Two great sports rivalries were featured prominently this past weekend in “The Last Match.”
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have been arguably the two biggest faces of golf in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and though Tiger seems to have the definitive edge in terms of accolades and statistics, Mickelson has gotten the better of him time and time again. In fact, when the two greats have stood atop the leaderboard in 1-2 finishes, representing their closest matches, Mickelson has been the “1” in five of those nine epic clashes.
“The Match”, both the 2020 edition and the initial 2018 challenge, allowed fans to watch the two of them go head-to-head as their rivalry flourished to its highest levels.
When Tom Brady and Peyton Manning joined the party, it brought another famous rivalry to the forefront -- though some would argue that Eli Manning is the true arch-nemesis of Brady. Though it was the rivalry’s first appearance on the golf course, we’ve seen the Brady-Manning clash many times on the gridiron: 17 times, to be exact. Brady was 11-6 over all, but Manning won more when it counted most, with three wins in five postseason matchups.
“The Last Dance” provided hours of much-needed basketball footage, giving NBA fans a behind-the-scenes look at Michael Jordan and finally allowing a younger generation of basketball fans to witness the greatness of the five-time MVP. Part of the expected fallout of the series was a resurfacing of the greatest-of-all-time debate, featuring MJ and LeBron James, and it sure has blown up throughout the NBA universe.
But whereas “The Match” allowed us to watch the rivalries play out, we’re still left wondering how the MJ-LeBron rivalry would have actually manifested itself on the court.
This rivalry and more are part of our “The Match: NBA Edition” hypotheticals, where we pin current and former players alike, envisioning them at their peaks for the sake of this exercise and predicting how each matchup would unfold. Take the interactive quiz at the bottom of the page and see if people agree with your choices!
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Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen vs. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade
Every superhero needs a sidekick, and in the case of MJ and LeBron, their most famous sidekicks are Hall of Fame talents in their own right. Though Jordan and Pippen have double the rings, James and Wade were arguably just as dominant. In the four years they played together in Miami, they reached four NBA Finals and secured two rings, thus you’d have to expect their success could have been right up there with Jordan’s and Pippen’s had they played together for an extended time.
Who would win this one? Jeez. That’s a tough question to answer. Not only do you have to factor in which matchup each team would seek out -- it feels more likely that Pippen and LeBron would be the matchup, in a somewhat anticlimactic fashion -- but you have to figure out if ego would come into play and just how big a role Wade and Pippen would actually play with the spotlight honed in largely on MJ and LeBron.
Overall, I lean toward MJ and Pippen in this one, though. Defensively, Pippen and MJ hold a slight edge over LeBron and Wade, though all four of them are renowned for their defensive chops. Wade’s height hasn’t stopped him from being able to successfully guard some of the best players around, but whereas he ranks outside the top 50 in career defensive win shares, the other three are all in the top 25. As Bleacher Report’s Stephen Babb noted, Wade benefitted by playing with guys like LeBron, Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem, and so when he couldn’t stop opponents on his own, he had the backup support that allowed his playstyle to thrive.
This doesn’t work so well in a 2-on-2 scenario. If Wade is on Pippen, the 6’8” forward could use his frame to his advantage and physically outperform Wade. If Wade is on Jordan… well, it’s Michael Jordan.
That shows just how high the bar is for this matchup. If you’re outside the top 25 players of all time in a certain category, you’re lagging behind.
Allen Iverson and Joel Embiid vs. James Harden and Yao Ming
Two unstoppable scorers paired up with two gargantuan presences. I considered that it might be fun to pair up Iverson and Harden instead, but figured that it would be way too hard to justify any argument saying that the two shooting guards could actually stop the centers in the paint. Sure, Iverson and Harden would find ways to create separation with ease, but logistically, one big man planted around the paint on defense would need just one miss to ensure victory. Embiid and Yao would score on every possession without breaking much of a sweat.
So instead, we’ll pair these two generations of teammates together before pitting them head-to-head. Both Iverson and Harden could flip the switch and turn on some other gear that wasn’t available to most of the NBA. All you need to watch are samples from Iverson’s 2001 Finals run to understand that he’s stone-cold when it matters most, and Harden has gained statistically-backed recognition as the most clutch player in the NBA. The two Hall of Famers -- one already in, one seemingly a lock -- single handedly carried their respective teams at different points in their careers. Devastating handles, fearless confidence, and insane abilities in space will make this matchup one to remember.
