The Summer of 1992 was a great Summer for a pre-adolescent boy. Kathy Ireland was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The Minnesota Twins were the defending champions. And most importantly, the greatest basketball players in the history of the world were teaming up to destroy the rest of the world.
For me, the “Dream Team” was one of my favorite things to happen in sports, ever. Just telling me Larry Bird was going to be involved would have sold me, but adding David Robinson and John Stockton to the mix while giving me a reason to root for the uber talented players that normally broke my heart was more than I ever could have imagined. I begged my mom for triple cheeseburger meals from McDonalds because they came with the commemorative Dream Team soda cups. I collected Coca Cola cans so I could trade them in for the Olympic mix tape that included the Fresh Prince’s homage to the team. You might say I was a little obsessed.
So when Kobe Bryant, a person I loathe, recently said the newest incarnation of the USA Men’s National team could beat the team from 1992, I should have been irate. Instead, I agreed.
Most people think I’m crazy. Michael Jordan, for one. Another guy was President Obama. And, of course, Charles Barkley weighed in with his belief that only three players from the current team (Kobe, LeBron, and Kevin Durant) would even have been selected to the team in 1992.
Those guys are wrong. Here are the arguments for why the Dream Team would destroy the ’12 team and why they’re garbage:
The Dream Team consisted of the best players to ever play the game.
Putting aside that Chris Mullin and Christian Laettner received roster spots, it was only true at the time. The team led by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird would have beaten the all star team of any other era, but for the same reason the 2012 team would do the same. Athletes get better.
Think about it. No one would question that Michael Phelps would leave Mark Spitz in his wake if they were to race against each other with each being in the respective primes. In fact, Spitz (who dominated the 1968 and 1972 games) swimming his fastest wouldn’t even make the U.S. Swim team today. Yet somehow, people think that basketball players peaked twenty years ago. That is nowhere close to true.
Exercise and training routines have improved exponentially over the years. More importantly, athlete’s commitment to both has changed immensely. In the nineties, Michael Jordan was an anomaly because he lifted weights during the off season. These days, a player who does not commit to improve himself when basketball is not being played does not play for very long. The drive Jordan showed then would only be enough to keep up with the Joneses today.
The same could be said for the elite athleticism that gave Jordan such an edge. He was a track star that had basketball skills. Now that’s the truth of all basketball players. These days point guards, particularly Thunder star and 2012 Olympian Russell Westbrook, can dunk as easily as Jordan who was the best of his time.
Watch the commercial that is embedded above. In it, 1992 team member Scottie Pippen is transported back in time thirty years where he plays against the basketball players of that era. He easily dominates them using crazy new fangled innovations to the game like dribbling behind his back and being able to dunk. These days, he’s the old timer. People in 1992 had never conceived of the Euro step that James Harden uses or the crab dribble that LeBron utilizes to make fools of today’s players. The best athletes of 1992 would be among the worst now. Yet, no one questioned the truth behind the Pippen commercial then.
Everyone on the Dream Team was a Hall-of-Famer
There was a mystique behind the ’92 team because the players all had storied careers. They had storied careers because they were past their primes. In twenty years, most of this 2012 team will also be boasting plaques in the Hall of Fame, the difference is that now they are in their prime as opposed to the ’92 team that featured Larry Bird contemplating retirement and Magic two years into retirement. The related argument is…
The 2012 team’s youth would do them in
Here’s the thing. The 2012 team is loaded with players that are babies compared to the 1992 team. Just looking at the Thunder players on the roster (who make up 25% of the team), Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden are all approximately 23 years old. In 1992, Barkley, Jordan, and Ewing were at or around 30 (Magic and Bird were much older…only Robinson-27-and Laettner-22-were considered young). Except, by professional experience, it is a wash. Jordan had just completed his seventh NBA season. LeBron James, two years younger, just finished his ninth. Even Durant has five years of NBA service, that’s three more than than David Robinson who was four years older.
The current team would have no answer for Dream Team’s post play
It is true that the 1992 team boasted some of the best centers to ever play the game in Patrick Ewing and David Robinson. In addition, they had Charles Barkley and Karl Malone at power forward. With the exception of Tyson Chandler the 2012 team has no traditional big men. While Chandler is probably superior defensively to any of those guys, he is only one man and five fouls.
