Chris Graham: A new view of the Dream Team
Kobe Bryant threw down the gauntlet with a comment before the London Olympics that the 2012 USA basketball team was better than the famed 1992 Dream Team that rolled to gold in the first Olympic competition to feature NBA players.
It didn’t take long before Bryant’s comment was dismissed, roughly around the time that Team USA struggled to a 99-94 win over Lithuania in pool play.
The 107-100 win over Spain in the gold-medal game seemed to many casual fans to bring to an end whatever sliver of argument there may have been left.
To which I say, Not so fast.
The 1992 Dream Team will always hold a special place in U.S. basketball fans’ hearts, for good reason. The accumulation of talent is as close as we’ll ever come to seeing a Hall of Fame team in the flesh, what with all-time greats Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird part of the assemblage.
The Dream Team also featured Jordan, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Scottie Pippen in their primes. Yeah, wow.
But the question begs … could that ’92 team have taken down its 2012 counterparts?
Certainly the inside game that the ’92 team could bring to bear would be hard for any future Team USA to hope to match. The 2012 team featured only one true center, defensive-minded Tyson Chandler, in large part because that’s where basketball in the second decade of the 21st century has gone, namely, away from the basket and out to the perimeter, which is where the strength of the ’12 team lies.
Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony at the two and three, for starters, would be as hard a guard on the perimeter for the Dream Team as Barkley, Ewing, Robinson and Malone would be inside for the 2012 team.
The point-guard play of the 2012 team, with Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook, may outpace the 1992 team’s grouping of Stockton and Johnson.
There are a few ways to try to compare the teams. The most obvious is head-to-head, which I see as a wash between the two, given the clash of styles, inside vs. outside. Another would be to try to guess how each would have done against the opposition that the other faced on its way to the gold. I think it’s clear that the 2012 team wins the 1992 Olympics, if only because the rest of the world had so much catching up to do in 1992 that the biggest concern of opposing players was whether or not they could get autographs from the NBA stars after having had their arses handed to them.
The competition in 2012 is light years past where we were back in 1992. Teams from Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Lithuania and Russia don’t hang their heads before the opening tip at the butt-whupping about to be handed to them. They expect to be able to compete, and can point to Team USA upsets in 2002, 2004 and 2006 as evidence that they can win on any given day.
The 2012 team is a byproduct of life in the post-Dream Team era. They know that they have to bring their A game every time out, because they’re going to get the A game of their opponents every time out. Would the Dream Team be able to compete against such a backdrop? Probably, but remember, there were a few holes on that team, most notably Bird, whose presence on the team was a Lifetime Achievement Award more than any sort of recognition of where his game was at the twilight of his career, and Christian Laettner, who was inexplicably chosen as the college all-star for the team over Shaquille O’Neal.
Johnson was, like Bird, an add-on, but he played at a high level throughout the Dream Team run in ’92, which would be a help to whatever mythical matchup you would choose to compare ’92 to ’12, considering the injury that limited Stockton to two brief appearances in Olympic play.
In the end, I think we can get away with saying that the 2012 team is probably comparable to the Dream Team, but also that no team will ever capture lightning in a bottle like the ’92 incarnation of Team USA. Never again will a grouping of all-time greats come together on one team like we saw in 1992, and never again will opponents lay humble in the presence of a U.S. Olympic basketball team like we saw then.
That all said, I’d take the 2012 team in seven games. Yes, call me crazy.