Not This Again: The Dream Team vs. the 2012 Olympic Squad

Last week, our esteemed colleague Brett David Roberts, Esq. ran a piece pitting this summer’s Olympic Men’s Basketball team against the damn-near mythical ’92 edition, the one we’ve known from its inception as the Dream Team.  He stacked the two teams against each other position by position and went looking for the edges.

Brett saw a distinct advantage for ’92 at the center position, where Patrick Ewing and David Robinson would more or less have their way with defensive specialist Tyson Chandler, 19-year-old Anthony Davis, and Kevin Love, who is not really a center.

At forward, Charles Barkley would prove something of a matchup nightmare for the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James, dynamic scorers who could be handled defensively by Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone.

At guard, the sheer greatness of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson would prove overwhelming for Kobe Bryant, who could only hope to approach their level of play, ultimately falling just short.  James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul would kind of wash out with Clyde Drexler and John Stockton.

Roberts concluded that “the teams just don’t stack up.”

The ’92 squad, “the greatest team ever assembled in sports, all sports” was “superior in all aspects” to the current model.  He’s not alone in his thinking.  Eighty-six percent of the more than 180,000 votes cast in a recent ESPN poll had the Dream Team over Team ’12 in a seven-game series, with 73 percent imagining victory in six games or less.

Before we get to our take on the matter, it might be worth trying to parse some of the popular thinking in regards to the Dream Team; to try to understand what the mind’s eye sees when that wonderfully musical phrase is uttered.

The Thinking

For starters, there’s the ridiculously impressive résumé.  Eleven Hall of Famers.  Ten of the “50 Greatest Players in NBA History.”  The league’s all-time leader in assists and steals.  Numbers two and three in points scored.  The two greatest players of the 1980’sThe single greatest of all time.  And the accolades, my God, the accolades!

  • 15 MVP awards
  • 56 All-NBA First Team selections
  • 23 Championship rings
  • 11 Finals MVP awards
  • 117 All-Star Game selections
  • 11 All-Star Game MVP awards
  • 24 All-Defensive First Team selections
  • 2 Defensive Player of the Year awards
  • 4 Rookie of the Year awards

The Dream Team was more than that very impressive list of accomplishments, of course.  They were an ideal, a manifestation of greatness itself.  The thing to remember about ideals is, once they’re set, they tend to stay set.  They don’t shift to accommodate progress; they become the measurement of it.

We recall an episode of The B.S. Report from October of 2009 in which, during a discussion on the Beatles, Chuck Klosterman talked about the idea of absolute greatness and what happens when we collectively assign it:

You kind of have to look at rock bands the same way you look at Presidents.  It doesn’t matter how long America exists.  When people talk about the greatest Presidents – Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson – there’s a handful of people that are always going to be in that top-five category because they sort of define what a successful President is or the values and the criteria of what makes a good President.

The Beatles, more than any other band, set [those] criteria.  There can’t be a future band who is better at being a group than the Beatles were because all other groups are really doing is fulfilling the criteria that they made.

We don’t normally get into trolling the comment section for fodder, but this nugget from trada9404 in response to a July 12 piece from TrueHoop sums up what we think people think about when they think about the ’92 v. ’12 debate:

in 2006, lebron, wade, melo, dwight howard, bosh and cp3 all lost to greece, and several other games were very close; also, they almost lost to spain if it wasn’t for kobe’s hero ball at the end bailing them out – so how could these things happen if it is all about athleticism? clearly, basketball smarts and TEAM skill has something to do with it. how could these guys that obviously lack these things and lost to Greece, all of a sudden beat MJ and company? gimme a break.. it just doesn’t make any sense

Apparently, trada has had some experience travelling under suspended animation like the crew of the Nostromo as, to him, six years’-worth of growth counts as a “sudden” change.

Funky definitions aside, what he says ties in with Klosterman’s idea.  Notice that he doesn’t explain how or why the Dream Team would win a seven-game series against the 2012 model.  Instead, he rolls out reasons why 2012 is the inferior team, ways in which it doesn’t fit the criteria for absolute greatness established two decades ago.  None of these reasons, by the way, have anything to do with matchup advantages or basic basketball skills.

