One of the NBA's All-Time Great What-Ifs: Kobe vs. Kyrie, 1-on-1, Who Ya Got?

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2018

Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant (24) drives against Cleveland Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving (2) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, in Cleveland. The Cavaliers won 120-111. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
B/R

Kobe Bryant's eyelids leapt open. He looked like a man who'd just been kissed by a ghost. But Kyrie Irving was adamant.        

"This is not a high school kid coming to you—'Kobe, Kobe, oh my God!'" Kyrie said, smiling and confident but also a bit rattled by his idol's dismissive disbelief, via Blue Planet. "This is me, coming to talk to you, one-on-one."

"You really want to play me one-on-one?" Kobe asked, aghast. He tugged at his navy blue practice jersey and wiped beads of sweat—remnants from an intense pre-Summer Olympics Team USA practice—from his forehead.

It was a fair counter. This, after all, was July 2012, meaning Kobe was still at the height of his powers. Sure, he was nearly 34 at the time and preparing for his 17th NBA season. But he was also coming off a classic Kobe campaign—he'd averaged 27.9 points per game and finished fourth in MVP voting. His Lakers were no longer dominating the league, but Kobe, thanks to an evolved arsenal featuring the game's deadliest combination of jab steps and silky jumpers, was keeping them afloat. 

Kyrie, on the other hand, was just 20, one year removed from college and eight months away from being free to walk into an American bar and legally order a beer. He was so young and naive, he likely still believed the Earth to be round. He was talented enough to be drafted by the Cavaliers first overall the previous summer and was coming off a nice rookie season (18.5 points and 5.4 assists per game), but it would be years before he'd evolve into the indomitable stud he is today.

And yet, for some reason, Kyrie decided that day to approach Kobe—a five-time champion and future Hall of Famer, the alpha dog of all alpha dogs, a player he grew up watching and emulating—and pull the hardwood equivalent of questioning his manhood. He challenged Kobe to a game of one-on-one.

(Kyrie declined to speak to B/R for this story, saying only, "I'll talk if Kobe does.")

Typically, Kobe said at the time, he required opponents to lay down $50,000—for his charity, not his pocket—to make it worth his time, but for Kyrie, he'd make an exception: $25,000. 

A recording of the exchange shows Kobe—shocked, eyes wide-open—and Kyrie—incredulous, like a kid told he's too young to ride a roller coaster—trash-talking back and forth about the game before extending their right arms and shaking hands.

A deal was made. 

"That's 50 grand to my charity, greatly appreciated," Kobe said. "Easy money, easy money. Easy money. Easy."

"What you think, you think you're playing Lil' Bow Wow?" Kyrie responded.

"Ya'll about the same size," Kobe said.

The game was scheduled to take place after the season, sometime the following summer. But for Kobe, little that year went according to plan.

The Lakers, coming off a disappointing early playoff exit and desperate to recreate their glory days, traded for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in the offseason and were labeled a superteam and title favorite. But injuries limited Nash to just 50 games, and Howard never jelled with Nash and Kobe or with head coach Mike D'Antoni, who came in after the team fired Mike Brown five games into the 2012-13 season.

If not for Kobe's prolific scoring (he averaged 27.3 points on 46.3 percent shooting and dished out six assists per game) and Superman-like stamina (he played nearly 39 minutes per contest, the second-most in the league), the Lakers would have missed the playoffs instead of sneaking in at 45-37.

And in Los Angeles' third-to-last game of the season, an evening battle against the Golden State Warriors, Kobe's year came to an end. With just over three minutes remaining and in the midst of a drive to the paint, his left ankle buckled. He limped to the locker room. Doctors diagnosed him with a ruptured Achilles. The San Antonio Spurs wound up sweeping the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.

Kobe underwent surgery April 13, the day following his injury. It'd be another eight months before he practiced again. Kobe, by then 35 and with tens of thousands of basketball miles on his odometer, was never the same. He played just six games the following season because of a fractured bone in his left knee. The year after that, he tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder. By the time he returned to the court the following September, he'd come to accept that he was no longer the player he once was.

Seven months later, Kobe played his final NBA game.

The rapid decline sent the one-on-one battle with Kyrie into the great book of NBA what-ifs. 

