Who Would Win an NBA-Wide Game of Knockout?

NBA Knockout Durant Westbrook Harden LeBron

As sportswriting is apparently only a full-time occupation if you went to Northwestern, the rest of us often have to pick up other jobs to make ends meet. One of mine involves playing sports with kids, and you know what kids freaking love? Knockout.

And why not? Knockout is awesome. The pace is blistering. There’s no defense. The small sample leads to completely random results. It’s basically the NBA All-Star game, except people are actually trying.

So if we lined up every player in the NBA organized by total career minutes played (to ideally keep the stars away from each other) and made them play a game of knockout for legitimate but not life-threatening stakes (I don’t know, let’s say the winner gets all of the powers of Aquaman or something), who would win?

If you need a refresher on the rules, click here. But to figure out who would actually win, we need to identify the most important skills specific to knockout rather than basketball as a whole.

  • Stamina. When the line thins out towards the end of a game of knockout, you’re essentially sprinting for several minutes in a row. You have to be in terrific shape to compete with any sort of regularity, especially against other NBA players, when a game would likely take a fair bit longer.
  • Three-point shooting (we’re playing this game from the top of the arc). If you make the initial shot, all of the variables that come with a miss and chasing down a rebound off of a weird bounce disappear. The more often you miss, the more often you risk the guy behind you getting lucky and knocking you out. It only has to happen once.
  • Rebounding, particularly off of your own shots. There’s a very particular kind of calculus that comes with rebounding in knockout. If you chase after your shot immediately after taking it, one weird ricochet can knock you out. If you hang back, you risk the player behind you racing in front before you even have a chance to get your second shot up. Ideally, you want to be a combination of long and fast, so you can make up ground quickly and reach for balls that bounce weirdly off of the rim.
  • Reflexes. The passes you get in knockout are not going to be ideal. They’re going to come from someone indifferent. Someone rebounding their own made shots, occasionally with malevolent intentions (I have kids who intentionally make bad passes to try to get better players out. I even have one who always lines up behind the worst player and refuses to knock him out so they’ll end up as the final two). You have to be able to adjust to bad passes on the fly. And honestly, you need some amount of luck.

Going through each category, let’s eliminate some prominent names:

  • Stamina: no Spur is winning this. I’m sorry Kawhi, I’ve never seen you play all 48 or close to it. I don’t know how you’ll respond to exhaustion. I don’t trust you late in the game. Same goes for Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and anyone 33 or older (sorry Dirk).
  • Shooting: Russ is the obvious candidate here. Though he’s near the top of the other three categories, he’s going to miss too many of his opening shots. Eventually, the guy behind him is going to make one. The same goes for Giannis, Jimmy Butler, most big men, and, sadly, LeBron.
  • Rebounding: Portland’s guards are going to get weird ricochets they can’t catch. Same goes for Chris Paul. Basically anyone under 6’4” or 6’5” is going to struggle with the long rebounds that come off of three-pointers. Especially since they’re not particularly used to trying to rebound those in the first place. James Harden is about as short as I’m willing to consider seriously for this game.
  • Reflexes: I’m inclined to believe that catching knockout passes would be a struggle for most point guards. They’re the ones usually making the insane passes through traffic that knockout tends to produce. I want someone who isn’t a primary ball-handler in this regard, someone with a bit of wide receiver skills as far as adjust to a pass in mid-air.

NBA Knockout Durant Westbrook Harden LeBron

At this point, it’s become abundantly obvious that I’m describing Kevin Durant. He is the clear favorite. He’s a great shooter. He’s ideally situated as a rebounder given his length. And he’s fast enough to chase down a bad bounce if necessary. He’s in his prime and has played 44 or 45 minutes in several playoff games, so he should have the stamina to perform well deep into the game. And he spent most of his career catching passes from Russell Westbrook, who basically plays real NBA games like rounds of knockout anyway. Durant is the favorite here, and it’s not that close.

But if you’re looking for high-value underdogs? I’ll toss a few out:

  • Otto Porter. He’s leading the league in three-point percentage this season and is built very similarly to Durant.
  • Jamal Crawford/J.R. Smith. One of them could easily get hot here. It’s such a small sample size. We’re only playing one game of knockout, after all.
  • Devin Booker. Young legs will keep him fresh, and like Crawford and J.R. he could easily get hot.

But Durant is the heavy favorite here. If we really could get all of the players in the NBA together for one huge game of knockout, he’s the guy to bet on.

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