Kobe Bryant’s recent comment that the 2012 USA basketball team would have been capable of beating the 1992 Dream Team provoked critics and fans alike to examine his claims of superiority.
Many have held on to the idea that the Dream Team is the best team of all time simply out of nostalgia for the Golden Age of the NBA. I, too, believe the 1992 Dream Team would beat the 2012 USA basketball team under the Olympic guidelines, based on the following comparisons and analyses, not just wishful thinking.
Bryant’s argument that the 2012 team is a stronger team, while valid in certain aspects, was based on a flawed notion of youth.
“Well, from just a basketball standpoint, they obviously have a lot more size than we do, you know, with (David) Robinson and (Patrick) Ewing and (Karl) Malone and those guys,” Bryant said in an interview with Yahoo Sports. “But they were also … a lot older, at kind of the end of their careers. We have just a bunch of young racehorses, guys that are eager to compete.”
First of all, Bryant will be turning 34 this month, putting him at the same age of the two oldest members of the Dream Team, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Bryant has played in the NBA for 16 years and was a member of the 2008 Olympic team as well. If Bryant’s going to make the argument that the age of the team, as well as their eagerness to compete on an international level, has any bearing on the quality of the players involved, his presence on the team completely defeats his own argument.
Note: In no way am I suggesting that Bryant is a weak player. As the all-time leading scorer on the Lakers (12th overall in the NBA), Bryant is certainly one of the best players of all time.
• Small forwards
Speaking of the older members of the two teams, let’s take a look at Bird, who was a co-captain of the Dream Team, alongside his longtime rival, Johnson.
When Bryant asserted that some of the players were at the end of their careers, he may have been subtly referring to “Larry Legend’s” retirement following the 1992 Olympic Games. Bird, who had been plagued by a chronic back condition since the mid-1980s, was initially reluctant to play for the 1992 Dream Team. In fact, episodes of back pains prevented him from competing in the Tournament of the Americas shortly before the Olympics began. With reduced playing time, it would be easy to suggest Bird would not be able to contribute to the team.
However, the Olympics were played under international rules, which included zone defense, allowing Bird to shoot from the outside, an area from which he was still a formidable opponent.
Would he have been able to outlast LeBron James, one of the 2012 small forwards, at that point in his career? Definitely not. James, having just come off of a championship-winning season with Miami, is in far better shape than Bird was at the time of the Olympics. But to completely write off Bird’s contributions to the team would be unwise nonetheless.
LeBron may have won this one, but with Bird’s career average of .376 for 3P% (.406 for the 1991-92 season) compared to James’ .331 (.362 for the 2011-12 season), Bird did have the upper hand in terms of outside scoring during his prime.
Carmelo Anthony and Andre Iguodala, the two other small forwards on the 2012 team, would be comparable to Chris Mullin and Scottie Pippen. While the small-forward battle between Bird and James goes to LeBron, the small-forward war overall would be narrowly won by the 1992 Dream Team.
While statistics can tell you a lot about a player’s skills, the chemistry of the team overall is just as critical. Pippen, having just finished his fifth year in the NBA, was the ultimate supporting player on the Chicago Bulls, setting Michael Jordan up for incredible shots. Likewise, Mullin had already played in the 1984 Olympics — back when it was still an amateur team — winning gold under Bob Knight’s coaching alongside Patrick Ewing and Jordan. Furthermore, Mullin went into the Olympic Games with averages of .366 in 3P% and .524 in FG%, while Pippen went in with a FG% average of .506. Compare that to Anthony’s .335 3P% and .430 FG% and Iguodala’s .394 3P% and .454 FG%.
• Point guards
As far as point guards are concerned, 2012 does have the advantage. Johnson, undoubtedly one of the greatest players and point guards of all time, had retired after the 1990-1991 season following his HIV diagnosis. While he returned to the NBA for the 1992 All-Star Game, he wasn’t in the best shape he could have been in. Furthermore, John Stockton, the other 1992 point guard, injured his leg shortly before the Olympic Games, severely limiting his participation on the team.
Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams are all in their prime. They have gone into the 2012 games injury free (and let’s keep it that way). They definitely have the advantage over Johnson and Stockton.
Ewing and David Robinson, 1992’s centers, are both Hall-of-Famers, whereas Tyson Chandler and Kevin Love are two of 2012’s lesser stars. While all of them may have been in their prime at the time of their respective Olympic Games, 1992 easily takes the low post.
• Power forwards
As for the power forwards, Charles Barkely, Karl Malone and Christian Laettner would most likely beat Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis. However, let’s cut out Laettner and Davis. Laettner, as the obligatory college student, was certainly the best in NCAA basketball in 1992, just as Davis is 2012’s greatest. But Laettner’s inexperience compared to the rest of the team was obvious. Davis has a great future ahead of him in the NBA, and while he may be great today, he definitely hasn’t reached his prime yet.
So that brings it down to Barkley and Malone vs. Durant. Durant, alongside Bryant and James, is one of 2012’s top three players. But Malone was second in the NBA in scoring following the 1991-1992 season, and Barkley, the “Round Mound of Rebound,” was outstanding below the basket and was first in scoring for the Dream Team.
1992 takes this one.
• Shooting guards
And the matchup of all matchups: Jordan vs. Bryant, battling it out to be the best shooting guard.
I hate to say it, Kobe, but this one isn’t even close. Jordan was the greatest shooting guard of all time and, at 29, was undeniably in his prime. Compare that to Bryant, who, as I pointed out earlier, is the oldest member on his team.
Throw in Drexler vs. Harden, and you’ve got another all-star trumping a rookie on the international stage.
This one goes to 1992.
Finally, you can’t compare the 1992 Dream Team to the 2012 USA basketball team without mentioning the late Chuck Daly and Mike Krzyzewski. While Krzyzewski may be the winningest coach in NCAA Division I’s men’s basketball history, Daly had a hard task ahead of him. 1992 was the first year professional players were allowed to compete for USA’s basketball team, and while he may have picked the best of the best, he had to navigate not only his own team loyalties, choosing to leave the Piston’s Isiah Thomas off the team in favor of Jordan, but he also had to deal with the egos of the greatest players at the time.
The better team? The 1992 Original Dream Team
The 1992 team may have been an All-Star team, but it was also the Dream Team because of the camaraderie and selflessness the players demonstrated in playing time and positioning. Just look at the 1996 team, which was supposed to be “Dream Team II,” but was instead mired by conflicts when players didn’t get the time they felt entitled to on the court. The 2012 team may work well together, but the Dream Team set the precedent for the respect and responsibility that is now expected for playing on such a high-profile team.
It should also be noted that, while Krzyzewski may have put together an intensely strong team, he’s missing a few key players that could have turned the game in 2012’s favor over 1992. Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh all would have been outstanding members of the 2012 team, but injuries incurred this season sidelined them.
Given the previous analysis, I would hand the Dream Team the victory. Of course, it’s a victory that would be impossible to ever prove, which is why it has generated so much buzz amongst basketball fans. Which brings the game to you, the reader:
Which team do you think would win?
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