The United States Men’s Basketball Team opened play in the 2012 London Olympics last weekend. As is usually the case every four years, the US is heavily favored to win the gold medal in an embarrassingly dominant fashion, despite beating Brazil by a mere 11 points and Argentina by an even less-impressive six points during a couple of recent exhibitions.
Naturally, every time the Olympics come around, writers, fans, players and experts all flock to the never-ending debate between whatever current group of basketball players may be representing the US and the particular group of athletes who represented the country in 1992, when the original Dream Team took over the sports world by competing in the Barcelona games. And naturally, the conversations all seem silly—I mean, come on. How could anyone reasonably compare teams from different eras considering how physically advanced today’s sports stars are compared with those of yesteryear?
Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant sparked the debate a few weeks ago, though, when he so flippantly (see: stupidly) mentioned that he thinks his squad could handle the originators, had it been possible that both teams met during each player’s prime (hypothetically speaking, of course). The comments raced to the masses quicker than LeBron raced to the Larry O’Brien trophy in late June after his Miami Heat finally brought him his first professional title and since then, it’s been nearly impossible to go more than two days without some talking head screaming about the subject.
“Besides Kobe, LeBron and Kevin Durant, I don’t think anyone else on their team would have made the 1992 team”, NBA legend and original Dream Team alum Charles Barkley said in response to Bryant’s comments. Michael Jordan said he laughed at the notion when he first heard it, adding that “for him (Bryant) to compare those two teams is not one of the smarter things he ever could have done”. (“Michael Jordan: No way 2012 USA squad would beat 1992 Dream Team”, by The Associated Press, CBS News, 12 July 2012)
Fantasy sports websites rushed to push out fantasy results. Strat-O-Matic, for instance, simulated a best of seven series between the two teams and found that the 1992 team would clobber the 2012 rendition by winning four out of five games. Michael Jordan would lead all scorers with 20 points per game and Magic Johnson would offer up the most assists by dishing out a little more than 7.5 a game. The only contest the site had the Barcelona team losing was the first. After that, the simulated series was a wash. (“Announcements”, by Staff, Strat-O-Matic)
Michael Hiestand then took to the pages of USA Today and wrote that the original squad is even currently beating its most recent competitor off the court. “In current Nielsen N-Score research, which polls a demographically-representative panel of about 1,100 consumers,” he said, “the 1992 squad slaughters the players currently in basketball’s spotlight—at least when it comes to name recognition and likeability among consumers. Nielsen, in recent polling, finds that the average N-Score even today for the 1992 players is more than four times higher than for the current squad, which includes Kobe Bryant and LeBron James”. Ouch. (“Nielsen: ‘92 Dream Team still crushes 2012 team—off-court”, by Michael Hiestand, USA Today, 24 July 2012)
And FanIQ broke down the statistical categories as follows (the initial Dream Team’s numbers are on the left):
Points: 22.8 - 21.5
Rebounds: 8.3 - 6.5
Assists: 5.9 - 4.8
Steals: 1.8 - 1.4
Blocks: 1.2 - .5
Field Goal %: 50.5 - 48.1
“These numbers just further show why no one has a chance against the Dream Team”, the site’s Matthew Shovlin said earlier this month. “Every player is in the Hall of Fame besides Christian Laettner. They won by an average of 48.3 points. That doesn’t even seem reasonable. Charles Barkley shot 71.1% from the field during the ‘92 Olympics (plus 7 of 8 from three..?). They were absurd”. (“2012 vs. The Dream Team: By The Numbers”, by Matthew Shovlin, FanIQ, 13 July 2012)
All right, all right. We get it. The 1992 team would wipe the floor with the 2012 team (hypothetically speaking, of course). Kobe Bryant’s comments were not only ill-advised, but they were also idiotic. In their prime, the Michael Jordan-led crew can probably rest easy knowing that there isn’t a group of players since them that could potentially knock them off as the greatest basketball team ever assembled.
I repeat: ... Knowing that there isn’t a group of players since them that could potentially knock them off as the greatest basketball team ever assembled. So ... what about before them (hypothetically speaking, of course)?
