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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Dream is Better than Reality

The 2012 Summer Olympics will begin next week in London.  Wild Banshee has been conducting a poll to see which sport readers are looking forward to the most.  At the moment, basketball is running away with the vote.  I imagine this is partially due to the amount of attention that Team USA has been getting from talking heads on TV and radio.  Much of the conversation has been focused on the debate of whether this year's version of Team USA would beat the fabled Dream Team from 1992.

Before I get into the analysis, it's time for a little history lesson.  Prior to 1992, the United States had always sent college players to the Olympics.  Back in those days, there were not a lot of foreign players in the NBA.  Other countries, particularly those in the Communist Bloc, sent players to the Olympics who would be NBA players now days.  For a long time, that was no problem.  The United States managed to win the gold medal every year until 1988 (yeah, I consider the USA the real gold medal winners in 1972).  At the games in Seoul, South Korea, the unthinkable happened.  The college all-stars from the United States lost to the Soviet Union in the semi-finals and came home with the bronze medal.  And this time, there was no shady officiating.  This loss was an outrage that had to be corrected.  Everyone knew that the United States had the best basketball players in the world.  After all, basketball was invented in America.  Thus, the Dream Team was born.  In 1992, the United States sent a team of NBA greats to the Barcelona games to give the rest of the world a proper beat down at Dr. Naismith's game.  And, boy did they deliver!  America's basketball honor was avenged.

The Dream Team has been considered by many to be the greatest team ever assembled in any sport.  Kobe Bryant, however, disagrees.  Bryant, a member of this year's Olympic team, mentioned that he thought Team USA 2012 could beat the Dream Team.  When I first heard this, I laughed out loud.  Then I thought about it a little more, and started to think that Kobe might not be crazy after all.  In the days that followed, I've heard a lot of people voicing opinions on this matter, but I did not like the method of analysis that those folks were using.  So, I figured it was time for Wild Banshee to invest some time and do some serious analysis.


Ground Rules:

1.  This is not a lifetime achievement analysis.  The fact that the 1992 players won numerous NBA championships and set many records during the course of their entire careers is not a valid factor for this analysis.  That sort of comparison needs to wait for 20 years until all of the 2012 players have finished their careers, too.

2.  The players must be analyzed and compared in the form they actually existed when the teams were formed.  So, for the 2012 team, we are talking about the current version of Kobe Bryant and the immature and unproven version of Anthony Davis.  For the 1992 team, we are looking at an aged and injured Larry Bird and a pseudo retired Magic Johnson.

3.  Basketball is a game of match-ups.  And it is a team game.  The proper question is not, "Is Player A better than Player B."  The proper question is, "How would that matchup play out in the context of a 5-on-5 game on the floor?"


Rosters:

Dream Team                                                                  Team USA 2012

PG    Magic Johnson, 6'9", 220 lbs, 32 yrs                     PG   Chris Paul, 6'0", 183 lbs, 27 yrs
PG    John Stockton, 6'1", 175 lbs, 30 yrs                     PG   Russell Westbrook, 6'3", 187 lbs, 23 yrs
SG    Michael Jordan, 6'6", 200 lbs, 29 yrs                    PG   Deron Williams, 6'3", 209 lbs, 28 yrs
SG    Clyde Drexler, 6'7", 220 lbs, 30 yrs                      SG   James Harden, 6'5", 220 lbs, 22 yrs
SF     Chris Mullen, 6'7", 215 lbs, 30 yrs                        SG   Kobe Bryant, 6'6", 205 lbs, 33 yrs
SF     Scottie Pippen, 6'7", 210 lbs, 26 yrs                     SG   Andre Iguodala, 6'6", 207 lbs, 28 yrs
SF     Larry Bird, 6'9", 220 lbs, 35 yrs                           SF   Carmelo Anthony, 6'8", 230 lbs, 28 yrs
PF     Charles Barkley, 6'6", 250 lbs, 29 yrs                   SF   Kevin Durant, 6'9", 235 lbs, 23 yrs
PF     Karl Malone, 6'9", 255 lbs, 29 yrs                         SF   LeBron James, 6'8", 250 lbs, 28 yrs
PF     Christian Laettner, 6'11", 235 lbs, 22 yrs              PF   Kevin Love, 6'10", 260, 23 yrs
C       Patrick Ewing, 7'0", 240 lbs, 29 yrs                      PF   Anthony Davis, 6'10", 220, 19 yrs
C       David Robinson, 7'1", 235, 26 yrs                         C   Tyson Chandler, 7'1" 240 lbs, 29 yrs


Analysis:

Regardless of which point guard starts for either team, the 2012 team dominates this matchup.  Magic in his prime is the best player in this group.  But, Magic was already semi-retired in 1992.  He had one comeback year left in him before he was done for good became coach of the Lakers.  The gist of it is that Magic, at this stage of his career, and Stockton, at any stage in his career could not guard any of the 2012 point guards.