Most tellingly, trada concludes his comment by stating that the idea of “these guys” who “lost to Greece” beating the Michael Jordan-led ’92 group simply “doesn’t make any sense.”

It just doesn’t make any sense.  If the Dream Team were the very definition of greatness – “the greatest team ever assembled in sports, all sports” – well, how could anything ever top that?

The Sentiment

The most important factor shaping this discussion, perhaps, is the matter of how we feel about the Dream Team; what they mean to us.  Their formation was certainly the most culturally significant basketball occurrence – perhaps the most culturally significant sporting occurrence – of the past 25 years.  Following the “Golden Era” of the mid-to-late 80’s, the establishment of Michael Jordan as the most dominating player in the game, coupled with the emblazoning of his high-flying silhouette into an iconic logo and his emergence as a near-omnipresent media figure, had propelled basketball to all-time highs in popularity, both nationally and abroad.  The Dream Team was a coronation of sorts, a celebration of the NBA’s still-ascendant rise into sport superpower status.

This collection of players captured our imaginations, not through the beauty of their play during the Olympic tournament – they won their games by an average margin of 43 points, which did not exactly make for compelling viewing – but through the simple fact of their existence.  The world hadn’t seen anyone like Michael Jordan since the days of Babe Ruth, which meant that most living people hadn’t ever seen anyone like Michael Jordan with their own eyes.  Beyond just Jordan, no one had ever seen such elite talent gathered onto one team before, certainly not outside of an exhibition setting à la the All-Star Game.

For a summer, we were united in our awe of them and, this being the Olympics and all, our pride in them.  We embraced them rapturously, without cynicism.

Our personal lasting memory of the Dream Team is from the Gold Medal Game against Croatia, which we didn’t actually see because we were spending our afternoon in the left field stands at Yankee Stadium, watching the Red Sox take the third of a four-game series which they would ultimately split (Roger Clemens, 8.1 IP, 4 K, 6 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 0 BB; Jack Clark, 1-4 with a 9th-inning homer; Papa K, one screaming foul ball snagged during batting practice).  We sat with our family in the dripping center of that awful monument to all that is Ungood, surrounded by vile, hairy-knuckled New Yorkers, their mouths twisted into hideous asshole’s leers, their voices thick with cruel boast and ignorance.  We sat timidly, fearing reprisal should we make our allegiance known.  Though neither team was very good at the time – both were below .500 and more than 10 games out – fan relations were just as venomous as they always had been, and probably always will be.

At some point in the game, after a handful of beery arguments had been observed in various pockets of the stands, a particularly loudmouthed Yankee fan sitting in our section returned from the concessions, a plastic cup of amber hate fuel clutched in each of his violence-wreaking fists.  As he sidled into his row, he made an utterly logic-defying announcement: “the Dream Team’s getting beat.”

Everyone in earshot – Yankees and Red Sox fans alike – snapped to his attention.

“What?” we cried incredulously.

As it turned out, it was early in the first quarter and the U.S. trailed by only a handful of points (they would go on to win by 32).

For a brief moment, though, we were united by the experience we had all been sharing before our paths had crossed on this Saturday in August.  The news acted as a momentary cease-fire; our mutual animosity had been dissolved by our common interest in what was unfolding an ocean away.

Recounting all of this is our overlong way of saying that the Dream Team was special.  They were special in a way that we can’t imagine another team being ever again.  They were a new idea, and ideas can only be new once.  Any future run is just a retread.  We can refine our execution of the idea through repetition, but never recreate the same spark and magic thrust off by the original version.

Furthermore, they existed in a time when athletes were still revered beyond their athletic achievements.  Through round-the-clock media coverage, we’ve gotten too close to their humanity to regard them as heroic.  We still admire their feats, but take more delight than ever in over-analysis, petty competitive comparison, and the skewering of personality than ever before.  It’s the nature of entertainment in a post-TMZ culture.

