Dream Team

Internet: Did you hear Kobe Bryant say that Team USA can beat the Dream Team? He’s an idiot! They could never win!

Me: What did you expect him to say? That they would lose? Yep, that would be a great way to market Olympic basketball this summer!

And while we would truly never know what would happen, I think we can make some serious educated guesses. It’s hard to rank players against each other because the game seems to change so often. The same NBA that Michael Jordan traipsed around isn’t the same as the one that LeBron James plays in today. But what you can compare is how specific players dominated their specific version of the NBA game.

In my opinion, because of Kevin Durant’s sharp-shooting, LeBron James’ athleticism, and Kobe Bryant’s doggedness, this year’s version of Team USA could stay in the game against the Dream Team. But they’d ultimately lose and probably by double digits. While Magic and Larry were past their primes, there’s a guy named Michael Jeffrey Jordan who was absolutely smack dab in the middle of his, and I think he would do donuts around this version of Kobe Bryant. The Kobe Bryant on the 2008 Redeem Team? That’s a better argument, but ultimately, still a win for MJ.

What I’m going to try to do here is rank the six versions of Team USA since NBA players were allowed to join the Olympics. I think we know what number one is. And I think know what number six is. But where do the rest of the teams stand? We’ll start with the worst and go up.

(The 2012 team is ready to face Australia in the quarterfinals, so we don’t have a full Olympics-worth of games to judge them by, but I think I have a pretty good feel of the team. Well, as long as they don’t lose I do.)

6. Team USA – 2004
Best player(s): Tim Duncan
Record: 5-3
Point differential: +37

Team USA 2004 turned out to be the worst basketball team the United States ever sent to the Olympics. Previously, Team USA didn’t win the gold medal only two times before; in 1972 when the US lost 51-50 after the Soviet Union was allowed to restart the last possession of the game three times, and in 1988, which was the last time NBA players weren’t allowed to play. Yet, those teams only lost in the medal rounds. This team lost twice before the knockout round and then to Argentina in the semifinal game.

This team was doomed from the start. The team was extremely young, featuring zero players from the gold medal winning 2000 team. The team’s two best players were the two oldest in co-captains Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade were on the team and his just finished their rookie seasons. Emeka Okafur hadn’t started his yet. You could make up a team of NBA players who weren’t there that would’ve waxed this team’s behind; Kobe Bryant, Shaq O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Paul Pierce. Sharpshooters like Michael Redd and Joe Johnson were left off the team. And in a game where you need unselfish point guards, Team USA decided that Stephon Marbury would be their man. And no discredit to AI, but the international style was not his game. When your most explosive player is hurt (thumb) and isn’t a great outside shooter (yet kept shooting threes), your offense may struggle a bit.

The 2004 team did score, but not consistently. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony would help the 2008 team win gold, but outside of Wade’s sometimes good play, they didn’t play enough in 2004, and when they did, didn’t contribute nearly enough. Some of that probably had to do with head coach Larry Brown’s issue with playing them. Carmelo Anthony, whose game is near perfect for international play, barely played at all.

Duncan was the team’s best overall player, but without another solid big to play alongside with, he didn’t have the “carry the team on his back” performance that the team needed to win the gold. Plus, without any real outside shooters to scare the opposition, he was double and triple teamed whenever he touched the ball. The team shot only 31% on its three-point attempts.

The team lost to Puerto Rico in their first game in an absolute blitzing. Lost to Lithuania three games later, which I wrote about at the time. And then lost again to Argentina (who would go on to win gold) before beating Lithuania in a rematch in the bronze medal game.

Watch Manu slice and dice Team USA:

5. Team USA – 2000
Best player(s): Kevin Garnett and Vince Carter
Record: 8-0
Point differential: +173

The LA LAkers had just finished winning their first NBA Championship since the Showtime Lakers in 1988. A Shaq and Kobe reunion would’ve probably made Team USA a much bigger hit than they were and they would’ve had a much easier time winning the gold. But that didn’t happen. The 1992 Dream Team dominated the rest of the world at the Summer Olympics and while not as impressively, so did the 1996 version. The 2000 version still won the gold medal, but had to play in several tight games.

