 million in addition to his round winnings.

“It’s just a great format that does a number of things,” Amarto says. “One, it’s high intensity so the action is always really, really intense. Two, it’s really quick results. You get a result at the end of every round and you have people clinging for the next round.”

And here’s the kicker.

“Three, you can bet on every round.”

In 1995, betting was still considered an unsavory practice on a national level. Only fans in Atlantic City could wager on the event. But times, and gambling legislation, have changed, and suddenly, Armato’s pie-in-the-sky stunt could offer the NBA some much-needed extra income in a post-COVID-19 world.

* * * 

In an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in late March, NBA commissioner Adam Silver mentioned that one of the many options that the league is considering is a charity competition where “a group of players could compete -- maybe it’s a giant fundraiser or just the collective good of the people -- where you take a subset of players and they could compete against one another.”

Sound familiar? 

“In this pandemic, this might be the easiest way to bring back some super exciting basketball with the least amount of moving parts and difficulty in terms of (health) protocol,” Armato says.

A league office spokesman told NBC Sports that the concept of league-authorized one-on-one competitions has not been internally discussed at this time. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s off the mind of players. During a Monday Instagram Live session, former Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving said he wanted to play Celtics point guard Kemba Walker one-on-one as something of a New York-New Jersey showdown.

“Me and K-Walk. I want that matchup,” Irving said. “I want K-Walk. That’s my big bro. Everybody wants to see it out of New York and New Jersey. He gave us 40. I gave him 40, back-and-forth.”

Armato has studied the concept of a one-on-one extravaganza for years and recently administered a survey to over 12,000 NBA fans. According to the study, 87 percent of NBA fans indicated they would watch one-on-one games in addition to in-season games, with 68 percent saying they would pay extra to watch either on League Pass or pay-per-view. Even more compelling, 61 percent of NBA fans indicated that they’d find one-on-one games more exciting than in-season games.

“I think it would be huge for the league to do this,” Armato says. “It could be a massive revenue stream. Think of it a little like Phil vs. Tiger.”

Following the 2018 head-to-head golf showdown between Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods that came with a $9 million purse, Turner Sports will present a live golf match on May 24 between Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. 

Shaq wants it, too.

“I don’t want to speak for Adam Silver, he’s a great man, but I don’t think it would hurt (to launch one-on-one competitions),” Shaq says. “If we pulled it off successfully (in 1995), we would have done it every year.”

When asked about potential matchups in today’s NBA, Armato says Irving-Walker would be a compelling duel in the lightweight division, not unlike Van Exel and Anderson the 1995 event, but he’d prefer seeing Irving versus Stephen Curry after their 2016 Finals showdown.

As for filling out the card? Armato suggests a heavyweight matchup of Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid against Los Angeles Lakers center Anthony Davis. In the middleweight division (if you could call it that), LeBron James versus Giannis Antetokounmpo, which would be the main event. The lightweight division could feature Irving versus Curry or perhaps Damian Lillard versus Russell Westbrook. You could also have a battle of teammates in Curry and Klay Thompson or Lillard and C.J McCollum.  

Shaq has other ideas.

“Give me Joel Embiid and Giannis,” Shaq says.

Not Giannis and LeBron?

“I need something that’s even (size),” Shaq says. “That’s what made me and Hakeem good is that we were 6-11 and 6-10. Giannis is 7-foot and LeBron is 6-9. I want to see Steph versus Kyrie. KD and LeBron. Westbrook and Harden.”

Regional matchups like Carmelo Anthony versus Kevin Durant (Baltimore/D.C.), Chris Paul versus John Wall (North Carolina) or Ja Morant versus Zion Williamson (South Carolina) could bring the bragging rights to another level. 

Shaq also wants to see the top high schoolers go against a pro. LaMelo Ball versus his older brother Lonzo, anyone?

“There are so many facets you can add to it,” Shaq says.

When asked whom he’d like to go against in the non-Hakeem division, Shaq named Tim Duncan. And said he’d also like to see Michael Jordan versus Dominique Wilkins.

“Then,” Shaq says, “since it’s come up and there’s a lot of bad blood, Isiah (Thomas) and Mike (Jordan).”

There are obstacles to the idea of one-on-one competitions. League owners might be timid about signing off their own players to participate in non-team events like a one-on-one showdown. What if they get injured? To Armato, that’s a non-issue considering there is risk in every basketball activity. In his opinion, the reward far outpaces the small chance of injury.

“They’re playing one-on-one in practice anyway,” Armato says. “This is no different.”

Secondly, fans may see this as a gimmick rather than a legitimate basketball product. But fans held similar concerns about the reformed All-Star Game format this season and that turned out to be a thrilling success in no small part due to the one-on-one showdown between James and Antetokounmpo. Why not capitalize on that brewing rivalry?

It’s early to be discussing this on a serious level. The pandemic shutdown is forcing the league and its players to answer some difficult questions about the economics of the league going forward. As the league tosses around ideas to recoup revenues in the short and long term, a one-on-one showdown might have legs. Earlier this week, Shaq ruffled some feathers by suggesting the league cancel the season and still sees fanless games as an issue.

“Basically my point is, as an athlete, how do you perform at a high, high level without fans?” Shaq says. “Fans make you do stuff that you didn’t know you could do. I’ve never done it before, but it’s safe to say I couldn’t do it. It’s just practice. I’d be super weird.”

Even if the league resumes this summer or fall, Armato still envisions a one-on-one showdown in Vegas at the end of Summer League at a time when NBA stars like LeBron and Antetokounmpo already pop in regularly.

For now, the league and the players are focusing its efforts on resuming the season -- regular season or playoffs. But as we approach the 25-year anniversary of the “War on the Floor” amid an economic disruption, it might be the perfect time to bring the concept back. 

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.