That said, what the current incarnation lacks in traditional strength, they more than make up for in non-traditional ability. LeBron James may be a small forward, but he’s bigger and stronger and more skilled than any of Dream Team’s power forwards (the position James plays for the National Team). In addition, he’s a better ball handler and passer than Barkley or Malone who never had to guard anyone of similar skill with their limited defensive abilities. Kevin Durant, who will also be playing power forward in London, is just as much of a challenge for them. Those guys never had to play perimeter defense, which means Durant could blow right past them or else shoot open jumpers. It would turn the 92 team’s advantage into a disadvantage.
Also, the current team is light years ahead at the point guard position. In 1992, Magic Johnson had just set out a year after learning he had HIV. As such, he was out of shape and not at the top of his game. The only other point guard on the roster was John Stockton who played the Olympic games one legged because of a stress fracture. Scottie Pippen had to run the offense most of the time. Not having strong point guard play, neutralizes the offensive advantage in the post because of the lack of a person to get the pass inside. This was not a problem for the Dream Team because they were so much more talented than their competition and just turned every play into a fast break.
Against a US Team from a different era, they would not possess a sizeable talent advantage. Moreover, this 2012 team has three great point guards (Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Russell Westbrook) all of whom would put considerable defensive pressure on a team without a true ball handler.
Dream Team destroyed everyone they played, the 2012 team struggled to beat Brazil
Brazil would have annihilated the best team Dream Team played. A lot has changed since 1992, much of it because the Dream Team existed. The attention brought to the game of international basketball because of the US team that year changed the way the rest of the world handled their national teams. More programs Americanized their training, opened up their borders, and generally emulated everything the U.S. team was doing. It also convinced more tall kids in other nations to give up soccer.
Whereas basketball in the early ’90s was isolationist and limited to being as good as their limited predecessors from their country, now the game is global. Kids from China wear Kobe jerseys (not just because they were the ones who put it together at the factory) and emulate moves they saw KD do on YouTube. That Brazillian team that gave the Americans a good fight on Monday possessed enough NBA players that Anderson Varejao (a guy most NBA teams covet) had to come off the bench. That was not the case in 1992 where a developing Toni Kukoc was the most talented player that suited up against the Dream Team.
Michael Jordan would never let his team lose
First I take on the mythology of the Dream Team, and now I have to try to take the great M.J. down a peg. Here it goes: This line of thinking exists because Jordan won six championships in the last six full seasons he played (let’s just pretend the Wizards charade never happened). That is impressive, but it’s also kind of the way it should have happened.
Because of salary cap rules restricting the maximum amount of money a player can earn, talent these days tends to pool together. A guy can make the same amount and play for a winner as he could playing for a loser. In the nineties, that wasn’t the case. Since players could make more money if they were the best player on the team, they tended to distribute around the league better.
In the eighties, the Bulls followed the current Thunder plan. They drafted two players (Jordan and Pippen) who turned out to be superstars. Then they got stocked the team with talent surrounding those two. A recent ESPN Insider piece said that, statistically, the Bulls had the seventh (Jorden, Pippen, and Toni Kukoc) and first (Jordan, Pippen, and Horace Grant) best threesome in NBA history. (Sidenote: The team with Kukoc was actually even better than that considering they had hall of famer Dennis Rodman as their fourth banana.) Meanwhile, the rest of the league was lucky to have one superstar and no cap space to bring in a second. The best team the Bulls played during their reign was the Utah Jazz, who similarly drafted John Stockton and Karl Malone in successive drafts.
If that Bulls team had played today with superteams being the norm, there is no way they put together a reign of similar proportion. Certainly the Heat with LeBron/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh, Thunder with Durant/Westbrook/Harden, Lakers with Kobe/Pau Gasol/Andrew Bynum, or Spurs with Tim Duncan/Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili put a dent in their run.
Had Jordan played in the current landscape, won maybe a couple of championships, his aura of being the greatest winner of all time certainly wouldn’t exist.
Would the 2012 team beat the 1992 team? I think so. I doubt it would be a blowout like this well thought out argument at CNN suggests, but if it were a seven game series, I think the 2012 team would win in six games. The X-factor would be Kevin Durant who is the ultimate international player. He has the height of a post player, the ball handling ability of a guard, the athletic ability of an Olympic high jumper, and the shooting talent of an alien robot. No one on any team in any era has an answer for this guy. Until the 2032 Olympic team is assembled.