NBA: Ranking the Top Olympic Teams Since 1992
When Team USA beat Spain on Sunday, it marked the fifth time out of six tries the Americans won gold since they began using NBA players for the Olympics in 1992.
The USA basketball program has had its ups and downs since the original Dream Team, but nevertheless, the red, white and blue has always at least won a medal in every Olympics while using pros.
But which of these six teams was the best? The worst?
The original Dream Team was the most dominant, but how would it fare against the level of international competition that exists today?
The following is my rankings from worst to best, considering talent, chemistry and difficulty of competition.
6: 2004 Team USA
Here’s how bad the 2004 team was compared to any other USA Olympic team since ’92. No other team lost any games en route to its gold medal, while the ’04 team lost three, good for a bronze.
In their first game of the Olympics, the ’04 USA team lost to Puerto Rico by 19 points (Yes, Puerto Rico, our little brother that isn’t even a country and whose population is about two percent of ours).
Their loss to Lithuania three games later nearly disqualified them from making the knockout stage. Team USA responded by knocking off top-seed Spain in the first round, but came up short in the next round to eventual gold-medalist Argentina.
Team USA got its revenge on Lithuania in the bronze-medal game, but the damage was already done.
Team USA had some great players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Tim Duncan, but the former three had only played one season in the NBA. Other players like Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson did not fit the international style of play.
The ’04 debacle is responsible for the revamp in USA basketball, so I guess we have to thank them for that.
5: 2000 Team USA
The 2000 Olympic team is the most forgotten of all pro USA teams. They won gold, but so did five others. They won all their games, but not in spectacular fashion.
They were good but not great. They met expectations, but did not exceed them. Quite simply, the 2000 team was pretty average.
The roster was solid, a good mix of outside shooting, slashing, facilitating, defense and inside presence.
This team also benefited from playing in the last Olympics before international competition took a step to the next level. Had it played against the teams that were in 2004, Team USA would have a tough time winning gold.
4: 2008 Team USA
The Redeem Team will probably go down as the second-most famous Olympic team behind 1992, just for bringing pride and the gold back to Team USA. But it wasn't necessarily the second-best team.
Its roster was stacked, but Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Carlos Boozer were the only stars in their true prime.
And let’s not forget, this team almost blew the gold-medal game. Spain cut the lead to two points in the fourth quarter and was within four with only a few minutes remaining. It looked like Spain was going to catch the Americans before Wade and Bryant finally decided to take over and seal the gold for Team USA.
This team is ranked fourth more because of how many great teams USA has produced since then, not because it struggled in the final match. This team beat its opponents by an average of about 28 points per game. Its focus and determination after the ’04 embarrassment was probably this team’s greatest asset.
3: 2012 Team USA
The 2012 version of Team USA was a lot more versatile and athletic than any other. Between LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Andre Iguodala, the Americans had four guys who could play any position in the international game.
Any of Team USA's guards could play either the “one” or “two” spot. Really, the only player completely set at one position was Tyson Chandler at center. This came extremely handy whenever anyone would go cold or if foul trouble reared its ugly head.
This was definitely the best small-ball team that USA has produced. But its lack of size inside hurt them. Spain’s trio of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka gave Team USA all it could handle down low, constantly drawing fouls to shoot free throws.
That almost came back to bite the Americans, as they once again could not put away Spain easily in the gold-medal match. But the talent USA possessed was too much for the Spaniards to overcome.
It’s a shame Team USA didn’t have its best possible lineup at full health (that would have included Derrick Rose, Andrew Bynum, Dwight Howard, Ray Allen and Chris Bosh). That team would have an excellent shot of rivaling the original 1992 team.
It has at least 10, and probably 11 future Hall of Famers (assuming everyone continues along their natural career arc), with all of them at least somewhat close to their primes.
2: 1996 Team USA
If it didn’t play in the first Olympics following the Dream Team’s masterpiece, the 1996 team would be a lot more famous than it is now. The team featured five players from the Dream Team, and added five that either will be or are already in the Hall of Fame.
I had a tough time choosing between the 2012 and 1996 teams, but I went with ’96 because of its loaded frontcourt. Any team with Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon would be a nightmare to face, no matter how bad the backcourt.
The additions of sharpshooters Mitch Richmond and Reggie Miller helped spread the floor. Scottie Pippen and Grant Hill were athletic lock-down defenders, and the point guard trio of Gary Payton, John Stockton and Penny Hardaway made everything run smoothly.
The Dream Team is known for how badly it blew out its competition, but the ’96 team destroyed every team in its path as well. Its smallest margin of victory was 22 against Lithuania in pool play.
In the final, Team USA easily beat an impressive Yugoslavia team that was undefeated and beating its opponents by an average margin of 27 points before facing the Americans. The final score was 95-69.
1: 1992 Team USA
Surprise surprise, the Dream Team is on top.
I still maintain that this team is slightly overrated. Magic Johnson hadn’t played organized basketball for more than a year, and Larry Bird retired after the Olympics because his back was causing him so many problems.
Still, this team possessed the best asset possible—Michael Jordan in his prime. And he was surrounded by 10 Hall of Famers, nine of whom were also named to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list that was compiled in 1996.
And besides Johnson and Bird, all of those guys were smack-dab right in the middle of their primes.
If it wasn’t for this team, the NBA wouldn’t be the same. We might not have the same international stars like Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili, who has admitted watching the Dream Team made him want to become an NBA player.
Not only is the Dream Team probably the best team ever assembled, it’s one of the most influential.