The U.S. Men’s Basketball Team is always one of the highlights of the Olympics, especially since 1992, when the team fielded a roster of all professional athletes. It’s a rare opportunity to see the best players in the world team up to form The Avengers on the hardwood.
Watching NBA TV’s recent, fascinating Dream Team documentary, one can’t help but pose the hypothetical question: “Who would win a matchup between the original 1992 Dream Team and today’s NBA stars?” It may be tempting for many – such as ESPN’s Chris Palmer – to say that the 2012 squad would take care of the team that globalized the game 20 years prior, aka “the greatest team ever assembled.” But not so fast.
For starters, here’s a bit of history: the ’92 Dream Team consisted of the following players: Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Christian Laettner, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson and John Stockton. That’s 11 Hall of Famers plus Laettner, arguably the best four-year college player since Lew Alcindor. And the coaching staff was led by Chuck Daly, who was assisted by Lenny Wilkens, P.J. Carlesimo and Mike Krzyzewski.
The 2012 Olympic men’s basketball team, officially announced this weekend, includes the following: Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Tyson Chandler, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, James Harden, Andre Igoudala, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams. Krzyzewski is now the head coach, with assistants Jim Boeheim, Mike D’Antoni and Nate McMillan helping him. Anthony, Bryant, James, Paul, Williams all played in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Chandler, Durant, Igoudala, Love and Westbrook all played internationally in 2010 in the FIBA World Championship. Griffin and Harden are the lone newcomers.
It’s a damn good team to be sure. But good enough to beat the “best ever?” It makes for an interesting debate and here we look at the three major areas of contention: athleticism, skills and intangibles.
Athletically the edge goes to the modern day players without question. While MJ, Scottie, Drexler and The Admiral were phenomenal athletes no doubt, every single person on the 2012 team is arguably as or more athletic than everyone on the Dream Team. Much of that has to do with natural evolution. Evolution of the game of basketball, and the evolution of the players that play it. Guys now, largely due to new and improved technology, are bigger, faster and stronger than ever. In 1992, anyone 6’8″ and up was almost surely a slower-footed back-to-the-basket post player. That’s why Magic was such a standout and revolutionary, because he was 6’9″ running the point. Larry Bird was also 6’9″ however, neither he nor Magic were exceptionally fast, and neither could jump.
Nowadays, especially thanks to Kevin Durant and a large European influence on the game (which came as a byproduct of the Dream Team’s global reach), many players 6’8″ and up consider themselves perimeter players. So there’s Durant, LeBron, Carmelo and Love who all have the ability to play outside, off the dribble and shoot it from deep. None of them, including Love, are stiffs either. All can run, jump and maneuver with the best. The only Dream Team player comparable is Pippen.
At guard, the 2012 team washes the Dream Team – athletically. The blazing speed of Westbrook, Paul, Williams and Harden could potentially expose the Dream Team’s lone blemish. As Jack McCallum, author of Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever, noted in the NBATV documentary, the one weakness the Dream Team could have had was “defending quick guards.” Especially considering the omission of Isaiah Thomas. If Bobby Hurley gave the Dream Team trouble in their first scrimmage, there’s no doubting that the 2012 guards would do the same.
From a skill standpoint, 2012 also matches up fairly well. Again, the evolution of the game has players today in positions unfathomable 20 years ago. Players are playing seriously at an earlier age. With camps, AAU, trainers, the Internet and countless other resources that have emerged over the last two decades, guys are equally, if not more, skilled than their elders.
At the least, the two teams would be equal in this aspect, except for Michael Jordan. He remains unmatched. LeBron and Magic cancel out here in the skills category – the ability to dribble, shoot and pass, specifically, at full speed against the best in the world. As would Kevin Durant and Larry Bird. Same goes for Stockton and Paul, Carmelo and Barkley, Pippen and Bryant, and Love and Malone.
In the final aspect, however, the Dream Team wins and it’s hard to argue that it would be close. It’s the intangibles. In this case, intangibles is competitive drive. One point made constantly throughout the doc was how competitive each member of the team was. “Now I get to spend time with some of the guys I competed against all the time,” Jordan said. That’s why he wanted to play. The practices were supremely intense because all of them were out to prove that they were the best – not in the world, but in the League. Malone and Barkley, and Magic and Mike in particular, would face off in practice everyday. And Bird, Pippen, Stockton, Ewing and the rest were the same way. The practice teams seldom changed according to Jordan, because they always wanted to beat each other. He had to play against Magic, and Magic felt the same way. Beyond Kobe and Chris Paul, no current player has consistently shown the will to win, hatred to lose and passion to be the best like the members of the original Dream Team.
Regardless of athleticism, skills or anything else, competitive drive can trump all, and the Dream Team had that completely. Ironically, in this instance, evolution of the game where the 2012 team falls behind. Whereas Jordan and company likely never played with or against each other until college or the NBA, almost every member of the 2012 team has likely played with or against each during high school and possibly before then. With AAU, national elite camps, etc., players are competing against “the best” at a younger age and they develop relationships. Much of the talk about LeBron and Durant leading up to and during the Finals noted how good of friends they are. That’s not to say neither is a competitor, but the mindset has shifted in this day and age.
It would be a good, interesting game, to be sure, but the original Dream Team would win. The 2012 players want to play with each other because it would be fun to play with all their boys and they’d be really good. But the Dream Team wanted to play with each other to beat one another in practice. They were great as players and Olympic teammates, but at their core they were fierce competitors driven not only by the will to win, but to also out perform each other.
Who do you think would win in the matchup between the original Dream Team and the current lineup?