The battle between the bigs would be really interesting to watch. Yao’s pure height and length had been enough to dominate practically every center around the league on both sides of the ball, but he never faced off with an in-out threat as big as Embiid during his run in the league. Embiid has averaged over 20 points per game in each year of his career so far, and has locked up countless big men en route to two All-Defensive honors. However, the argument works the other way. Embiid also never had to go up against someone with the 7’6” frame and the touch that Yao had, as Yao’s ability from mid-range was a big factor in his dominance.
The edge is almost impossible to determine in this one, but I’m going to go against my home team and give the nod to Harden and Yao. Harden is the much better three-point bomber than Iverson ever was, and Yao’s four-inch advantage will help in a big way when attempting to slow down Embiid’s diverse attack. This might be the closest matchup on the entire list, though.
Zion Williamson and Ja Morant vs. Luka Doncic and Trae Young
This matchup is a great way to officially usher in the new generation of NBA stars, if their performances in the league haven’t already done that to a high-enough level… which they probably have.
Williamson’s long-awaited debut certainly did not disappoint this season, as he played at a level rarely seen from rookies in their very first appearances. As I previously wrote, he is the epitome of “must-see” NBA action every single time he touches the floor, and he’s not only performing as one of the best rookies but as one of the best players in the NBA, period. Though he may not win Rookie of the Year if the season doesn’t resume as normal, he did enough in a limited capacity to unofficially earn him that claim in my mind. But the official honor is likely to go to Ja Morant, and his accomplishments should not be completely overshadowed.
Morant is leading the Grizzlies to a prospective playoff seed, though the method used by the NBA to resume the season could dictate their playoff fate when it’s all said and done. With 17.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game, he’s an all-around player that’s living up to his second-overall value and could be the cornerstone of a Grizzlies franchise that was long-searching for a charismatic leader.
Though the 2019 draft class has a duo of strong representatives, they face some really impressive competition that will represent the year prior. Luka Doncic and Trae Young, notably swapped on draft day, emerged as stars in their rookie seasons and carried that momentum into even stronger 2019 campaigns. Luka Doncic seems like someone who will be a surefire MVP candidate year in and year out, while Trae Young’s limitless range and crafty handles led to a handful of 40-point showings.
But which side would take this one? The advantage in my mind, surprisingly, goes to the younger guys. I don’t care who you are; taking on Zion Williamson in an isolation matchup just doesn’t seem fair. It feels like he’d win the rebound battle over Doncic in most cases, and attempting to stop his drives to the rack will take a ton out of you after repeated efforts. Young can pull up from literally anywhere, but he lacks consistency, and Doncic, though the best player in the group overall, doesn’t seem to be as big an isolation threat as Zion.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin vs. Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp
This one would be deemed the Lob City Classic. Though there are comparable alley-oop duos throughout NBA history -- Jason Kidd and Vince Carter come to mind, as do Steven Nash and Amare Stoudemire -- there may not be a 2-on-2 matchup that promises more violent, explosive dunks than this one.
And though Griffin and Kemp would steal the show with their ferocious outbursts on the rim, the matchup at point guard may be the better one. After all, Gary Payton was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and Chris Paul has done enough throughout his career to ensure that same path. Kemp and Griffin, on the other hand, were forces at their peak, but saw those peaks dwindle away and are not necessarily Hall of Fame basketball players. Griffin still has time to rebound, and Basketball Reference’s Hall of Fame Probability Monitor currently puts his chances over 50%. Kemp’s are at 38%. Both Payton and Paul’s are greater than 99.9%.
It might be the shooting, and not the dunking, that ultimately provides peak Paul and Griffin the edge over the heart of the Sonics franchise. Gary Payton was never a dead-eye jump shooter, as he was under 40% in his career from beyond 10-feet, and especially unreliable from three-point land. Kemp didn’t attempt many buckets from beyond the arc, though his mid-range shooting was reliable. For instance, before substance abuse derailed his 2000-01 season, Kemp took 53% of his shots from the range between 16 feet and the three-point line, and knocked down 42.5% of those attempts.
