Could The 2012 Olympic Basketball Team Beat The Dream Team? (Answered!)

This essay was written by former NBA player Paul Shirley.  You can follow him on twitter here, and purchase his book about his time in the NBA as a twelfth man, here.

The most popular question relating to the 2012 Olympic basketball tournament isn’t which team in this year’s Olympics has the best chance of beating the Americans, but whether this American team could beat the 1992 American team – the so-called “Dream Team” that featured Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird.

It is widely assumed that this is a question without an answer; it is a diversion built to provoke arguments in bars, along the lines of “Which of Leonardo diCaprio’s ex-girlfriends is the hottest?” or “Is Mitt Romney human?”

If an “answer” to this hypothetical is found, it usually takes the form of, “Well of course the Dream Team would win…Jordan, Magic, Bird, where’s the debate?”

The man who delivers that answer is right about one thing: there isn’t much debate. It’s just that he’s completely wrong.

All nostalgia aside: Jordan, Magic, Bird, the Dream Team?

Tossed around like a handbag in a hurricane.

**

From a simplified viewpoint, a basketball team built in 2012 would beat a basketball team built in 1992 for the same reason a computer chip built in 2012 is faster than a computer chip built in 1992: people improve upon the work of their predecessors. LeBron James learned from Michael Jordan. Kevin Durant picked up tips from Connie Hawkins. Not directly, of course, Jordan has never been James’s coach and as far as we know, Kevin Durant has never even met Connie Hawkins.

Basketball players have learned from their forebears just as computer programmers have learned from theirs: knowledge is shared, tips are given, the men and women who come after are better off than the ones who came before.

However, this reasoning doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer to our question, because if time machines (and Face/Off) were real and we could switch players past and future, it is reasonable to assume that Michael Jordan & The Superfriends would have learned just as much from LeBron James & Co as happened in reverse.

The answer doesn’t lie in a direct matchup of the players. The answer lies in competition.

**

It’s 1964.

Larry Bird is 8 years old. Magic Johnson is 5. Michael Jordan is 2. Don Draper is somewhere between 28 and 45.

The dominant sport for kids to play: baseball. Second-place: probably football. Meanwhile, basketball is confined to the innermost of inner cities and the outpostiest of outpost Midwestern towns.

Now fast-forward two and a half decades. It’s 1989. Kobe Bryant is 11. LeBron James is 5. Kevin Durant is 1. The dominant sport for participation among American children: basketball. (Oddly enough, there is documentation to back this up. The Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association has been keeping track, so that Dick’s would know what to stock.)

So in 1989, everyone (in a relative sense) was playing basketball. In 1964, almost no one (again, relatively) was.

And that’s just in the US.

One of the reasons we romanticize the 1992 Dream Team: their competition was overmatched to an almost comedic degree. The dominance of Jordan, Ewing, Robinson et. al might seem to bolster the argument that the 1992 team was a once-in-a-century collection of players.

But in fact, it helps our case. In the 1992 Olympic Games, the rest of the world (outside of Serbia and pockets of Russia) played like it was sharing something like twelve functional basketball hoops.

The world’s contribution to the basketball talent pool was not, shall we say, significant.

Since then, the catch-up has been remarkable. The NBA now employs around 80 foreign-born players each year. (In 1992, that number was 21.)

Let’s not confuse the issue: the foreign players have their own Olympic teams. But all those great foreign players made it even more difficult to make it as an American in the NBA.

And if it’s more difficult to make it to the top, the players at that top are going to be much better than they were.

**

The demand is the same whether you started playing in 1964 or 1989: 12 spots on an Olympic team.

But thanks to increased participation from all corners, the supply is significantly bigger – more Americans, more foreigners pushing those Americans.

Bigger supply, same demand; I’m no economist, but I’m pretty sure that means the competition was fiercer for LeBron James than it was for Chris Mullin.

And if the competition is fiercer, the players are better.

And if the players are better, the 2012 Olympic team would smash the 1992 version like Cartoon Hammer v. Cartoon Piggybank.

**

There is a chance, of course, that the guy down at the bar – Barry, I’m assuming – is right. That there was just something different about Magic and Bird and Chuck and Mike and the Admiral. It is possible that he’s not romanticizing the past, that those men were transcendent genetic specimens, the likes of which we’ll never see again, and it doesn’t matter how many advantages one gives the young ‘uns; the old guys were just, somehow, better.

But a more likely answer is that the Dream Team was a lot of fun, and that they were something the likes of which we’ll never see again.

But only because they had it so easy.

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4 Responses to Could The 2012 Olympic Basketball Team Beat The Dream Team? (Answered!)

  1. Dseal says:

    Ok, by your logic the 2011-2012 Miami Heat would beat the 95-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10 season)…right? These players learned from them so they would be better? Every Olympic Gold medalist in Basketball could beat any of the previous Gold Medalist? I would say that if they had healthy Dwight Howard it would be a much closer game.

