One NY Press writer dives into the much-hated question
by Nick Gallinelli
Many sportswriters and fans would scoff at my mention of this. In fact, most of them would probably lose respect for me and tease me until I cried. ‘Which team had Michael Jordan?’ is what most of them would say, and that’d probably be sufficient and effective argument, but it’s at least worth speculation.
I’m not sure about you, but I was merely four years old when The Dream Team was assembled. I could have been a late mental bloomer or something traumatic might have happened when I was four, but I don’t remember anything from that age. I have a few hazy pictures and memories, but I’m beginning to think that’s just me putting stories from my parents into picture form and calling them memories. What grade are you in when you’re four? Are you even in a grade?
To most people, especially my idol sportswriter, Bill Simmons —who wrote an awesome, 752-page tome titled ‘The Book of Basketball”—, even making an argument that this year’s men’s National Basketball team is comparable to the 1992 team is sacrilege. I understand. I’m not even saying that it is comparable, but that’s what you do when you talk about sports. We love comparing things. There are simply too many “what if”s. What if Michael Jordan didn’t have Scottie Pippen? What if Babe Ruth played today? What if the Knicks actually tried to stop Wilt from scoring 100? What if Chris Webber knew how many timeouts there were? What if Mark Sanchez could throw a football? It’s all just guessing. Just like looking forward and projecting the future is speculation, looking to the past and changing scenarios is just speculation. It’s fun, for me at least. Especially because it’s hard to accept that you missed the best basketball team ever.
And even if you’re calling me stupid in your head, know I’m with you— I think it all the time. But let’s just speculate.
(Warning: If you’re not much into basketball, leave now. We’re about to get geeky.)
When I wrote my (shameless plug) article “The 9.5 Best Moments from the 2012 Olympics” the men’s basketball gold settled in at number four (although the list wasn’t in any specific order). I’ll start with the point I made there.
The 1992 Dream Team played Croatia in its gold medal game. They crushed them. In the U.S.’s first Olympic team that boasted NBA players, they won their gold medal game by 32— 117 for the U.S., 85 for Croatia. A slaughter? Relatively, no. This was actually the closest game the U.S. team played in the entire Games. In its prior games it won by 68, 33, 43, 44, 41, 38, and 51 for an average margin of victory of 43.75. The Gold game was not close, although it was the closest.
Competition back then was, simply, not as competitive.
This year’s team won its games by 54, 21, 40, 6, and 22, or an average of 32.1. However, the Spain team they played for gold had five NBA players on its roster, including stars like the Gasol brother, Pau and Marc.
So how many NBA players on a roster equal a margin difference of 11.65? Wish I could calculate that.
Also, if Croatia were the silver medalists in the 1992 games, that’d probably mean it’s a pretty good basketball country, right? Actually, no.
As basketball has gained popularity throughout the globe, Croatia has s(t)unk in quality. In fact, Croatia’s basketball team didn’t even qualify for the Olympics this year. ’92’s silver medalists didn’t even have a chance at a medal this year.
So that’d mean that Croatia isn’t a good basketball country, but was just more exposed to basketball than most countries in 1992, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t the quick leap from other countries and quick demise of Croatia imply that Croatia isn’t good at basketball, but, sort of, just happened to play the most at the time?
And they were the best team in the world other than the U.S. in ’92. The competition disparity is undeniable— this year’s team played tougher competition, and it showed.
More “what if”s. So what would 1992’s team have done against 2012’s competition? Well, we don’t know, but we can dive further into speculation.
The Dream Team had some of the biggest names in basketball history, proven by 11 of its 12 players eventually entering the Hall of Fame (Laettner the only exception). Yes, you read that right, 11 of 12. They had two of the best centers of all time, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing, the point guard with the most assists ever, John Stockton, a maniacal Barkley, a doesn’t-need-to-be-explained Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and the best player ever, Michael Jordan. Every player was a household name. They still are. But one of the reasons every single one was a household name is because of how old they all were. The Dream Team’s average age was 29.9 years old, which is a pretty ripe age in NBA terms.
According to a study by Southern Utah University made popular by the Wall Street Journal, ‘NBA players peak at 24 years old and basically stay at that level until they turn 25, at which point they start declining.’ This is in contrast to other sports like baseball, where the peak age is generally accepted to be around 28. Basketball is demanding, especially when you add in Olympic games. After a long season it’s tough to continue without a break, especially when Jordan, 29, Pippen, 34, and Drexler, 30, all played through the NBA Finals. The Finals end one month before the Olympics begin, but don’t forget Olympic practices.
2012’s team, dubbed the ‘Keep Dreaming Team’ by Bill Simmons, is, on average, 25.8 years old— if you’re bad at math, that’s 4.1 years closer to SUU’s peak age than the Dream Team. They had four players who played through the NBA finals, champion Lebron James, 27, Russell Westbrook, 23, Kevin Durant, 23, and Rich Harden, 22, all better suited age-wise than the DT’s Finalists.
The age might be insignificant, though, when you take into account utter competitivenes. The Dream Team was stacked with tenacious competitors— Patrick Ewing (aka The Warrior), Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, nutty Charles Barkley, and Michael Jordan, who Bill Simmons notes might be the most competitive person of all time, in anything, ever.
The Keep Dreaming Team was fierce, too, but also wasn’t. LeBron James, who doesn’t only play to win but to say “eff you” to every of his many naysayers, Kobe Bryant and Tyson Chandler (didn’t play much) are of the most competitive in the NBA, but that’s pretty much it. They also had duds like Carmelo Anthony (there are actually videos about his laziness) and seemingly money-hungry Deron Williams.
You could argue that they’d all hustle their butts off in the Olympics regardless of the way they play in the NBA, but wouldn’t someone with true innate competitive ferocity show it all the time? Jordan sure did.
If you’ve gotten this far into the article, then you probably know that this year’s team and its dearth of powerful
big-men forced them to play what you’d call “small ball”. They had to rely on speed, quickness, passing, and three-pointers (which can be fickle). The team’s biggest weakness was exploited in Sunday’s gold game vs. Spain, when Pau and Marc Gasol dominated the U.S.’s big guys and kept Spain in the game all the way through the third quarter. So it would only make sense that if the DT played the KDT, the DT’s all-time-great centers, Robinson and Ewing, wouldn’t have much trouble shaking and bumping the KDT’s LeBron and Kevin Love. And guess what, (super analysis time) shots taken from close go in more often than shots taken from afar. With even mediocre perimeter defense from the DT’s guards, they’d be able to ride Robinson and Ewing past the KDT.
Ultimately, it’s probably impossible to convince anyone that this year’s team is better than 1992’s, and probably impossible to dissuade believers that 1992’s team isn’t better than 2012’s. There’s a reason most people don’t even give the debate a thought. They don’t care that 1992’s assistant coach, Mike Krzyzewski, was this year’s head coach, therefore imparting all his years of knowledge onto the KDT, or that Lebron James is combating Jordan for ‘best player ever’. The stone is set, understandably so.
You’ll continue to hear pundits mock the “idiots” who make the comparisons, but it’s something worth looking at and thinking about. It’s simply entertaining, even if it does irk 1992’s club. To avoid derision, I’ll admit the DT’s superiority. After all, ‘which team had Michael Jordan?’
…And so I cry, because I’m too young to remember the best basketball team ever.
*Petrovic died in a car crash at 28-years-old, but ESPN’s page says he’s now 46. I’m confused.
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