We're in the hypothetical season for basketball it seems. Questions like "Who wins the 2012 championship?" have given way to "Who wins a physically impossible game between the 1992 Dream Team and current 2012 American Olympic squad?"
I personally have no problem with these frivolous debates, and I especially enjoy the one that Kyrie Irving and Kobe Bryant most recently stirred up. Irving challenged Bryant to a one-on-one game for $50,000. Kobe was dismissive in the way you would expect from Mr. Bryant.
I can't predict with any certainty who would win such a matchup, but I have one sentence of advice for handicapping a one-on-one battle: Remember, rebounds are important.
In a game of one-on-one, boards are as crucial as points. Have you ever played against a vastly taller person mano a mano? The height advantage can lead to easy tip-ins, again and again. If you can't out-board your opponent, there are no teammates to pick up the slack.
We often conceive of "one-on-one" as consisting of only defense and scoring. This is probably why, when the issue was discussed during an Around the Horn ad break, guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were cited as the prototypical one-on-one players.
The panel agreed on Michael Jordan as the greatest one-on-one player ever. While I would loudly second anyone who declared MJ the greatest player of all time, I'm not sure he could win a one vs. one match against say, Hakeem Olajuwon.
Hakeem could handle the rock, defend all areas of the court and easily tip in his own misses if Jordan forced a shank. Again, this doesn't make Hakeem better than Michael. It merely means that Olajuwon benefits from a situation where rebounds have a disproportionate impact, and MJ's superior passing ability becomes a non-factor.
In regard to our modern era, I would choose LeBron James as the preeminent one-on-one player. He rebounds like a power forward and dribbles like a point guard. It's a devastating combination for a completely open court.
Other small forwards who board like power forwards could also be good choices for "best one-on-one." Kevin Durant can score from anywhere with great efficiency, now that his dribbling has improved from last year. Carmelo Anthony's poor court vision wouldn't hurt him in a game without teammates.
But don't sleep on a guy like Kevin Love, despite his defensive shortcomings. The Timberwolves power forward has a passable handle, shoots well from outside and can rebound better than any player, save for maybe Dwight Howard.
As for Howard, don't discount his chances, either. While he's terrible at dribbling, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better open-space defender. If he gets anywhere below the free-throw line against somebody like say, Kyrie Irving, Howard's getting the easy tip-in.
In the case of Kyrie and Kobe, Bryant's a slightly better—not overwhelmingly better—rebounder. On that alone, I'm taking the old dog. For the rankings, it goes:
1. LeBron James
2. Kevin Durant
3. Dirk Nowitzki
4. Kevin Love
5. Carmelo Anthony
I'm placing Kobe around sixth, which is no disrespect. Just as he dismissed the shorter Irving's chances, I'm questioning Kobe's ability to rebound over forwards.