What if they had played? Who would have come out on top? What would it have even looked like?


In April 2016, the final month of Kobe's final season, the Players' Tribune published an ode to him based on interviews with former teammates. Featured in the piece was a story from the 2000-01 season about a young and talented Lakers guard named J.R. Rider challenging Kobe to a game of one-on-one.

In the words of former Laker Brian Shaw, Kobe "kicked [Rider's] ass."

The anecdote got Lakers beat writer Serena Winters thinking.

"Who beat you in one-on-one if it ever happened at practice?" she asked Kobe during a press conference later that day.

Kobe's eyes narrowed, and his face tightened, like he'd taken a bite of a hot pepper. He began shaking his head.

"No one," he responded softly. "I'm not trying to be…but that's what I do. You know what I mean? So if there was going to be a player that beat me, he retired on that last shot against Utah that he hit. That's about it." 

Such boasts were nothing new. "I'm the best to ever do it," Kobe told Chris Palmer of ESPN The Magazine in 2013. He conceded in the interview that a matchup with Michael Jordan would make him sweat but refused to entertain the thought that another living basketball player could defeat him in such a duel. He had receipts backing him up too, pointing out, for example, that he had "roasted" Tracy McGrady in a one-on-one back when the two had just entered the league.

The self-confidence that oozes through Kobe's veins, of course, is famous. He'd spent his entire life believing himself to be the best player in any room. Shaq? Don't need him. Dwight Howard? Don't want him. Open teammate in the corner? We're better off with me launching this contested fadeaway. These didn't seem to be conscious choices for Kobe so much as him surrendering to his internal wiring.

It's why he so relished games of one-on-one. Even as a teenager, he'd peacock around the Lakers' practice facility, daring teammates to join him on the floor.

"When he was a rookie, I remember him going around telling people he was the best one-on-one player," says Nick Van Exel, who played two seasons alongside Kobe. "Then [then-Lakers head coach] Del [Harris] would say, 'That's great, but this isn't one-on-one. This is a team sport.'" 

That is precisely why he loved the format. It provided a platform to surrender to every one of his basketball instincts. He didn't have to worry about passing. He could play mental games with his opponents. Also, his skill set was perfectly tailored for the game. He was quick and long and strong. He owned one the deadliest mid-range jumpers the sport has ever seen. He was named to the NBA's All-Defensive First Team nine times. 

"His whole makeup, his whole game," Van Exel says, "was built for one-on-one."

He spent years perfecting it too. He and Lakers guard Eddie Jones would frequently go head-to-head. Van Exel says he gave into Kobe's baiting a few times, but, he adds, it didn't take him long to learn there was no upside to joining Kobe in his jungle.

"His physicality—he'd try to throw elbows, trying to intimidate you," Van Exel, currently an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies, says. "He saw the way MJ played—MJ would always pot-shot with sneak elbows—Kobe would try to do the exact same things to get you off your game."

Games would continue over the offseason. During his first few years in the NBA, Kobe spent summers parked on a side hoop at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. The sound of his ball ripping through the net would ring out as then-head coach Steve Lavin's Bruins ran up and down the court.

One day, in the summer of 1998, a rising sophomore named Baron Davis walked over to the basket Kobe was shooting on. Davis was coming off an impressive season in which he'd been named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. But he also tore his ACL in the NCAA tournament. Doctors hadn't yet cleared him for contact. 

Earl Watson, the former Suns head coach and a teammate of Davis' at UCLA, remembers glancing over and seeing Davis rebounding for Kobe. Then, a few minutes later, he heard shoes squeaking. He turned and saw Davis in a defensive stance with an elbow up in Kobe's chest, trying to push him off his spot. Curse words were flying back and forth. Soon the whole team was looking over. Practice ground to a halt. Lavin called out for the game to stop.

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 18:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives against Baron Davis #1 of the Los Angeles Clippers during a preseason game at Staples Center on October 18, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackno
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

"They totally ignored him," Watson recalls. "They were in the zone."

That's who Kobe was. If you were to genetically construct a human in a lab for the sole purpose of dominating one-on-one matches, Kobe would be what you'd create. His game, his brain—hell, even his name.

And that's the man Kyrie Irving wanted to face.


