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If You Had One Shot (or Game or Season or Series … )

You’ve probably heard of situational players. But which NBA superstars would you choose for these four critical situations?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you had to choose one current NBA player to take one shot, who would you pick? What about to play in just one game? One season? One series? We asked our NBA staff to make a pick for each, with one catch: You can’t choose the same player twice.

One Shot

Jason Concepcion: There are many flavors of last shot. After-the-timeout action in the half court. Pull-up jumper in transition. Drive-and-kick to the shooter with his feet set. Mano a mano hero-ball dribble drive against a double-team. I choose Kevin Durant because The Servant can serve them all. At 7 feet with a deft handle and ICBM range, he can see over most defenders, drive past the ones he can’t, and let it fly from anywhere he wants. Durant is currently putting up a historically good shooting line—52 percent from the field, 43 percent from 3, 88 percent from the line.

Just look at his clutch stats this season. He’s shooting 60 percent on 42 attempts in the last five minutes with the game on the line and 53 percent from 3. And he’s done it from everywhere on the floor and in every way—long-range bombs, midrange dribble drives, Dirkian elbow fadeaways, layups, and on and on.

Game on the line? Just let KD cook. I like the odds.

Shea Serrano: Let’s say the Spurs are in the NBA Finals, and let’s also say that it’s Game 7, and let’s also say that they’re playing on the road, and let’s also say that the score is 101-99, and let’s also say that there are 14 seconds left, and let’s also say that the Spurs are in possession of the ball, and let’s also say that they have just used their final timeout, and let’s also say that we’re playing against a suddenly unstoppable Cavs team, and let’s also say that in addition to the title being at stake my life is (somehow) also at stake. If we take all of those things to be true, then I want Steph Curry taking the shot. He is smart enough, good enough, deadly enough, fearless enough for me to feel like I have a better than average chance at being alive at the end of that possession.

Danny Chau: Durant. My heart and mind have been prepared for this answer since the final seconds of Game 3 in last year’s Finals.

His go-ahead pull-up 3 right over LeBron’s outstretched arms to steal a victory from what was a near-perfect Cavaliers effort was iconic. The gravity of the moment, the symbolism of the two best players in the game brought together in a single frame, the unique talents that Durant can leverage over every player in the NBA—it all culminated in a perfect late-game shot. The league’s finest guards will likely figure heavily in this answer: Kyrie, Steph, Dame, Harden—all reliable options. But give me the player who has a standing reach of 9-foot-2 who can ably shoot from anywhere on the floor without any chance of getting his shot blocked.

John Gonzalez: Markelle Fultz. He’s totally “made progress,” you guys.

Justin Verrier: Sorry to be that guy, but if you’re asking me whom I want to give the ball to in order to create the best last shot, it’s Chris Paul. CP’s expert game managing was pointed to as the model alternative to hero ball seven years ago, when cracks first started to form in the veneer of Kobe as a crunch-time killer, and Paul is still every bit the cutthroat executive on the floor at age 32. He currently leads the entire NBA in real plus-minus and is third in net rating among regulars. But if we’re narrowing it down to the player who is actually pulling the trigger, give me Curry, who is literally the most likely non-center to make a shot, of any kind, in NBA history.

Haley O’Shaughnessy: James Harden’s reputation in crucial playoff games is iffy at best, Stephen A. Smith–wondering-whether-he-was-drugged at worst. His meltdown in Game 6 against the Spurs last postseason was throwing up mom’s spaghetti on the NBA’s largest stage. But I’m not asking him to play a game, or a quarter, or even five minutes. One shot is all we need, and I’ll take it from the man tied with Kemba Walker for the most 3s made this season. Harden is a solid bet inside, too: Over half of the shots he takes on drives to the rim are successful, and almost a quarter result in a foul call.

Jonathan Tjarks: Durant. He’s an elite shooter and ball handler. He is also 7 feet tall, so he can always get a clean look at the basket.

Paolo Uggetti: Durant. Here’s a riddle: If Kevin Durant, all 7 feet of him and his even longer wingspan, decides to pull up from any location on the floor, who is blocking his shot? Someone taller like Joel Embiid? Durant’s too quick. Someone quicker like Kawhi Leonard? Durant’s too tall. KD is a conundrum for defenses everywhere. It’s not just that his stroke is velvet smooth; his whole procedure—setting his feet then jumping and shooting faster than the bench can say “shot”—is so polished it looks effortless. I wouldn’t want anyone else with the ball when the game comes down to one possession.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

One Game

O’Shaughnessy: Dame Time, so far, has struck midnight at the Western Conference semifinals. But for a single game, especially this season, I’m picking Lillard. (And in all honesty, all he needs is a quarter.) The Blazers guard has consistently finished seasons among the top fourth-quarter scorers, and he led them all in that category in 2014-15. Also, his nickname is Big Game Dame. Case closed.