Part of the reason is that the rest of the teams were getting better. The Dream Team brought more attention to the sport worldwide, and eight years later, the rest of the world had stepped their game up. But also, Team USA was far weaker than it was in 1992 and 1996.

When Vince Carter was one of the last people added to the team, it became his Olympics, overshadowing Kevin Garnett who was truly one of the best players in basketball at this time, and just 25 years of age. KG was brilliant and alongside Alonzo Mourning, provided some defense on a team without great wing defenders.

The team cruised through their first two games until facing future nemesis Lithuania. Lithuania only lost by single digits and proved that this version of Team USA was vulnerable. In the final game of the preliminary round, the team beat France by just eight points, which was a bit of foreshadowing for how close the knockout stage, semis, and medal game would be. Team USA beat Russia by fifteen, but then nearly was upset by Lithuania in the semis having to hold on when a desperation three by Sarunas Jasikevicius didn’t fall. (There’s an amazing YouTube video of the Lithuanian feed of this entire game.) They didn’t have that much easier of a time with France who they just couldn’t put away, though did win by ten in the gold medal game.

About that Vince Carter guy — he really did have a good Olympics, leading the team in scoring and hitting a clutch one-hander late in the second Lithuania game to help the US retake the lead. And he also did this to Frederic Weis in one of the two games against France (which the French media dubbed, “The Dunk Of Death”):

Durant’s swaggin’ (props to SB Nation for the gif)

4. Team USA – 2012
Best player(s): LeBron James, Kevin Durant (check out how much fun this dude is having to the right), and Carmelo Anthony
Record: 8-0
Point differential: +257

(I may regret not putting Kobe in there as one of the best players on the team, but he had a rough go of it during the preliminary stage. He hasn’t shot well and at times, halts the momentum of their offense. But I have a feeling that come gold medal time, he’s going to have his best game.)

I struggled placing them above the 2000 team because the 2012 team hasn’t won anything yet. They had the dominant game against Nigeria, but then nearly lost to Lithuania the very next game. However, I truly believe that this team (player for player) is better than the 2000 team. LeBron would lock down Vince Carter and while KG would have his way with everyone, including Tyson Chandler, the only other spot the 2000 team wins is at point guard when Jason Kidd is in the game. This version of Team USA doesn’t have the size to match up with him and Kobe would probably end up guarding him in crunch time. The 2012 team is deeper with Carmelo, Russell Westbrook, and Deron Williams coming off the bench. The 2000 team could shoot thanks to Ray Allen and VC (who had great shooting games from three in 2000), but this team is just longer and would defend those three-pointers well.

I would also point to LeBron James and Kevin Durant being either at (in LBJ’s case) or very near (in KD’s case) their peak. Kidd, Garnett, and VC were at their peaks in 2000, but I’d rather have James, Durant, and Anthony in international competition.

Team USA 2012 still has a lot of work to do on their way to a gold medal. The real mystery is how good this team could be if Dwyane Wade (best player in 2008), Dwight Howard, and Chris Bosh weren’t injured. If not, this team could’ve been the second best US basketball team ever. I truly believe that.

And this may be the closest thing we have to VC’s dunk. Split your leg’s Russ!

3. Team USA – 2008 (Redeem Team)
Best player(s): Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James
Record: 8-0
Point differential: +223

First off, how’s this for one of the sickest basketball commercials of all time?

The Redeem team was the result of the USA playing some terrible basketball. Before winning “just” the bronze in the 2004 Olympics, the 2002 USA FIBA team finished in 6th place in the 2002 World Championship with just a 6-3 record. Leading scorer Paul Pierce had a spat with head coach George Karl and was benched. I wonder if this is why Pierce hasn’t been involved since? But it wasn’t even a solid All-Star team. I actually saw this team in person. I went to an exhibition game where this version of Team USA played against Yao Ming and China. The team was more interested in dunking on Yao than actually winning the basketball game. They were a mess.

Enter head coach Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo to put USA basketball back together. Colangelo wanted a three-year commitment and Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony wanted in. Other young stars such as Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, and Chris Bosh were on the team as well. While the 2006 FIBA team didn’t win gold, the foundation was built to get the US back on top. By the time the 2008 games came around, Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd were on board and the team never looked back.