The shooting guards and both forward positions should be analyzed as one big group.  If this game were to actually take place, the 2012 team would probably start Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Durant.  As I said before, basketball is a team game based on match-ups.  Therefore, the Dream Team would probably counter by starting Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler and Scottie Pippen.  I realize that in this scenario, the Dream Team has Barkley and Malone on the bench to start the game.  But, this is where Rules 2 and 3 comes into play.  Barkley and Malone are both better players than Drexler or Pippen, but they do not match up well defensively against the the projected starters from the 2012 team.

This G/F position is tough to analyze.  All of these players from both squads are prolific offensive players.  The real question is whether any of these guys is a good enough defender or enough of a defensive liability to swing the balance one direction or another.  There would likely be some mix and match with the defensive assignments.

If I was coaching both teams, here is what I would do.  Pippen would guard LeBron.  MJ would guard Kobe.  That leaves Drexler guarding Durant.  Drexler is a solid defender but Durant's size would present a problem for Clyde the Glide.  On the flip side, LeBron would guard MJ.  Kobe would guard Pippen.  That would leave Durant guarding Clyde.  Durant still has a lot to learn about defense and Drexler would have an advantage out on the perimeter.  But Durant's size would likely make up for his foot speed disadvantage.  It's hard to say which team has the advantage in this set of match-ups.  After all, the two greatest players who ever lived are on opposing teams.  One thing that is clear is that a lot of points would be scored from these positions.

When it comes to the center position, the Dream Team dominates.  I don't know who the Dream Team would start between Patrick Ewing and David Robinson.  It really wouldn't matter.  Ewing and Robinson were both in their absolute primes in 1992.  Both players were polished offensive players and both players played good defense.  Tyson Chandler is a good player, but he's at best a distant third in terms of current centers in the NBA.  And, when Chandler inevitably gets in foul trouble trying to guard two of the all-time greatest big men, there is no one else on the 2012 roster that has even a prayer of guarding Ewing or Robinson.

Conclusion:

In basketball, maybe more than in any other sport, anything can happen on a given night.  That's why March Madness is so exhilarating.  So, if the question is whether Team USA 2012 could beat the Dream Team, the answer is certainly "yes."  The Dream Team actually lost a scrimmage to a college all-star team when they were preparing for the '92 Olympics.  But, if this was a best-of-seven series like in the NBA playoffs, the Dream Team would be an overwhelming favorite.

If you look at the discussion above, you may wonder why I would make that statement.  After all, I gave the 2012 team a big advantage at the point guard position.  I gave the 2012 team a fighting a chance at the three-person guard/forward match-ups.  So, even though I gave the Dream Team a big advantage at center, the overall analysis would at first glance appear to be a wash.

Before we move on, please refer to Rule 3 above.  These match-ups would not be played out in a vaccum.  The big man advantage for the Dream Team is so tremendous that it decides the whole contest.  Magic and Stockton could not stop any of the 2012 point guards from penetrating.  But, the Dream Team would not have to worry about guarding Tyson Chandler.  Robinson and Ewing would be free to roam and defend the rim.  And if Tyson Chandler ever came out of the game, who from the 2012 team would even pretend to defend Robinson or Ewing or Barkley or Malone down in the post?  Even if Malone or Barkley struggled to guard their opponent on the perimeter, there is no scenario where Ewing or Robinson would not be in the game to erase those liabilities in the paint.

If all the players from the Dream Team were in their prime, this debate would not even be worth a blog post.  But, even with Bird and Magic being a shell of their former selves, the Dream Team would defeat Team USA 2012.

If you have a different take on this debate or think that the analysis should be done a different way, please leave a comment.  And check out Banshee Sports on FB.  "Like" it if you like it.