A few weeks ago Lakers star and 2012 Olympian Kobe Bryant made waves when he boldly suggested the current Olympic Men's Basketball team could defeat the original 1992 "Dream Team," a team which consisted of no less than 11 players now in the NBA Hall of Fame. The 1992 team easily won the gold medal in Barcelona in what was the first year that NBA players were allowed to play in the Olympics.
The almost 34-year-old Bryant, who completed his 16th NBA season earlier this year, didn't appear to see the irony of his argument that the 1992 team had older players who would have trouble with the 2012 team's athleticism. The only player older than Kobe on the 1992 team was 3-time MVP winner Larry Bird, who in 1992 was 35 years old after the completion of his 13th NBA season.
The only other Dream Team player over 30 years old was Magic Johnson, who was 32. Contrary to the revisionist history of some, in 1992 Magic Johnson was still an elite player. Although ignorance about HIV caused Johnson to miss the 1991-1992 NBA regular season, he had been awarded the NBA MVP award as recently as 1990, his third such award. The one NBA game Johnson did play in 1992? The NBA All Star game - when Magic won the MVP.
In more recent days, Bryant's comments were supported by his Olympic teammate, LeBron James. James' comments suggest he was so impressed by his team's recent 100-78 warm up game victory over Spain (without all-star center Marc Gasol) that he forgot about the unimpressive 6-point victory over Argentina earlier this month. I don't recall the Dream Team ever seeming so vulnerable.
Kobe's original statement led to predictable cries of outrage and outright ridicule, most notably from Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, both members of the 1992 team. What was not predictable, and even downright shocking, was that many journalists and fans did not join in Jordan's dismissive attitude.
Even as Kobe stepped back from his original statement - clarifying his view that the original Dream Team was the "better team" and that he was merely asserting that the 2012 team "could" beat them in one game, not a series - members of the media, including ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, actually continued to take the comparison seriously. Most disturbing was that some journalists revealed an astonishing lack of basketball knowledge by somehow concluding that the 2012 team was better.
[Note: If you are one of the people who believes that the 2012 is better than the 1992 team please stop reading now and go back to your 3rd grade classroom, recess is over.]
Justifiably disgusted by Kobe's comparison, Michael Jordan derisively noted, "I absolutely laughed when I saw that... not one of the smarter things he ever could have done."
At first glance, Jordan appears to have nailed it right on the head. Dumb move, Kobe. What were you thinking? However, upon further reflection, Kobe's comment may not have been as foolish as MJ suggests.
No, NOT because Kobe had a legitimate argument that the 2012 team would win. His rationalization that the 1992 team was "too old" or that the 2012 would be "too athletic" are totally absurd and misguided.
What makes this outlandish prediction possibly shrewd on Kobe's part, is that he has now helped frame a debate in which the 2012 U.S. Team is unjustly elevated by the mere comparison with the original Dream Team. In essence, the 2012 team has been treated, even by many fierce critics of Kobe's comments, as if it is at least the 2nd best men's Olympic basketball team of all time, just a notch below the 1992 team.
So is the 2012 team, if not the best team, at least the second best U.S. Men's Olympic Basketball team of all time? The answer is a resounding NO.
Presuming they win the gold medal without losing a game, the 2012 team will be the 5th U.S. men's team with NBA players to do so. Let's take a look by comparing the 2012 team to all of the gold medal teams that included NBA players. (*The 2004 U.S. Team's embarrassing Bronze Medal performance clearly ranks them below the other teams. There is no point in comparing the 2012 U.S. Team with them unless...let's not go there.)
The 2012 Team roster consists of the following players (ages included):
Chris Paul (27), Deron Williams (28), Kobe Bryant (33), Russell Westbrook (23), James Harden (22), Kevin Durant (23), Carmelo Anthony (28), Andre Iguodala (28), Kevin Love (23), LeBron James (27), Anthony Davis (19), Tyson Chandler (29)
****UPDATE: The 2012 Team finished the Olympics with the following statistics:
Points Per Game: 115.5
Average Margin of Victory: 32.1
Lowest Margin of Victory: 5
2012 TEAM vs. 2008 TEAM
2008 U.S. Team Roster: Jason Kidd (35), Chris Paul (23), Deron Williams (24), Kobe Bryant (29), Michael Redd (28), Dwayne Wade (26), Carmelo Anthony (24), Lebron James (23), Tayshaun Prince (28), Carlos Boozer (26), Chris Bosh (24), Dwight Howard (22)
Points Per Game: 106.2
Average Margin of Victory: 27.8
Lowest Margin of Victory: 11
The 2012 versions of Chris Paul and Deron Williams, though not as "athletic" as their younger 2008 incarnations, are more mature and effective. Both Paul and Williams are currently in their primes and have improved from four years ago. That improvement outweighs any savvy and experience an elder Jason Kidd could provide for the 2008 team. Thus, the point guards for 2012 seem to have a slight advantage.
