I think it's great that the play of the so-called Redeem Team has brought so much joy to so many people. At the same time, too many commentators seem to be downplaying the achievements of the Dream Team and the quality of the players who competed in that era.
Currently, there are at least five articles on B/R written in the past week which suggest that the current US Team is better than the '92 edition. Such comments typically come from those who never actually saw the members of the original Dream Team in their prime. They might have caught them in the odd "ESPN Classic" game, but such B/R members have a very limited sense of how basketball was played at the NBA level in the 1980s and 1990s.
I have read statements that suggest that the Dream Team played "mostly patsy teams" back in 1992, which supposedly accounts for why Jordan and company enjoyed such a large average margin of victory back then. While I agree that the level of international competition has improved, there were still "patsy teams" that survived even the pool stage of this Olympic tournament.
Australia, for example, has only one bona fide NBA player in Andrew Bogut, who at best would be lucky to be considered among the Top 15 centers in the NBA today. When the Dream Team played Australia in '92, the Australian team had two members who played stints in the NBA (Andrew Gaze and Shane Heal). At the time, it was MUCH harder for international players to break into the league.
Quite frankly, I'm really surprised the Redeem Team allowed Spain to remain so close. Although the Spanish team is comprised of some NBA players, none of them can seriously be considered the best on their respective NBA teams, let alone among the best in the NBA. None are perennial All-Stars. Gasol "earned" his surprise selection to his lone All-Star appearance as a replacement.
In light of that, I ask myself why the "best" from America cannot soundly beat—i.e. by 25-plus points—what is essentially a Spanish team of four average NBA players and a mix of Euroleague and "amateur" players?
Yes, the international competition has improved, but I think at the same time the quality of talent on the US Team has slipped since '92. Overall, in fact, I think that while NBA players are more athletic today than they were in the past, they are also much less skilled—especially in fundamentals.
Athleticism allowed the Redeem Team to score most of their points on fast-break dunks off turnovers, but the lack of fundamental skills—such as screening, off-the-ball movement, and low-post moves—meant that they often struggled in half-court offensive sets in most of the games they played.
Today's stars may play some very impressive games, but they also play some rather poor ones. Ask yourself: Would Larry Bird have gone 1-15 from three-point range like Bryant did in the first two games of the Olympics? Would Magic Johnson have turned the ball over 12 times like James did against the Celtics in their first two games of this year's Boston-Cleveland playoff series?
Too many of today's top NBA players rely far more on athleticism than skill. The classic antithesis of the current NBA prototype is a player like Larry Bird, who at 6'9" could barely dunk the ball—but still managed to post numbers that would be the envy of any player in the NBA today. Check out his career stats, then look particularly at the numbers he posted in his prime (1984-88).
Compare Bird's shooting percentages (52.7% FG, 41.4% 3P-FG, 91.6% FT) for the 1987-88 season — a year that Bird did not win the MVP award — with the best season from any current NBA player who you may think is better. Realize that Bird also averaged nearly 30 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals and one block per game that same season.
How does your favorite player from today stack up? Now, remind yourself again that Bird was relatively slow and could barely dunk. Fundamentals, people, fundamentals.
With so many of today's stars having skipped the college route on the way to the NBA—James, Howard, Bryant—they missed out on the 2-4 years of college coaching which players from the early 1980s through mid-1990s enjoyed.
College coaching was—and in some programs, still is—dramatically different to NBA coaching. At the collegiate level, there was/is a much greater emphasis on refining the fundamentals of one's game—shooting, passing, rebounding, dribbling, defensive positioning, movement without the ball, and screening.
When Olympic commentators questioned why the Redeem Team often struggled to prevent their opponents from getting easy offensive rebounds, struggled to score in half-court sets, struggled to score against zone defenses, the answer was always the same in my mind—a lack of fundamental skills.
In the open court, against man-to-man defenses, the US players had no problems employing their superior athleticism to gain a scoreboard advantage. When facing team (zone) defenses, however, they often struggled to score on three or four consecutive possessions.
So, even though we may celebrate the athletic superiority of our US Team, we should mourn the loss of our superiority in the fundamentals of the game. International teams have shown us in recent Olympic and World Championship competitions that superior athleticism is rarely enough to guarantee victory.