While Cleveland forward Lebron James has established himself as the game’s best player the past five or so years, the question that has been posed by many is, “who can challenge or dethrone him?” King James poses many match-up problems for opposing players on both ends of the floor, making him extremely difficult to deal with offensively and defensively. So which players, past or present, possess the skill set and the ability to possibly trump James head to head in a game of one-on-one? The list is not particularly long, trust us. But these are the rare few who possibly could get it done. We’re not saying these guys would be guaranteed to beat LeBron, but all them definitely have a shot.
12. Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard wasn’t necessarily expected to be a superstar when he was drafted 15th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft, but a trade to San Antonio (on draft night, no less) put him under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich, one of the best coaches in the league. By 2014, he was leading the Spurs to an NBA championship and being named Finals MVP. But would he be able to beat LeBron 1-on-1? Well, his back-to-back NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2015 and 2016 say yes.
Leonard, already a great defender, has increased his scoring touch every single season so far, going from 7.9 points per game in his rookie season to 25.5 in 2016-17. He has quickly turned into one of the best all-around players in the entire league. His lock-down D would be enough to keep a 1-on-1 with LeBron close, and his improved ability to put the ball in the basket gives him a chance to win.
11. Steph Curry
On paper, this is a complete mismatch. The former two-time MVP may be deadly accurate from behind the arc, but he gives up five or six inches and at least 60 or 70-pounds to King James. That physical difference alone should be enough for LeBron to pick up an easy win, right? That’s what we thought too, until we watched the 2017 NBA Finals.
In one amazing moment in Game 2, Curry dribbled circles around LeBron, making him bite on feints, cross-overs, and head fakes. It was like a beautiful ballet, but where one of the dancers (LeBron) gets made to look foolish at the end. Did Curry double-dribble during the play? Hell yes, he did. But the refs didn’t call it, so who cares? Curry is small and lightning fast, with ridiculous handles. It’s unlikely he’d have much success trying to shoot the ball over top of James in a playground 1-on-1, but we’re pretty certain he can get around him on the dribble.
10. Larry Bird
The Hick From French Lick may not have been LBJ’s physical equal, but he could shoot from anywhere and was as capable a defender as King James. A little slow of foot, Bird made up for that shortcoming with positioning and timing. He was a steals machine, as is Lebron, and both were and are turnover-prone, which would make this matchup fairly even. Where Bird gets the edge is at the three-point arc. His career average of .376 far exceeds LBJ’s mark of .341, which would allow the Indiana Hall of Famer to bomb a few more and pull out a close win 1-on-1.
9. Bill Russell
If 1-on-1’s were based on championship rings, Russell wins hands down. The Louisiana native won an incredible 11 championships in his 13-year career, tying him with Montreal Canadiens’ legend Maurice Richard for most all-time in any major league. That said, the tale of the tape says Russell has two inches on Lebron, but gives away 25 pounds. Where he gains the edge on the Cleveland phenom is in the defense department. Not as prolific a shooter as LBJ, Russell was a rebounding and shot-blocking stalwart on the dynastic Celtics teams of the early 1960s. Russell is second all-time in total rebounds, so anything King James misses gets gobbled up and potentially turned around.
8. Julius Erving
By modern, and King James standards, Dr. J was a physical wimp. No doubt Lebron and his 6’8″, 240 lb. frame would push Erving’s skinny 6’6″, 200 lbs. to the limit. However, Erving was a revolutionary dunker and used his athleticism to avoid being blocked when close to the rim. He also used his speed and quickness to pull down offensive rebounds, which no doubt resulted in padding his already gaudy offensive stats (30,000+ career points, over 24 ppg average). They didn’t call Erving “the Doctor” for nothing.
7. Scottie Pippen
Air Jordan was the style behind all the Bulls’ championships in the ’90s. Pippen was the substance. An underrated shooter, Pippen was a beast on defense and made opposing forwards work very hard for buckets. Like LBJ, Pippen is 6’8″, only a little leaner. What would give Pippen the edge was the razor-like focus on defense, with the ability to steal the rock from King James and scoot jackrabbit-like to the shooting areas. Pippen was named all-defensive team eight consecutive years in the 90s and was a respectable 16.1 ppg in the meantime. Maybe not Lebron’s equal offensively, but hands down way tighter on D.
