As you watch these guys fly around the court in London and throw down thunderous rim-rocking jams, you’ve got to wonder: Is there something, anything at all in what Kobe and Bron have said? Can this 2012 USA Men’s Basketball team actually beat the greatest basketball team of all time? Are they that good? The shellacking of Tunisia, and the awestruck wonder with which even their opponents seem to be regarding them can’t help but add a little more fuel to the question.
Of course, the 2012 team is not running opponents out of the building like the Dream Team, not at an average margin of victory of 44 points – but then again, international competition has improved in leaps and bounds since 1992. The Dream Team, people easily forget, played the Finals against Croatia – not the European or Latin American powerhouses of today – but a lousy Croatian team whose second best player was Toni freaking Kukoc, who wasn’t in the top 25 players in the NBA at any point of his illustrious career, bless his Croatian heart. So what if Coach Chuck Daly didn’t have to call a single timeout in the tournament? That’s a luxury you can afford when not playing NBA All-Stars on opposing teams.
Any indication of how the two teams would fare against each other can then be estimated only by projecting their individual capabilities and 1991-92 NBA regular season stats into a team dynamic. Which is exactly what the guys at ESPN’s Truehoop did, and according to 1000 simulations of the rosters based on advanced statistics, the Dream Team beat the 2012 team 53% per cent of the time.
Exhale breath. That’s close. Kobe’s statement then is not “laughable”, as MJ dismissed it. The biggest problem with comparing the two rosters is that they’re not the best teams fielded from either era. For the 2012 team, Wade, Dwight and Rose are injured; the Dream Team played without Hakeem Olajuwon (who wasn’t eligible to play), an unquestionable top 10 player of all time. It’s also possible that people oversell the ’92 team because it was the first US Olympic basketball team to field professional (read NBA) ballplayers, after sending all-collegiate rosters for the better part of a century. Considering only the rosters fielded, let’s look at the positional advantages for each team (excluding Christian Laettner and Anthony Davis, who hadn’t played an NBA game at the time of roster selection):
1) Point Guard: Magic Johnson/ John Stockton vs. Chris Paul/ Deron Williams/ Russell Westbrook
This match-up is a lot closer than it appears on first glance. To begin with, Magic hadn’t played basketball for a whole year while fighting HIV before he took over as co-captain of the Dream Team. He averaged 19.4 ppg, 12.5 apg, 7 rpg, and 4 TOpg while shooting at a 48% clip from the field in the 1990-91 season before retiring. Those stats are somewhat misleading though, as he wasn’t anywhere near his vintage best in 1992. Stockton, on the other hand, was coming off a season where he averaged 16 ppg, 13.5 apg and 3 spg on 48% shooting. While it’s safe to say that the Dream Team was a better passing unit than the 2012 team, the point guards for the 2012 team are better scorers, better shooters and more explosive, while being capable playmakers. Stockton was also injured through the ’92 tournament, a fact that didn’t hurt the Americans because the best they were playing against was Drazen and Toni Kukoc. The 2012 team would have been quick to capitalize. It’s slim, and it’s like committing heresy, but I’m going with the new guys. ADVANTAGE: 2012 Team
2) Shooting Guard: Michael Jordan/ Clyde Drexler vs. Kobe Bryant/ James Harden/ Russell Westbrook
Kobe Bryant’s old. This match-up would have been fascinating about three years back, when both Bryant and the Heat’s Dwyane Wade were playing superhuman basketball. At this point, however, considering that the Mamba’s 33 years old to Jordan’s 29, considering that Harden’s wet behind his ears and Westbrook still hasn’t learnt the art of not-chucking, the MJ-Drexler duo should prove too much for the 2-guards of today. Although, on a slightly redeeming note, the ’12 team has the top two perimeter shooters of the five names above. (Kobe, Harden). But then again, Jordan was only playing the best basketball the world has ever seen back then (30/6/6/2 for the ’91-92 season). That helps. ADVANTAGE: Dream Team.
As much as the ’92 team would dominate the ’12 team at the 2 spot, today’s guys would absolutely own them here. Bron and KD aren’t just among the greatest players of all time at the 3 spot; they are also in their prime. Bird was co-captain with Magic for a reason – he was 35, with a bad back and having called it quits with the NBA. Translation: this Bird wasn’t the 80s Bird. Although he did average 20/10/7 in the 91-92 season, that’s still not Bron stratosphere. People keep selling Bron and KD short in comparison to the greats. Note this: When the dust settles and their careers are done, Bron and KD will occupy the top 3 at this position in some order. As for Scottie: you know the guys who say Scottie Pippen wouldn’t be SCOTTIE PIPPEN if not for His Airness? I’m one of them. ADVANTAGE: 2012 Team.
4) Power Forward: Karl Malone/ Charles Barkley vs. Kevin Love/ Blake Griffin/ LeBron James
One word: Defense. Love, who usually starts for Team USA, isn’t just a sub-par defender; he doesn’t bother about defense. And no matter how silky his perimeter shooting is, that’s a huge knock against him. This is a closer match-up in other aspects. According to advanced stats from ESPN, of all big men from the two teams, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin had the best Rebound Percents from the season prior to the Olympics. The Mailman (28p/11r in 91-92) and Barkley (23p/12r) are better offensive players than Griffin and Love, but Team USA also plays Bron at PF, which keeps it tight. ADVANTAGE: Dream Team.
5) Center: David Robinson/ Patrick Ewing vs. Tyson Chandler and nobody else.
If the 2012 side had Dwight on the roster, I’d have been tempted to go with the 2012 team here but as things stand, it’s not even close. Robinson averaged 4.3 blocks a game in the ’91-92 season, while Ewing averaged 3. They were both 20+ ppg scorers. Tyson Chandler is Tyson Chandler. This isn’t a match-up, this is domination. All the Dream Team has to do is feed the ball to the post and work off their big men. ADVANTAGE: Dream Team.
Coaching: Chuck Daly vs. Mike Krzyzewski
Coach K is widely accepted to be the best basketball coach around right now (especially in Phil Jackson’s absence). He’s really an X’s and O’s wizard who has led his college team (Duke) to historic levels of success over the past three decades, winning four NCAA championships with them. Daly, on the other hand, coached the Bad Boy Pistons, winning two NBA championships with them. Coach K is a Daly protégé, but is a better overall coach overall, especially on the offensive end. ADVANTAGE: 2012 Team.
There isn’t all that much separating the two teams. They’re tied 3-3 on positional advantages, though the Dream Team would probably pull out a win in a tight game. Not measured here are intangibles, which the Dream Team had in plenty. The ’92 team probably has the top three clutch players from both rosters combined and better defensive capability as a unit. In a seven game series, my money’s on the Dream Team winning 4-2, with all games likely being close.