Few people are as familiar with both Kobe and Kyrie as Kevin Love. A Santa Monica, California, native, he grew up watching the former. A Cavaliers player, he spent the three previous seasons playing alongside the latter.

Love also played with Kobe in the 2012 Olympics in London and was in the UNLV gym the day a young Kyrie approached Kobe to issue the challenge.

"At the time, I don't think Kyrie wanted to do that," Love says with a smile. "It would have been tough for him. Kobe's just got so much size."

Most players, coaches and league insiders to whom Bleacher Report posed this what-if believe that, had the two played the following summer, Kyrie would have quickly regretted the challenge, especially had the pair limited dribbles to three per possession, a common rule used in NBA-level one-on-ones to make the contests better correspond to in-game action.

"He'd have his moments, but Kobe—with his wingspan and when he's locked in, he's, to me, one of the greatest defenders ever," Watson says. "Kyrie would have needed more than three dribbles. Kobe, though, he can cover so much space with the same amount of dribbles." 

"Kyrie"—at 6'3"—"was too little," says former NBA player Ricky Davis, who spent multiple summers guarding the 6'6" Kobe during offseason pickup runs at UCLA. "I know Kyrie can get his shot up against anybody, but half court is a little different, and he'd have trouble just stopping Kobe."

Maybe more so back in 2012 than now.

"I don't know if Kyrie's even hit his prime yet," Love says. "But now, Kyrie's like the ultimate one-on-one player. The handle, the ability to make shots, he's probably one of the best below-the-rim finishers ever. In a lot of ways, at least in terms of being able to score the ball and his mannerisms and moves, he has a little of that Kobe in there."

As Kyrie's teammate from 2014 until this past summer, Love witnessed the evolution of these skills firsthand. It's one thing that separates Kyrie from nearly all of his peers—and why he may be the only current player worthy of this hypothetical discussion. In this new age of rest, Kyrie is one of the league's few stars interested and open to playing one-on-one contests, even during days off. 

"A lot of guys won't do it," says Cavaliers guard Iman Shumpert, a one-on-one fanatic and frequent opponent of Kyrie's. According to Shumpert, the two played regularly when Kyrie was working his way back from a knee injury during the 2015-16 season—only to have concerned Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue throw them off the court.

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 26: Iman Shumpert #4 talks with Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts on September 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downlo
Jason Miller/Getty Images

This also makes Shumpert the ideal person to provide a scouting report of Kyrie's one-on-one game and how, if given the chance today, he'd attack Kobe.

"His go-to is a hard drive to the basket, and then slow down on his second step to shift you and shoot a one-foot floater or push shot or little jump shot.

"And he ain't gonna start shooting jumpers until he feels like he's hot."

How would Kobe respond?

"He'd try to get him in the post. There'd be some kind of pivot—there's always some kind of pivot—and he'd elevate over him," Van Exel says. "Then, out on the perimeter, he loved the right-to-left crossover that would get him to his sweet spot, that 15-footer from the elbow."

The cap on dribbles would limit Kyrie's ability to leverage his quickness into an advantage. The inability to deny Kobe away from the ball—the only way to slow him, according to Davis—would force Kyrie to win without allowing Kobe to see the ball, assuming they were playing "make it take it."

Yet those who know Kyrie well say writing him off would be a mistake. 

"The size difference doesn't matter," Kyrie's former Cavaliers teammate Tristan Thompson says. "Look at Kyrie's jumper—he can get it off over 7-footers."

More importantly, Thompson points out, Kyrie's spent his entire life studying everything about Kobe, from his psyche to his game.

"That's one of his favorite players of all time," Thompson adds. "I know he watches a ton of Kobe highlights. They'd probably do some of the same moves on each other."

This is where the hypothetical begins to hurt the brain. The only way the more developed and advanced Kyrie—the one Shumpert and Thompson are talking about—could face Kobe is if he had some sort of time machine. Which is fine, but then, what about Kobe? Does he also get to choose a younger and more explosive version of himself than the player Kyrie challenged in the UNLV gym back in 2012? What happens then?

That $25,000 question is, of course, unanswerable. That's what makes it such a great what-if.

And what makes it so fun to think about. It's best summarized by Love, the guy who played with both.

"It would be fun to see."

                               

Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here, and sign up for his newsletter here.

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