But Chris Paul has the definitive edge over Payton in the shooting category, and Griffin has similarly become a more polished jump-shooter with age and with deteriorating physicality. More interesting than the winner of this contest, though, would undoubtedly be the incredible displays of athleticism and chemistry high above the rim.
Ray Allen and Reggie Miller vs. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson
The record-holders face off against the record-seekers in this one. Whoever sets this matchup up may want to steal from the Big 3 league and add a four-point shot… and maybe move it back a few feet.
Currently, Allen and Miller rank first and second, respectively, on the all-time three-point shooting leaderboards. Seeing as Allen’s record of 2,973 finished well beyond Miller’s figure of 2,560, you’d think it would have some more longevity to it. But in 699 career games -- 600 fewer than Allen and just over half of Miller’s total games played -- Curry is knocking on the door. It’s only a matter of time before Curry, with 2,495 career threes, breaks the record. Klay Thompson has always served as Curry’s faithful Splash Brother, and so it only feels right to pair the two of them. I could have gone with James Harden, who is actually fifth all-time in made threes, but Thompson is within the top 20.
Besides... Harden and Curry against Allen and Miller? Please. That’s not a close game.
Klay Thompson is still a great player, but makes the matchup a little bit more winnable for the retired sharpshooters. Still, I give the active guys the advantage in this matchup. Curry’s handles are better than anyone in this contest by a wide margin, and Thompson, at his best, can be considered a lockdown defender. Neither Allen nor Miller can say they have either of those capabilities.
Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum
This clash features four of the greatest positionless wings, with two of them skewed slightly toward the older generation of stars that continue to dominate the NBA and two guys who have risen to prominence more recently.
Durant and Leonard don’t really have any weaknesses as a duo. Big game experience? Check, in the largest possible way. Leadership? Check. Scoring? Try Durant’s foursome of scoring titles. Defense? How about Kawhi’s five All-Defensive selections.
But the other side is pretty scary as well. The reigning MVP paired with one of a quickly developing talent as Tatum’s might be enough to dethrone the old generation. At 25 and 22, respectively, Giannis and Tatum have torn up the league with such rapidity that they might just outperform Durant and Leonard when they reach their peak. The Greek Freak, with last year’s MVP and the 2019-20 award locked within his grip, may have already done that.
Who wins? I’m taking the older guys, for now. In two or three years, when we’ve seen the peak of what Tatum is capable of, and when Giannis has developed his jumper to a higher level, we will probably have a different story. But I just can’t imagine a scenario where such a tested, talented pair of players like Durant and Leonard drop this game.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum vs. John Wall and Bradley Beal
The battle of the No. 9 seeds features two incredibly talented backcourts, albeit one that hasn’t been complete in a couple years. Still, these are the teams in their respective conferences that lurk right on the edge of the playoffs, and have heard their stars threaten not to play if the resumption of the season takes away their postseason opportunity.
Lillard and McCollum have brought a ton of success to Portlant, but have never quite been enough to lead them over the hump of whatever juggernaut teams pace the West in a given season. Still, Lillard is one of the best players in the league, and went on an otherworldly tear this year to demonstrate that. Over a six-game stretch in January, Lillard averaged 48.8 points, 10.2 assists, and 7.2 rebounds per game on 57% three-point shooting. So if he finds that gear, and if McCollum continues his sharp-shooting ways from deep, this is a tough duo to bring down.
However, a healthy John Wall (who we haven’t seen since December of 2018) co-led the Wizards to similar success, including playoff appearances in four of five seasons between 2013 and 2017. While Beal had been a great No. 2 player while Wall was the de facto leader of the squad, he took his play to a completely different level once Wall became sidelined with his injury. In 2019-20, Beal is averaging 30.5 ppg to go along with 6.1 assists and remains one of the league’s deadliest shooters.
Considering everyone is playing at their peak for this hypothetical, the Wizards’ backcourt gets the nod here. Wall’s blazing speed and Beal’s unconscious shooting performances would ultimately be too much to handle in most cases for Lillard and McCollum, though Dame could light the fuse at any team and become simply unstoppable as has been the case so many times before.