  2. Eric says:

    Paul,

    I think one aspect ignored somewhat in there is that while other olympic sports see records fall, that is almost purely about superior athletes in the modern age. As such, by the time these athletes hit their late 20s, they’re just about finished.

    In basketball, athletic ability is obviously huge, but so is knowing how to play the game – old teams win titles.

    While current players have certainly built on the knowledge of their forefathers, you watch this team – they’re still way too dependent on forcing turnovers, creating runouts, and/or getting numerous offensive boards. If they’re not able to turn Magic, Stockton, or Pippen over (and I think those guys could still control the ball, even against modern athletes) – it becomes a half court game, which – even with better athletes – is not the strength of the current group, but was the forte of many on ’92′s unit.

    There’s also the weird anomaly that the back-to-the-basket game has virtually gone away among NBA bigs. Whether Chandler (who is a better team defender than low post defender) & the 3s masquerading as 4s for ’12 would be able to keep Robinson, Ewing, Barkley, & Malone from scoring at will is very much in doubt.

    There would be mismatches for ’12 on the other end of the floor. But with Robinson/Ewing defending the rim, I think those would lead to more jumpshots – again an area where this year’s team can go into long cold stretches.

    And that’s without even mentioning 29 year old MJ, who was athletic enough to dominate any era.

    Regardless of quality of athlete, the match-ups would still play in favor of the unit assembled 20 years ago. The whole concept of the “match up” is something completely foreign to most other olympic sports.

  3. JohnT says:

    The 2012 team didn’t really have any centers (Tyson Chandler), nor did it have much of a low-post game, depending primarily on small ball and 3-pointers. Jordan would have eaten them up.

    In terms of quality of players, here are your two rosters:

    1992:

    Charles Barkley PF
    Larry Bird SF
    Clyde Drexler SG
    Patrick Ewing C
    Magic Johnson PG
    Michael Jordan SG
    Christian Laettner PF
    Karl Malone PF
    Chris Mullin SF
    Scottie Pippen SF
    David Robinson C
    John Stockton PG

    11 hall of famers, one of them being the greatest player ever and two others (Bird and Magic) with legitimate claims to being in the top 5 players ever. Top 10 at least. Otoh, it’s true that Bird was just along for the ride, given his back issues.

    2012:

    Carmelo Anthony SF
    Kobe Bryant SG
    Tyson Chandler C
    Anthony Davis C
    Kevin Durant SF
    James Harden SG
    Andre Iguodala SF
    LeBron James SF
    Kevin Love PF
    Chris Paul PG
    Russell Westbrook PG
    Deron Williams PG

    2, maybe 3 HoFers* with 2 of them being among the top 15 players of all time (Kobe and Lebron). And, again, you don’t have a real center on 2012, so who is going to guard the rim?

    The only way 2012 wins a best-of-seven against 1992 is if 2012 just flat out plays better *team* ball, because they’re not going to win based on the matchups, that’s for sure.

    *Based on their careers so far. This team might get 1 or 2 more, depending on Davis’s career, but there’s no way in hell they’re getting 11 of these guys in the HoF.

  4. Jeffro says:

    Paul Shirley, I love your work but no way in hell 2012 beats 1992. Sure, Magic and Bird were past their prime but still, come on! Heck, let’s take Jordan out of the equation and discuss the rest of the roster.

    LeBron’s going to get his but you don’t think Scottie Pippen would give him headaches or that Pip wouldn’t give the following migraines: Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, James Harden? The 2012 would need a sponsorship from Advil or Tylenol to finish out the Olympics.

    Let’s go to PG. John Stockton: maybe the most efficient player at the position ever. Chris Paul would be on the bench taking notes on Deron Williams’ notepad while Westbrook would be over here and over there looking for the lenses to his glasses because he couldn’t believe his eyes while watching a PG (Stockton) actually drop 16 assists, again and again and again, while shooting over 50% from the field.

    On the block: Charles Barkley, Ewing, Robinson, and Malone isn’t better than Chandler, Love, and who else is supposed to be a big on this roster: oh, yes, Anthony Davis. 1992 would eat these guys for lunch no matter which matchup was on the court.

    The only head-to-head 2012 would have over 1992 is a matchup of the weakest players: Laettner, Drexler, and Mullin vs. Iguodala, Davis, and Williams/Chandler.

    The X-Factor would, like I began, be Scottie Pippen. Pip would be all up in everyone’s shit. If Deshawn Stevenson can make LeBron look like a punk, what do you think Pippen would do? His length, athleticism, and versatility would be a perfect parallel to Durant as well.

    Now include Jordan…
    And an in-his-prime Jordan vs. a past-his-prime Kobe… look, I love Kobe. But we’re talking Jordan. We think Kobe is competitive but let’s not forget Jordan bet he’d win at everything… everything.

    Just because the game has evolved doesn’t make the old guys scrubs. James Joyce > Jonathan Franzen