Jeff Smith of the San Diego Reader brought to mind an interesting (and criminally ignored) scenario last Wednesday when he tackled the subject by suggesting comparing the 1992 team with… a 1962 squad. And the results were so startling, it’s hard to think that even Jordan himself would be able to laugh this one off. (“The Impossible Dream Team”, 25 July 2012)
After noting that there was no Olympics in 1962—thus admitting that such a comparison is nearly impossible to accurately conclude, anyway—Smith broke down the match-ups between the fantasized 1962 squad and today’s Olympic competitors. For example take the point guard position. The current incarnation has Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook suiting up. Sure, all three are fine players in their own right (regardless of Paul being a baby off the court, Westbrook being a shoot-first point guard and Williams never winning anything more than a free soft pretzel at a concession stand), but how do you think they would fare against ... Oscar Robertson? In addition to being considered the game’s greatest-ever player by some, The Big O had one of the greatest seasons ever compiled by a professional when he put up 30.8 points, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds per game during the 1961-1962 season. Ridiculous.
Now look at the original Dream Team’s options: Magic Johnson and John Stockton. While both are considered two of the greatest point guards to ever live, the closest that Magic ever came to living up to Robertson’s numbers was during the 1983-84 season when he finished with 13.1 assists, 7.3 boards and 17.6 points per game. Stockton, meanwhile, consistently averaged more dimes than Robertson, though his points and rebounds couldn’t even sniff Oscar’s socks. The Utah Jazz star’s greatest year statistically? 1989-1990, when he scored 17.2 points a game and added 14.5 assists and 2.6 rebounds for good measure. While good enough to get him into the hall of fame, it’s hard to believe he’d be able to outshine his 1962 counterpart, had they ever met (hypothetically speaking, of course).
Still not sold? How about the bigs. This year’s team has Tyson Chandler, Anthony Davis (who isn’t even old enough to legally drive a car, it seems), Kevin Love, and Andre Iguodala. The 1992 team suited up David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and the luckiest man in the history of the world, Christian Laettner. The ‘62 counterpart? Two names: Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Discarding the current team if only because its lack of size has been its Achilles heal so far this summer, you are left with one side that has a bunch of guys who dominated their time—though mostly didn’t ever win a championship—facing off against the other side that has one guy who won 11 titles and another who once averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds per game ... for an entire season! “And if Wilt could shoot free throws from the top of the key”, Smith adds, “I’d spot the other teams 10 pts” (hypothetically speaking, of course).
That’s not all. As Smith also points out, the 1962 team would still have Jerry West (the dude who inspired an entire organization to use his body as its logo, mind you) at the 2-guard and Bob Pettit (who once averaged 31.1 points a game) at the 4. Wondering about the small forward position because of the match-ups with Larry Bird and LeBron James? How about Elgin Baylor, who once averaged 34.8, 38.3 and 34 points a game for three straight seasons? Oh, and are you worried about him not having the ability to win because of his (sometimes debated) ring-less history? The dude still holds the record for most points scored in a single NBA finals game with 61 against the Boston Celtics in 1962. Plus, he once left a season in the middle of it to go serve in the National Guard. And that’s got to count for something, right?
No, but seriously—see what I mean? If we are going to have a nonsensical debate about which team of yesteryear would beat today’s best-of group, how couldn’t you consider teams comprised of players long before this type of discussion became so unavoidable? Sure, the 1992 team was the first one allowed to have NBA players on it (thus making it the first-ever star-packed, unbeatable American squad in official international play), but that doesn’t mean that because of its originality that there was no way a team before it could possibly beat them if we had the playing field leveled.
I mean, that’s what all this type of discussion is about, anyways, isn’t it? We love finding out how much fun it is to constantly compare and contrast two things and draw conclusions that we know are literally impossible to prove. The idea that everything from numbers to titles to performance is completely weighed by our own personal preference, interpretation and perception—that’s what makes these kind of debates fun, right?
“I’d like to think that we had 11 Hall of Famers on that team and whenever they get 11 Hall of Famers you call and ask me who had the better Dream Team”, Jordan said to the AP when Bryant’s comments were initially made public. “Remember now, they learned from us. We didn’t learn from them”.
Oh, but Mike: Who did you learn from? And how much of a chance would you give your squad against those guys, should you ever have the ability to magically suit up for one more game?
Truth is, we’ll never know. And as any sports fan should know by now ... that’s OK. That’s what makes athletics great—the constant desire to compare the known with the unknown. It allows for these types of discussions and it gives us perspective when considering historical achievements in sport.
Now, if only we could get a list of people who were playing some form of basketball in 1942 (hypothetically speaking, of course).
// Marginal Utility
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