Chau: Harden. There are players who are capable of more visually explosive performances at their peak, but no player embodies the flow state, in all senses of the term, quite like the Beard. There are 20 players in NBA history who have recorded a 40-point triple-double; there are only four who have logged a triple-double scoring 50. Harden stands alone with the only 60-point triple-double. In the triple-double wars of 2017, Russell Westbrook’s control over his lackluster roster was pushed far past its limits. Under Mike D’Antoni, it can feel as though there is no limit to the vastness of Harden’s offensive reign. At his best, Harden forces his surroundings to bend to his whim, his speed, his purpose. It’s an experience unlike any other in the NBA.

Concepcion: My One-Shot choice is based, in part, on numbers and video evidence. This choice is just a feeling I have in my guts that even at 33 years old and after 15 years in the league, when LeBron James needs to call down the lightning, the lightning obeys. Yes, the Cavaliers are abject defensively. Yes, they’re currently the 3-seed and could slip lower. And, yes, like Keith Richards having all of his blood replaced, the Cavs had to swap basically all of their rotation players for fresh bodies in order to maintain their season (and placate James).

In the early days of this season, the Cavaliers needed a win like Aloe Blacc needed a dollar. (Clearly, things have not changed all that much.) The Cavs were coming off a four-game skid to the Nets, Pelicans, Knicks, and Pacers. A team meeting had already been held. Throughout the losing and porous defense, James had maintained a kind of seasonal nonchalance. “It’s October,” he said. Then came November and that 124-107 headlock by the Pacers before anyone understood that the Pacers were, indeed, good. The next night, against the Wizards, LeBron held Mjölnir aloft and summoned 57 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, three steals, two blocks, and the win, that needed win.

Serrano: It feels like it’s cheating to just pick superstars for all of these, so let me lean the other way for this one: If I could pick one player in the NBA to play on the Spurs for just one game, then I want Zaza Pachulia, because that way Gregg Popovich can shove him down a flight of stairs in the back of the stadium when no one is around.

Verrier: LeBron. The toughest part of this whole exercise is where to slot James. He has more regular-season MVPs than any active player and is currently on pace to play all 82 games this season, at age 33. He also has more Finals MVPs than any active player, too. But this spot feels right, because the evidence is simply overwhelming: In Game 7, against the best regular-season team ever, he put up a triple-double and made one of the greatest plays in history. In other words, he almost single-handedly won the most important game in recent memory. What is there to argue?

Tjarks: Anthony Davis. There’s no real way to game plan for Davis. He’s so long, athletic, and skilled that he gives you a chance against anyone in a one-game scenario.

Uggetti: Curry. No one can go from zero to 100 faster than Steph. He could go 0-for-10 in the first half of a game and come out after halftime to set the third quarter on fire. Nothing is outside the realm of possibility because we’ve never seen a player like him. He, quite literally, changes how any given game is played on any night by merely stepping onto the court. It’s like walking into geometry class only to find a calculus problem on the board.

Gonzalez: I’m using LeBron for the one-series question, so I’ll take the second-best player on the planet for this one. Durant is an offensive marvel and an underappreciated monster on defense, but this is all we really need to consider about the man in terms of his one-game services: He suffered an incomplete rib fracture against the Timberwolves that should keep him out about two weeks. (In the interim, please don’t make him laugh.) Before the injury was diagnosed, he said it felt “irritated and weak” but played against the Lakers anyway. He had 26 points (10-of-19 from the field, 5-of-5 from the line), six assists, five rebounds, one steal, and one block in a win over Los Angeles. It was just an OK game by his standards, but he did it with a broken rib. Imagine what he could do in a single game with a full complement of ribs at his disposal.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

One Season

Gonzalez: I challenge you to find someone who’s been more entertaining than Joel Embiid this season. In addition to playing 57 of 68 possible games—all those people who said he’d never even play half a season sure have been quiet lately—averaging a double-double and making his first All-Star team, no one in the league has had more fun than JoJo. Things he’s done this season: run through the streets of Philadelphia while wearing his game shorts, play night tennis and call himself “the Black Roger Federer,” point Andre Drummond to the exits, send Russell Westbrook into Witness Protection, make fun of Lonzo and LaVar (his location game on Instagram is unmatched), party with fans after the Eagles won the Super Bowl, and crash a local news broadcast. And those are just the ones I remembered off the top of my head while typing this. Tap that man’s high jinks into my veins.

Serrano: Please can I just have Healthy Kawhi? Thank you.

Concepcion: Since Harden arrived in Houston, the Rockets have been among the league elite. Well, except for that one season when everyone hated each other and head coach Kevin McHale got fired 11 games in. That was mostly Dwight Howard’s fault. (I’m basing that on mostly circumstantial evidence I like to call “Dwight Howard’s entire career.”) This season, the Rockets have the best record in the NBA and Harden is the hub around which the team revolves. For a superstar, Harden is remarkably easy to build around. Houston’s tactics, strategy, and personnel are vertically integrated: Harden’s game is predicated on 3-pointers and free throws; head coach Mike D’Antoni’s four-out pick-and-roll system fits him like a glove; and general manager Daryl Morey has made a career of leveraging inefficiencies.

Could the Rockets, and Harden, flame out in the postseason? Of course. I mean, I almost expect them to. But if we’re talking one season, give me Harden.

