Shaq: Prime MJ would beat prime LeBron in 1-on-1, but Dr. J's still 'the best'

Shaquille O'Neal, deep in thought.
Shaquille O'Neal, deep in thought.

Evidently, touching off a full-scale social media war with Scottie Pippen over which team would win a hypothetical matchup between all-time Los Angeles Lakers greats and all-time Chicago Bulls greats — and, in the process, giving Kelly Dwyer a pretty good idea — just wasn't enough debate-embracing for Shaquille O'Neal. The legendary big man and noted pratfall comedian this week decided to weigh in on the summertime NBA world's favorite neverending hot topic: Who would win in a game of one-on-one between the in-their-prime versions of Michael Jordan and LeBron James?

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This question — which we've been talking about for years — popped up again last week, during Jordan's Q&A session at his Flight School summer camp. After a brief pause, Jordan said there was "no question" he'd win. Precisely zero people found MJ's reply shocking.

It was similarly unsurprising, then, that James told TODAY's Willie Geist that he thinks he'd beat Jordan in that imaginary matchup. Two very competitive people who also happen to rank among the absolute greatest and most decorated individual talents in the history of basketball each believe that they would win a basketball game. Quelle surprise!

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Asked for his take on the theoretical rumble during a business trip to Hong Kong to plug Mike Miller's energy drink — no, seriously — The Big Aristotle and Big Brand Enthusiast went with his fellow retiree rather than his former teammate, according to Agence France Presse:

O'Neal, visiting Hong Kong to promote an energy drink, faced both Jordan and James in their prime and when asked who would win a hypothetical match-up, he didn't hesitate.

"Mike," said O'Neal, winner of four NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers (2000-2002) and the Miami Heat (2006). "I think you have to go with a young Jordan every time." [...]

"It would be an interesting game," said O'Neal. "Young LeBron was more like (Lakers Hall of Famer) Magic Johnson. He was sort of like Magic with Jordan's abilities. He liked to pass, and he liked to get it up.

"But Mike was Mike. He was just special, like no one else. He always did things no one else could do, and things you couldn't compare to anyone else. So he was special, and he'd win."

Michael Jordan (left) shakes hands with LeBron James after Game 4 of an opening-round NBA playoff series in April 2014. (AP/Chuck Burton)
Michael Jordan (left) shakes hands with LeBron James after Game 4 of an opening-round NBA playoff series in April 2014. (AP/Chuck Burton)

That is possible! It is also possible that LeBron would win. We are, after all, talking about two very, very good basketball players competing in a single game of one-on-one, which is a pretty small sample that would seem to be subject to an awful lot of randomness and variance. Every good quantitative analyst knows that anything can happen in a one-off, especially when the parameters of the game in question and the rules (fluid though they may be!) of the space-time continuum conspire to ensure that it can literally never happen. (I'm pretty sure there is a whole chapter about this specific issue in "Nonlocal Continuum Field Theories," which I am sure we've all toted to the beach this summer.)

In the course of offering his one-on-one opinion, though, Shaq also made a point of reiterating his previously stated belief that, with all due respect to MJ, LeBron, Kobe Bryant and everybody else, the greatest basketball player of all time used to rock an afro, dunk a red, white and blue ball, and choke Larry Bird:

But O'Neal threw another player into the mix when he said 1970s and 1980s superstar Julius Erving AKA Dr. J was the best he had ever seen.

"I've seen young Mike and young LeBron and I must say Dr. J is still my favourite player," said O'Neal. "A lot of people today don't even mention his name but to me I still think he was the best. But these are questions that we'll never know the answer to."

Somehow, we suspect that an inability to definitively determine the answer to these questions will not prevent people from arguing about them, whether in the context of an "in their primes" matchup or — more amazingly — or in one between a 30-year-old LeBron and a 52-year-old MJ. One can only hope that such disagreements remain peaceable and do not result in acts of physical violence, which is something that seems so basic as not have to be spoken aloud or explicitly typed, and yet, here we are. (We now must wait, with no small measure of trepidation, to see if Pippen — no stranger to LeBron-specific takes — decides to take a whack at this hornet's nest, too.)

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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