However, the Kobe Bryant of 2008 was in his prime and clearly better than the older 2012 version. As impressive as the explosive Russell Westbrook can look, he is simply a cut below a 26-year-old Dwayne Wade. In 2008, Wade was a former NBA Finals MVP and most people believed he was one of*** the three best players in the NBA. Nobody has ever suggested Westbrook is that good yet.
Although the assumption would be that Carmelo Anthony is a better player at 28 than at 24, it's not clear that he is. In many ways it seems that Anthony has regressed in the past couple of years and certainly since he started playing for the New York Knicks. Durant is an impressive addition to the 2012 squad, but is he better than Lebron was at the same age? It's close. Finally, Andre Iguodala has more offense, but Tayshaun Prince has length and is the better defender.
Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer are classic power forwards and are solid. The 2012 team's only natural power forwards is Kevin Love, who is a better rebounder and perimeter shooter than either of the other two. (Anthony Davis is a raw talent on the 2012 team, but should never get off the bench.)
The lack of size on the current Olympic team means that LeBron James is forced to play out of position at the 4. Nonetheless, James has more than enough size and strength. He is by far the most talented and versatile player in the group and creates matchup problems for any "power forward" that tries to guard him. That fact alone gives the 2012 team the advantage at power forward.
The center position however, is a solid advantage for the the 2008 team. What is there to say really? Even at the young age of 22, Dwight Howard is better than Tyson Chandler at just about everything. Although a solid defender, Chandler is not in Howard's league as a rebounder or offensive force. Chandler wouldn't even be on the current team if Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum were available.
SO WHO WINS? The 2008 Team wins a very close game that could go either way. A younger Kobe, along with Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard, and Chris Bosh, provide the 2008 team enough to get by the 2012 team that is improved most significantly by the increased maturity of Lebron James and the addition of Kevin Durant.
2012 TEAM vs. 2000 TEAM
2000 U.S.Team Roster: Tim Hardaway (34), Jason Kidd (27), Gary Payton (32), Ray Allen (25), Allan Houston (29), Steve Smith (31), Shareef Abdur Raheem (23), Vince Carter (23): 1 point, Kevin Garnett (25), Antonio McDyess (26), Vin Baker (28), Alonzo Mourning (30)
Points Per Game: 95
Average Margin of Victory: 21.6
Lowest Margin of Victory: 2,
The 2000 team has an advantage with its point guard play. Jason Kidd and Gary Payton were elite point guards who also played tenacious defense. Perhaps Chris Paul (at his best) measures up, but Deron Williams just hasn't proved to be as good as those two future Hall of Famers.
Ray Allen's sharpshooting is hard to ignore, and both Allan Houston and Steve Smith had several impressive seasons in the NBA. However, Kobe Bryant's all around game still stands out in this group and Russell Westbrook's athleticism and ability to penetrate are just superior and give the 2012 team distinct advantages.
The swing players provide the current team with their greatest advantage over the 2000 team. Durant and Anthony are proven scorers with length that even an incredibly athletic 23-year Vince Carter would have to deal with. LeBron's versatility would be a nightmare for the 2000 team.
On the other hand, Kevin Garnett and Alonzo Mourning would be major problems for the current team to deal with as would the 2000 team's overall size advantage.
SO WHO WINS? The 2012 U.S. Team gets in transition and wears down the slower 2000 team for a clear, if not comfortable, victory.
2012 TEAM vs. 1996 TEAM
1996 U.S. Team Roster: Anfernee Hardaway (24), Gary Payton (28), John Stockton (34), Reggie Miller (30), Mitch Richmond (31),Grant Hill (23), Scottie Pippen (30), Charles Barkley (33), Karl Malone (33), Shaquille O'Neal (24), Hakeem Olajuwon (33), David Robinson (30)
Points Per Game: 102
Average Margin of Victory: 31.7
Lowest Margin of Victory: 22
The"glove" Gary Payton was in his absolute prime in 1996 and would be the best point guard on the floor. Even an older John Stockton in 1996 would be extremely effective (the two subsequent NBA seasons Stockton would help lead the Jazz to the NBA Finals) against the current guards.