Think about Michael Jordan:  Think of what we know about him now relative to what we knew about him then.  During his playing days, he was entirely his very affable public persona.  His now-infamous, near-sociopathic competitive nature was hardly commented on.  We simply loved him for his prowess, his gracefulness, his guts, his dazzling athleticism, his 30 points a night every night, his winning smile, his awesome sneakers, and probably ProStars too.

Imagine if Michael Jordan’s career was taking place right now.  Imagine how people would respond to the news that he had punched Steve Kerr in the face during practice.

How thoroughly would this news dominate our sports media?  How long would it be before the excessive coverage triggered a discussion on the racial implications of the event?

A black man punching a white man in practice and the media whipping into a frenzy over it?  A living expression of the still-unresolved racial bias that pervades our society, no doubt.

Remember when LeBron walked off the court after the Cavs lost to the Orlando Magic in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals without shaking hands with his opponents?  Remember how “controversial” LeBron’s “brazenly unsportsmanlike” conduct was?  How would we feel about Michael yelling out “Thunder Dan Majerle my f***ing ass!” after defeating the Phoenix Suns in the 1993 NBA Finals?  Taunting your opponent as you crush their throat on the biggest stage available?  What sort of an example would that be for the kids?

Of course, great care and savvy in the shaping of his persona was a key element to Michael Jordan’s success, so this sort of stuff probably doesn’t happen in 2012.  But we can also think about what our perception of his career might be as it played out.  How much of our discussion on Jordan would unfold along the lines of, “Magic won his first title in his rookie season; his first of five.  It took Michael seven years to win his first.  We can’t start to talk about Michael in Magic’s class until he’s won five.”

When the Dream Team came together, our collective consciousness seemed more amenable to the propping-up of public figures than it does today, when we seem more inclined toward laughing at and knocking down.  More than any comparison of athletic accomplishments or eyeballing of positional matchups, this shift of perception skews public feeling to such lopsided support of the ’92 crew.

The Series

Well, maybe it does.  Perhaps we’re taking this all a little too seriously.  It’s just a fun, silly question.  Who would win in a seven-game series: the stars of the past or the stars of today?  We’ll try to answer it the best way we know how: by building the most plausible scenario out of the available facts and then filling in the blanks with numbers.

So, obviously, a time machine is involved.  We imagine that the Dream Team would get home court advantage; they were the more accomplished of the two, had won the most titles, probably had the higher collective regular season winning percentage (we’re not taking the time to look that up).  With home court, they would surely get the benefit of playing under home (1992) rules, i.e. hand-checking is allowed.

Here are the two teams’ rosters:

Here’s a Fun Fact for you: if you combined each team into one giant super-player and did their pre-game introductions “Get in the Ring”-style, the Dream Team would stand at 80 feet, one inch tall and weigh 2,695 pounds, against Team ’12’s 78 feet, nine inches and 2,646 pounds.

Now, over a seven-game series, both teams would be shortened to eight- or nine-man rotations.  The Dream Team’s rotation is the easiest to surmise: Larry Bird’s mangled, 35-year-old back led to his retirement from basketball immediately following his Olympic experience, John Stockton had suffered an “undisplaced fracture of the right fibula” during the qualifying tournament which limited him to only brief appearances in four of the eight tournament games, and Christian Laettner was, well, Christian Laettner.  Those three would spend most of series waving towels.

2012 is a tougher read.  There’s no doubt that rookie Anthony Davis would be consigned to the twelfth seat on the bench.  Who would join him?  We’re going to guess Russell Westbrook and James Harden, for the simple fact of their inexperience relative to Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Kobe Bryant.

Now that we have our nines, how do we determine the series’ outcome?  In the other assessments that we’ve read, people seem to most frequently evoke the size advantage provided by Patrick Ewing and David Robinson as a guarantee on Dream Team victory, or the superior athleticism provided by LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony on the wings giving 2012 the edge.