6. Allen Iverson
Yes, AI. Despite being massively undersized in comparison (Iverson in his prime went at about 6’0” and 165 lbs, while LeBron is about 6’8”, 245 lbs), he is listed for one reason – speed kills! In a lot of sports the proverb holds true, as speed is something you cannot teach and is difficult to defend and/or handle. He would be a handful and more for James to defend, as Iverson is just too quick for him – or anyone else for that matter – to guard without help. This would force James to play a little off Iverson, freeing up AI for clean looks from the perimeter with his jump shot. While Iverson will have little-to-no chance guarding James in the post, if he can keep LeBron on the outside, his quick hands – and feet – can be problematic for James off the dribble, leading to some steals and possible turnovers.
5. Kevin Durant
If speed kills, then size causes problems. And Durant certainly has the size. Not in physical girth, but in length. If one doesn’t have that, trying to match up with King James becomes exceedingly difficult. A pure shooter, as well as scorer, Durant will force LeBron to defend consistently and hopefully use up energy that will slow him down when he has the ball. Defending James man-up is definitely a cause for concern here. Durant is solid defender, as showcased in the 2017 NBA Finals against the Cavaliers. But LeBron is great offensively, so that does not bode well for the 2014 MVP. What he needs to do is try and take away the drive, make James shoot a lot of long jumpers, and use his length to contest them. Easier said than done, but we don’t see another way.
4. Tracy McGrady
Yes, T-Mac. We know he underachieved somewhat and is not in the same class as James, but skill-for-skill, he’s right up there. Not as big as LeBron, but like the aforementioned Durant he does have the length, and is a better on ball defender. His defensive capabilities are why he’s on the list and not his cousin, Vince Carter. He will need to do a lot of the same things that were mentioned about Durant. He may be a bit more explosive than Durant, but T-Mac is not as refined, skilled or as consistent. But we’re not talking about that, we’re talking about one-on-one, and T-Mac has the size and ability to do it. But will he use it? And if he does, will it be enough? Maybe.
3. Magic Johnson
Earvin has to be included based on the simple fact that he was a point guard in a power forward’s body. Not only was he 6’9″, he was very agile. He could play all five positions on the floor, as he won NBA Finals MVPs at two polar opposite positions: center and point guard. Not only that, he could defend all five positions as well, which is something that becomes extremely important when going up against James in a one-on-one setting. Magic’s size neutralizes the advantage that LeBron has over most, but he also possesses the skill set to create issues that most men his size are not able to do. LeBron is slightly more athletic and a bit quicker, and he will need to rely heavily on those to overcome the Laker legend in this fictional battle.
2. Kobe Bryant
He would definitely have a great shot at taking down Lebron James in a one-on-one environment. Kobe Bryant is one of the most talented players, on both sides of the ball, to ever play the game. Offensively, he’s as skilled as they come and can score in a variety of ways, and LeBron will have trouble containing him. Defensively, Kobe is very good and can be a standout defender when he sets his mind to it. He won’t be able to lock down James completely, but he can make him work. Outside of Magic and Michael Jordan, he may have the best shot. It’s a toss-up here.
1. Michael Jordan
Is there any question to why he is on the list? First of all, he is widely regarded as the greatest of all time and there’s a reason for that. During Michael’s prime, all the players in the league were asked two questions:
1) Who is the player you would least like to guard with the game on the line?
2) Who is the player you would least like guarding you with the game on the line?
We’ll give you “23” guesses as to who was the leading vote getter in both polls. Trust us, there’s a reason for that. Offensively, Jordan brings an arsenal that provides him with so many options. He’s a very good mid range shooter, has three point range, can take anyone off the dribble, resort to a series of fakes, and can elevate and shoot from anywhere on the floor. Not only can he post-up if need be, but he can post bigger men as well, not just beat them from the outside. His deadly fade away – which he can hit from either side – has made bigger defenders look lost. There’s never been anyone able to guard him one-on-one, and we don’t see LeBron being any different. While Michael has been able to guard bigger players – even Magic – James’ strength and agility will definitely give His Airness problems, even though he’s a great defender in his own right. So even though he won’t stop LeBron, he should be able to slow him down just enough for his offensive game to get him the W.