Behind Dwyane Wade (16 ppg while shooting 67%), Kobe Bryant (15 ppg + taking over the end of the gold medal game), and LeBron James (15 ppg, 2nd in assists, 3rd in rebounding and 1st in steals), the team didn’t face any real competition until the gold medal game against Spain. They beat Spain in the early round quite handily, but the Spain team (2006 FIBA champion) played a tremendous game, getting the US lead down to two and four points down the stretch. But Kobe and Wade took over late in the fourth quarter to seal the deal. Spain’s most amazing play came on this Rudy Fernandez dunk:

How would the 2008 team play against the Dream Team? They’d hold their own for sure. I’d argue that the Kobe of two years earlier was more dangerous than the 2008 Kobe and LeBron wasn’t truly the player he is today yet. But it was probably the best version of Dwayne Wade and a backcourt of Wade and Kobe in 2008 might be the best match-up ever for Magic and Michael. And LeBron would be too strong and athletic for Pippen to shut down. But it’s the power players who would doom the 2008 team. David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, and Karl Malone would eat Bosh, Howard, and Carlos Boozer alive. The 2008 team didn’t really shoot all that well from the outside either. They’d need to make threes in bundles to beat the Dream Team.

2. Team USA – 1996
Best player(s): Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, and Karl Malone
Record: 8-0
Point differential: +242

Yes, I know they were called Dream Team III. But I never liked that name. There’s only one Dream Team.

This version of Team USA was, like the Dream Team, littered with stars. Scottie Pippen was high off his 5th NBA championship and players like Karl Malone, John Stockton, Charles Barkley, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon were playing at very high levels. However, other than Pippen, they were also on the tail end their primes. Younger players like Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, and Grant Hill hadn’t yet reached their primes. Maybe only Reggie Miller and Gary Payton were alongside Pippen, at their true peaks. Thus, you had a team of vets from the original Dream Team mixed in with great young players but just three guys playing at their ultimate peaks. And of course, there was no Michael Jordan. However, it still worked tremendously well. They were in control of every game, and really, only struggled in the first half of the gold medal game against Yugoslavia.

The team didn’t have the same swagger as the Dream Team, but was comparable. The main issues with the 1996 team (if you were to play them against the Dream Team in hypothetical hoops) is that for one, there was no MJ or Magic, and for two, Sir Charles, the Admiral, Karl Malone, and Scottie Pippen were all younger and save for Pippen, probably better in 1992 than they were in 1996. Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaq Daddy could be difference makers, but Magic and Michael would take advantage of a young Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill, while eating up Gary Payton with their size offensively. I still think the 1996 team beats the Redeem Team because they had too many guys who could score easily compared to the 2008 team and the 1996 version of Scottie Pippen might be the best guy to try guarding LeBron James in the history of basketball. I’d have loved to see it.

And really, could you see a team this goofy beating the Dream Team?

1. Team USA – 1992 (Dream Team)
Best player(s): Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Scottie Pippen
Record: 8-0
Point differential: +340

Simply the best. This year is 20 years since the greatest basketball team ever put together roamed Barcelona and destroyed every team in sight. To celebrate the anniversary, NBA Films put together a fine documentary on the squad and Jack McCallum wrote a fantastic book on the team. The team helped basketball grow tremendously across the world. I remember trying to watch as many games as I could, though I didn’t have the Olympics Triplecast which was a PPV project that ended up being a disaster. But my neighbor did so I was able to watch most of the games live.

There are so many subplots to the team including Magic deciding to play after retiring from the NBA after acquiring HIV, Larry’s last ride trying to represent his country with a painful back injury, and Michael Jordan (and others) keeping Isiah Thomas off the Dream Team. As a Golden State Warriors’ fan, I took great joy in watching Chris Mullin make that team.

McCallum’s book does a great job describing the mystery greatest game ever with the Dream Team scrimmaging each other and Michael’s team beating Magic’s team. The team’s best competition was itself. In fact, you could say the team created its own handicap by playing cards all night, drinking, and hanging out at clubs before their games. McCallum wrote that before the gold medal game, Jordan stayed up all night, did media work, and then played golf before the 2nd game against Croatia. Yet, it didn’t matter. He was a machine. The defining thing that made this team the best is that it had the greatest basketball player of all-time in his absolute prime.

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