Chau: Embiid. We’re talking a full, 82-game season, right? Like, he’d play for 82 games? Yes, give me Embiid for that.

Uggetti: Giannis Antetokounmpo. At 23 years old, Giannis is in a sweet spot of his NBA career. He’s physically matured since he entered the league in 2013, but he still has the breathless—albeit sometimes erratic—energy of a rookie. The Greek Freak also has under 400 games on his odometer, so he doesn’t have to worry about cryotherapy chambers, yoga, and custom mattresses to maximize sleep cycles yet. Combine that with the ability to create any shot he wants for himself on the court and that nearly no one can defend him, and you have yourself an athletically gifted machine who can play all 82 games in a season. It’s both effective and ridiculously entertaining.

O’Shaughnessy: Durant is quietly clutch, which sounds odd for someone universally accepted as a top-three player. But no one on his level is less showy—perhaps because only LeBron James is on his level—and there is an argument that he’s a better long-term difference-maker than James throughout an 82-game season. LeBron is less injury-prone (even at 33 years old!), but Durant is more willing to adjust his game to better a team, and doesn’t have to do it all himself.

Tjarks: Steph Curry. He makes everyone so much better on offense, and he sets the tone in the locker room. The perfect guy to build a franchise around. He’s also incredibly fun to watch, which is a nice bonus.

Verrier: Harden. There’s probably a lot of recency bias at work here, but winning in the regular season is all about grinding out wins, Joey Knish–style, and there’s no one better at manufacturing points out of nothing than Harden (as evidenced by his absolute mastery in isolation this season). Sunday’s win in Minnesota—the Rockets’ 22nd in their past 23 games, by the way—is the perfect example: When Houston’s big lead dwindled to five in the fourth quarter, Harden scored nine of his 34 points (including four free throws) to provide the necessary breathing room.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

One Series

Serrano: I think it depends on the series. If it’s the first round of the playoffs, then give me James Harden, because I don’t trust him in water that’s even 1 inch deeper than that yet. If it’s the second round, then I’d feel good and safe going with DeMar DeRozan, a player I’ve watched turn from Basketball John Wick in the second round to Basketball Nerf John Wick in the third round. If it’s the third round, give me Giannis, because I’ve not seen him that far in the playoffs yet but I’m of the mind that he’s going to be terrifying in that situation. And if it’s the Finals, I think I’d like to have LeBron, because it’s usually a good idea to have the guy who breaks all the records all the time on your team in the most meaningful moments.

Concepcion: The Warriors won their first title in nearly 40 years in 2015. In the two seasons since then, they’ve lost 10 total playoff games and played in two NBA Finals, winning one. Last postseason, Steph’s Warriors went 16-1 in the postseason. And Steph is the engine that makes Golden State go. He’s the greatest shooter anyone has ever seen and the only player to have taken more than 800 3s in a season. Solving for his influence on the floor is like trying to solve the Einstein Problem. Curry is the tesseract.

Sure, his shooting percentages are slightly down from his career numbers in the regular season. That makes sense. Teams can game plan against a single opponent in the postseason. And the increased threshold for physicality allows defenses to get aggressive in an attempt to wear Curry out over the course of seven games. Whatever. I’m riding the hot hand.

Tjarks: LeBron. He is probably the smartest and most versatile player in the league. He can change his game over the course of the series to give you exactly what you need in a given matchup.

Verrier: Anthony Davis has played in only four playoff games, three years ago, but he was a goddamn comet—against the eventual champions, no less—in that meager sample: 31.5 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks, two assists, 28.5 PER, 61.3 true shooting percentage. And now he has a 3-point shot and the bulk to play center full-time and play through the various minor injuries and uncalled fouls that have stalled his ascension. We’re getting really, really close to being able to call Davis the best player in the NBA, full stop. I want that guy, regardless of experience.

Chau: LeBron. The league’s best player has a supercomputer mind and has played in four playoff series in each of the past seven seasons—an unfathomable advantage in game data over every other player in the NBA. He knows exactly how the league has changed over the past five seasons. He is more attuned to the nuances of in-series adjustments than most head coaches. There is no player I trust more to recalibrate his role and rise to what he expects of himself.

Gonzalez: The obvious answer here is LeBron (who killed a man in Portland last week and got away with it). There’s a reason he’s taken his teams to seven straight NBA Finals. His playoff averages over that span are incredible: 28.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.9 steals, and one block. He also played 41.4 minutes per game during that stretch, which is amazing because I can’t believe anyone convinced him to check out of any playoff game long enough to average 6.6 minutes of rest. There’s nothing like playoff LeBron.

Uggetti: If the playoff switch exists, then LeBron owns the patent. No one has elevated teammates to a level beyond the expected more than LeBron; as his entire career has proved, the equation of any series can change based on his presence alone. Give him one of the Cavs rosters from his first era with the team or this season’s fluctuating group and it would still be difficult to pick against his team come playoff time. In the same way Gregg Popovich and the Spurs can seemingly turn anyone into a serviceable NBA player, LeBron can turn serviceable players into NBA champions.

O’Shaughnessy: LeBron. Did you watch the 2016 Finals?