Michael Jordan versus LeBron James: 1-on-1

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In an interview hyping a new videogame release, reporters asked Michael Jordan who he would want to play in a one-on-one game from any era. He selected a number of All-Time greats including Jerry West (one of Jordan’s idols whom he mentions whenever the question of who the best shooting guard ever might be), Julius Erving, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James. Michael then said, possibly at a prompt from an interviewer, that he felt at his best he would beat all of those players, except maybe Bryant because, “He stole my moves.”

Clearly Mike’s trying to be funny here. But an answer like that leads to things like ESPN polls and basketball columnists and bloggers (like me!) debating the point. It’s a nerdy and imaginary question, and it’s a different question than who’s actually a better player, but I owe my two cents on this one.

Here are the arguments in a nutshell.

For LeBron:

  1. Size. He’s probably got 2 inches in height and 50 lbs in weight on MJ at his playing weight. Couldn’t he just back Mike down and shoot over him all day?
  2. Strength. LeBron is, after Shaq, probably the best player I’ve ever seen at finishing around the rim through contact. Since one-on-one play in the paint is physical on every possession, does James’s ability to hit a lay-up with a defender draped all over him give him the inside scoring lead?
  3. Range. LeBron launches more deep, contested threes than Jordan. If they are counting threes or playing 1s and 2s, wouldn’t this be a deciding advantage?

For Jordan:

  1. Moves. Michael has a basically unlimited array of shots he’s capable of using against set defenders. Since a one-on-one game is essentially just a series of possessions where each player is forced to shoot against a set defense, does Jordan’s superior shot-making give him the edge?
  2. Quickness. LeBron is horrifyingly fast for a man his size, but he’s not quicker than MJ in his prime. Would superior foot speed allow Jordan to get past LeBron consistently?
  3. Mindset. Jordan actually may have two advantages in personality when it comes to a one-on-one contest. He is a natural scorer (he led the league 10 times) and by all accounts the most competitive player the game has ever seen (according to one of his college friends Jordan would cheat at no stakes go-fish rather than allow himself to lose). Is his raw determination, willingness to win at all costs, and affinity for personally outscoring the opposition simply too much for LeBron who is naturally more of a playmaker?

It’s impossible to guess which of them would actually win more often, but I can promise you if they played 5 games of 1-on-1 ball to 11, they would split them, 3-2 or 4-1. Nobody is shutting anybody out or dominating the other person. I’d tend to expect LeBron’s physical advantages to give him the edge early and Jordan’s competitiveness and diversity of scoring skills to come to the forefront as the games progressed. BUT it could be the opposite. James is a very calculating player. It could be that Jordan’s unbridled aggressiveness would give him the early lead while LeBron took his time studying his opponent before deciding on a strategy of attack.

I’ve read some opinions that in a 1-on-1 size and strength are impossible to combat. Having played a lot of games against a friend of similar skill level who had a good 40 to 50 lbs on me, I’ve got to debunk this one. Playing against someone stronger is actually much less of a disadvantage when there’s no ref there to call you for two hands in the back. Also the more you play against anyone with any physical advantage, the more you get accustomed to making the right adjustments and find ways to anticipate and get stops. In a long enough series of games, intelligence and skill wins out over physical advantages as long as the size and athleticism isn’t unmanageably different. Given that LeBron doesn’t really bully on the blocks in regular games, it’s hard to say if he even has those types of moves. And it’s not like it would be that easy to back down a three time steals leader who isn’t going to get called for a reach in foul.

My inclination is to think of this match-up in terms of how each player performs when he’s under tight defense by an elite defender against a team that doesn’t double, but that’s not really analogous to 1-on-1 play. Indi didn’t double team LeBron much, but Paul George did have Roy Hibbert waiting at the rim if James got by him. MJ won’t have a big Hoya to back him up. Similarly, Rodman would be a good fill in for James as a defender on Jordan, but when Mike drives past LeBron he won’t get undercut by Isiah and body-slammed by Laimbeer.

Jordan does have an anecdotal / reputation argument in his favor. Phil Jackson had to put Jordan on the second team in practices because he needed the challenge of playing head to head against Scottie Pippen. I do think that playing against the guy who may be the absolute best perimeter defender of all time in each and every practice for over a decade probably helps MJ’s case. Pippen is probably the best defensive comparison to LeBron James in terms of technique, and rumor has it that Michael routinely scorched Scottie in one-on-one games, but I don’t know if those stories come from Pip’s prime or even if they’re true.

What’s interesting to me as I try to pick this comparison apart in my mind is just how important the team component really is to determining the value of NBA players. LeBron’s passing is such a crucial part of his game. It’s difficult for me to even picture what he would do against Jordan in the post since so much of his post game is really face up to fake a drive and open up passing angles. And so much of Jordan’s scoring acumen was about setting up his man before he even caught the ball. They both read a team defense so well and make such good use of their teammates.

I think what it really comes down to in a one-on-one is simply shot-making. Both players are great defenders who would find ways to cover each other very well. Both players are brilliant minds when it comes to the game. Both players are extremely gifted physically. It really might just come down to who’s hot for a few more possessions. Michael’s natural aggressiveness that got him into trouble against good teams that would bait him into playing one-on-five would actually serve him very well in a one-on-one, while LeBron’s more patient style might be less of a fit. That might be the difference in a series of games. Sheer relentlessness. But in a single game, when you hit this absolute unmatched level of talent, I’d call it a toss-up.

And Kobe, Carmelo Anthony, Tracy McGrady, Dominique Wilkins, Larry Bird, or even Kevin Garnett or Charles Barkley might have a shot at winning 3 out of 5 against either of these guys. All it takes is the ability to get into scoring position and hit a contested shot. Heck JR Smith could come out hot and knock them off on the right day.

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