This one came with a stipulation attached, and it arrived courtesy of one of the very players often cited in that discussion.
Magic Johnson, who played 13 seasons during his Hall of Fame career, was the definition of a tough cover. He was a 6'8" point guard with tremendous court vision (10,141 career assists, fifth most all time) and a powerful scoring punch defenses had to respect (career 19.5 points per game).
He was not, however, the best one-on-one player of all time. Not in his mind, at least.
That honor belongs to Jordan, who Johnson said could beat him—or anyone else in NBA history—in a one-on-one matchup, via Jon Becker of the Midland Daily News:
Michael would win. That’s not my game. My game is assisting, setting up my teammates. Michael’s the greatest one-on-one player. I couldn’t go out and drop 60 like him, but he couldn’t run a team like I could.
When it came to individual offensive creativity and production, no one did it quite like Jordan. His career 30.12 scoring average stands as the highest in league history, inching out even "Mr. 100" Wilt Chamberlain (30.07).
Which of today's stars would have given Jordan the toughest 1-on-1 game?
Johnson's responsibilities, both internal and external, were different. Whereas Jordan led with a fiery demeanor and demanded the most from his teammates, Johnson was more of a hands-on leader. He put his players in a position to succeed and elevated the effectiveness of those around him.
The two legends of the game met once on the championship stage as Jordan's Chicago Bulls and Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers squared off in the 1991 NBA Finals. Jordan unsurprisingly had more points in the series (31.2 to 18.6) and made the assists race closer than you would have expected (11.4 to 12.4).
Most importantly, Jordan's Bulls walked away with a five-game series win.
Johnson's right; Jordan was an unbelievable one-on-one talent. But the former North Carolina star was pretty good in a team setting, too.