A 24-year old Penny Hardaway was easily as accomplished and nearly as athletic Russell Westbrook. Hall of Famer Reggie Miller was perhaps as pure a shooter as the NBA had ever seen, although he would undoubtedly have difficulties with Kobe. Mitch Richmond was a far more complete player than the young James Harden is.
Although Durant, 'Melo, and LeBron would be a handful, Scottie Pippen and a 23-year old Grant Hill possessed the length and athleticism to at least slow them down.
However, there is NO WAY the 2012 team would have any chance handling the greatest collection of centers to ever play on one team: Shaq, Hakeem, and Robinson. Even an aging Olajuwon, only a year removed from his 2nd NBA title, would own Tyson Chandler. Robinson was still in his prime and far too talented for any collection of 2012 "big men."
Finally, although much is made of the "freakish" athleticism of LeBron James, even James must simply get out of the way when Shaq rolls to the basketball. The 2012 team simply has no answer for his size and strength.
SO WHO WINS? The 1996 U.S. dominates inside and holds off the occasional spurts the 2012 teams can put together when they push the pace. A clear victory for the 1996 team.
As we can see, the 2012 team has not earned the right to be compared to the 1992 team because it is still unclear if it is better than the 1996, 2000, and 2008 gold medal teams. Nonetheless, let's play along and take a look at how this year's Olympic team would fare against 1992's one and only Dream Team:
2012 TEAM vs. 1992 "DREAM TEAM"
DREAM TEAM: Magic Johnson (32), John Stockton (30), Clyde Drexler (30), Michael Jordan (29), Larry Bird (35), Chris Mullin (29), Scottie Pippen (26), Charles Barkley (29), Christian Laettner (22), Karl Malone (29), David Robinson (27), Patrick Ewing (30)
Points Per Game: 117.3
Average Margin of Victory: 43.8
Lowest Margin of Victory: 32
In 1992 Magic Johnson - yes, even at age 32 - and John Stockton were simply better players than Chris Paul and Deron Williams are now. It's not that complicated. They see the floor better, they pass better, and they push the fast break better. They are legends of the game with Magic almost universally considered the greatest point guard of all-time. Paul can hang with these guys on his best days, but Williams is simply a cut below.
Kobe Bryant, at his best, is perhaps the only other 2-guard in NBA history who can compete with Michael Jordan...but he was never his equal. Jordan was slightly more athletic, a better passer, a better rebounder, and more effective in every offensive category - with the one caveat being that Kobe had greater range on his jump shot. On the defensive side of the ball, MJ's advantage is even more pronounced. In any case, MJ, perhaps the greatest player of all time, was at his best in 1992. Kobe at 33 is far from at his best. This isn't that close.
Furthermore, Clyde Drexler at age 29 was coming off an MVP runner-up season in 1992. He was more athletic than Kobe and simply a better player than Russell Westbrook.
Chris Mullin and the "old man" of the group, Larry Bird, could provide deadly perimeter shooting if necessary for the Dream Team, and Scottie Pippen was (with the possible exception of Michael Jordan) the best perimeter defender of all time. However, Pippen's defensive prowess would be tested against the likes of Durant, Anthony, and James. The swing players for the 2012 team provide them with their greatest advantage.
Nonetheless, this advantage hardly makes up for the huge gap between the two team's inside players. Charles Barkley and Karl Malone are arguably the two greatest power forwards of all time (depending on whether Tim Duncan is truly considered a "power forward"). Sure, LeBron has the skills to play power forward (as the 2012 team would need him to), but let's not push it. Besides, if LeBron dedicates himself to pounding in the post and grabbing rebounds then it will undoubtedly take that much away from his "true" game on the perimeter.
Kevin Love is solid, but at a clear disadvantage against either of these Hall of Famers. Heck, even Christian Laettner would have an advantage over the raw Anthony Davis.
Finally, Tyson Chandler against Ewing and Robinson? lol
SO WHO WINS? The Dream Team wins comfortably...and the current team learns a much-needed lesson in humility.
By Manish Pandya
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com