Singling out advantages and imagining outcomes that would revolve around them is a little too nebulous for us.  These sorts of things can be game-planned against and counteracted.  Instead, we prefer to look at the track records, and we’re not talking about the résumés.  We can’t, in good conscience, let the full scope of the Dream Team’s accolades sway our thinking when Team ‘12 is still in the process – in the cases of players like Durant, Davis, Harden, Westbrook, and Love, very early in the process – of writing its own story.  It would sort of be like listening to a batch of Deerhunter demos and dismissing them with a flick of the wrist, saying “eh, Loveless is just way better.”

Instead, we look to the relevant on-court statistical production.  As there’s nothing more relevant than recent history, we compiled the per-36-minute numbers for each member of our nine-man rotations from the two seasons preceding their Olympic tournaments (2010-’11 and 2011-’12; 1990-’91 and 1991-’92).  Then we ran about the simplest analysis we could come up with: we averaged everything out, reducing each team to a single, representative super-player, each standing nearly 80 feet tall and weighing more than 2,600 pounds, no doubt.

Before we get to the results, we should go over the matter of Magic Johnson.  As you likely know, Magic had retired prior to the start of the ’91-’92 season.  By the time of the Dream Team’s first inter-squad scrimmages, he had not played professionally – apart from in the ’92 All-Star Game – for seven months.  Furthermore, knee trouble consigned him to the bench for two of the eight tournament games and laid a tamp on his minutes during the six that he played in.

Needing to account for this somehow in our statistics, we decided that August ’92 Magic was two-thirds the Magic he had been at the end of the ’91 season.  For the purposes of preparing our super-player, we reduced his counting numbers by 33 percent and plugged the results into the blank space where his ’92 numbers would have been.  Was our deduction too harsh?  Not harsh enough?  Who can say?  None of this is real, you know.  We wouldn’t get too worked up about it.

The following table shows the career per-36 numbers for both super-players, the numbers from the two seasons preceding the Olympics, and the two-year per-36 averages.  The “winning” statistics are highlighted:

Overall, the Dream Team was the more productive group/super-player/whatever.  They enjoy decent-sized advantages in rebounds, steals, blocked shots, and points-per-36.  Their most glaring advantage is in the rate at which they put the ball in the basket.  Every player in our nine-man Dream rotation, aside from Magic and Clyde Drexler, shot better than 50 percent from the floor during our two-year sample, with Charles Barkley’s mark of 56.3 percent leading the way.  For Team ’12, only LeBron James (52.1 percent) and Tyson Chandler (66.7 percent off an average of 6.7 shot attempts per 36) connected on half their shots or better.

Here’s another Fun Fact for you: only seven teams in NBA history have connected on at least 52.1 percent of their shots over the course of a season.  They were the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979-’80 (won the Title) and then in each season from 1981-’82 through 1985-’86 (won two Titles, lost in the Finals twice, lost in the Conference Finals once), and the Boston Celtics in 1987-’88 (lost in the Finals).  Golden Era, indeed.

The one area where Team ’12 enjoys a distinct advantage is from beyond the arc.  With Bird (39.8 3FG%) and Stockton (39.5) on ice, the Dream Team are without their two best distance shooters (Drexler and Chris Mullin are next up at 33.8 and 33.3).  For today’s group, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Love, and Chris Paul have all shot better than 35 percent from downtown over the past two years.

The Conclusion

When we set out to write this, our intent was to take the contrary opinion and cast our vote for Team ’12.  After all, the past is dead, man, it’s gone, it’s buried.  The future is now, and if you can’t get with it, pal, well good luck living out the rest of your days as that sad, useless old man attempting to fend off his ever-growing irrelevance through the desperate clutching-onto of the ghosts of his youth; that pitiably out-of-touch bag of graveyard dirt too terrified of change to give himself over to the one true revitalizing force: mighty progress.

But, after considering the data, we decided no-can-do: Dream Team in Six.

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Tags: 2012 Olympic Men's Basketball Team Boston Red Sox Chuck Klosterman Dream Team Michael Jordan New York Yankees USA Basketball

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