As the USA Men’s basketball team swept through the competition in London en route to its second straight gold medal, an old argument has been rehashed time and again: Was this team better than the original Dream Team that won Olympic gold in Barcelona 20 years ago?
The notion has gained steam in recent weeks as the summer of LeBron—by the way, that guy ought to consider investing in a Powerball ticket—rolls along. James, who captured his first NBA championship and was named Most Valuable Player in the finals to go with his third regular-season MVP award, proved to be the most indispensable member of the U.S. squad. He provided fuel for 1992 vs. 2012 debate a couple weeks back, telling ABC that if the two teams could have played, “We feel like we would win.”
Though his country picked up its second-straight gold, all the evidence needed to take apart that notion was available for all to see during the team’s 107-100 conquest of Spain.
Let’s start with something likely to get lost amidst all the whooping and flag waving by Team USA: If not for a colossal mistake by Spanish Coach Sergio Scariolo, the U.S. LeBrons may very well have been standing on the lower podium accepting silver medals as the Spanish anthem blared throughout North Greenwich Arena.
Scariolo allowed Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies to stay in the game after committing his third foul early in the second quarter. This would have been an odd decision in the NBA, but with only five personals resulting in fouling out under international rules, it’s an unthinkable risk. Gasol, one of Spain’s best assets against a size-deficient U.S., picked up his fourth foul with 5:29 remaining in the quarter and had to take a seat for the rest of the half as well as all of the third quarter.
Who knows what would have happened if he weren’t taken out of the game for 10 crucial minutes? As it happens, the U.S. only led by 1 point at the end of the third quarter when Spain was forced to start Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder in Gasol’s place. Ibaka is a good player but his game translates better to the pros than the international game and his presence doesn’t instill the same fear of taking it to the hole as the 7’1” Gasol. To that point, he only played 6:33 minutes of Spain’s victory over Russia two days earlier.
Who would win in a matchup between these teams?
Had the U.S. lost, the narrative would have been what’s wrong with USA basketball, not whether this team could have stayed on the floor with the original team.
The presence—and absence—of the Gasol brothers shines a hot light on Team USA’s biggest weakness, the aforementioned lack of size. Maybe it would be different if the Los Angeles-bound Dwight Howard’s back surgery and Blake Griffin’s knee-injury hadn’t derailed their Olympic hopes, but sadly, that’s the way it goes. Tyson Chandler and Kevin Love were the only options for Coach Mike Krzyzewski at center, forcing him to utilize the much-discussed small ball approach. It’s laughable to think that centers Patrick Ewing and David Robinson wouldn’t have overwhelmed both Chandler and Love. In the gold medal game on Sunday the U.S. had no answer for Pau Gasol (24 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists) with his brother on the bench; imagine what either Charles Barkley or Karl Malone, two of the best post players of all time, could have accomplished in the block.
What’s that? Kevin Love can play inside out? Please. The true Dream Team had Larry Bird on the bench, about to retire but as wily a player as has ever played the game. Just watch how he was able to pick off the Cavs during his final playoff series before the Olympics, mobility be damned.
Krzyzewski played small ball out of necessity. His club would have no answer for the bulk and power the Chuck Daly coached 1992 team could have inflicted on it down low.
Remember that, while everyone always points to the lesser competition that the Dream Team was up against—and this is a legitimate point—that sword cuts both ways. The world had been watching Larry, Magic, Mike and Charles for years, but that team had never experienced international competition. Would this year’s U.S. team been as effective against Argentina if the players hadn’t played against Manu Ginobli since 2002? What if no one had ever seem Pau Gasol post up? In 1992 the international community knew everything there was to know about the stars of the NBA but not vice versa, and that ought to be taken into account.
There are several other arguments (not including All Star games, no more than two members of the Dream Team had ever played together before; nor had they played under international rules; and the 22 to 6 ring advantage, to name a few), but let’s close with the trump card: Michael Jordan.
Let’s all agree to agree that what James has accomplished these last few months has been remarkable. After pissing off the entire free world, you know, north of South Beach, he finally took the big shots, and his game to the next level, becoming what everyone believed he could become when he first stepped onto an NBA court nine years ago. Love him or hate him, and for most people it’s still the latter, he’s been breathtaking.
But let’s not get carried away. LeBron vs. Michael? James just isn’t there yet.
There is still only one Dream Team and it’s the squad that dominated the competition in Barcelona by more than 43 points, not the one that benefited from a coach miscounting fouls to enable it to slide by Spain.