From Dream Team to Nightmare: Ranking the USA Basketball Teams
The participation by NBA players in 1992 changed international basketball forever. Going into London 2012, ten teams have represented the US in Olympic or World Championship play in the modern era. The results have been surprisingly varied considering the six decades of American dominance that preceded.
Nearly every American NBA superstar over the past two-plus decades has played on at least one US team, but not all earned a Gold medal for his efforts. Team USA is 75-9 in the past 20 years with six Gold medals, three Bronze medals and one 6th place finish.
We know how each ranked against their respective tournament fields, but how would these ten teams rank against each other? Continue reading to find out, including rankings of each of the five position groups.
#10: 2004 Athens Olympics
Losses: Puerto Rico 92-73, Lithuania 94-90, Argentina 89-81
Points per Game: 9th (88)
Average Margin of Victory: 10th (4.6)
PG: 6th (Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury)
SG: 6th (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade)
SF: 6th (Carmelo Anthony, Shawn Marion, Richard Jefferson)
PF: 7th (Carlos Boozer, Amar’e Stoudemire, Lamar Odom)
C: 4th (Tim Duncan, Emeka Okafor)
The 2004 team was dubbed the Nightmare Team for a reason. Heading into the Athens Games, USA Basketball was 110-2 all-time in Olympic play, and one of those losses is still arguably the most controversial finish in all of sports. Despite salvaging the Bronze Medal, the 2004 team went a shocking 5-3. The 84 points allowed per game is the worst by a US team in the NBA-era and a 19-point drubbing at the hands of Puerto Rico (a team that went 3-4 and finished 6th) is the most embarrassing loss in USA Basketball history.
This team had talent, but it was severely lacking in guard play. Iverson (2.5 assists per game) and Marbury (3.4 apg) were score-first point guards that did little to get teammates involved, and not a single elite three-point shooter was on the roster. Several of the most talented players were way short on experience (Okafor had yet to play an NBA game and LeBron, D-Wade, Carmelo were all coming off their rookie seasons).
Tim Duncan was in the prime of his career, but getting him only 8.4 shots per game ensured the spectacular failure that was the 2004 team.
#9: 2002 FIBA World Championship
Losses: Argentina 87-80, Yugoslavia 81-78, Spain 81-76
Points per Game: 8th (92)
Average Margin of Victory: 8th (17)
PG: 8th (Baron Davis, Andre Miller, Jay Williams)
SG: 9th (Michael Finley, Reggie Miller)
SF: 7th (Paul Pierce, Shawn Marion)
PF: 8th (Elton Brand, Raef LaFrentz, Antonio Davis)
C: 7th (Ben Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal)
The 2002 team’s beginning was familiar enough with a 50 point cakewalk over Algeria and a 5-0 start to the FIBA Championships, but by the time the tournament ended, it was a new era of international basketball. Not only did the US suffer its first loss ever with an NBA-filled roster, but it lost three of its final four games, limping to a previously unfathomable 6th place finish.
The honor that is playing for your country had clearly become lost on the league’s current crop of superstars as not a single 1st or 2nd Team 2001-02 All-NBA player was on the squad. Strong play from Paul Pierce (19.8 ppg on 48 percent from the field and 49 percent from three) was one of the few bright spots for the Americans.
International players like Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Yao Ming (China), Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Peja Stojakovic (Yugoslavia) and Pau Gasol (Spain) led national teams no longer intimidated by the US star power.
#8: 1998 FIBA World Championship
Losses: Lithuania 84-82, Russia 66-64
Points per Game: 10th (82)
Average Margin of Victory: 9th (12)
PG: 10th (Michael Hawkins, Kiwane Garris)
SG: 10th (Jimmy King , Trajan Langdon)
SF: 10th (Jimmy Oliver, Jason Sasser, Bill Edwards)
PF: 10th (Wendell Alexis, Gerard King, David Wood)
C: 10th (Brad Miller, Ashraf Amaya)
The positive spin on 1998 is that with NBA labor issues preventing its players from participating on Team USA, a group of amateurs, CBA and overseas professionals that was thrown together in just the three weeks leading up to training camp performed admirably under the circumstances.
The ragtag bunch did come home with a Bronze medal, and was just two point losses against Lithuania (84-82; a Jimmy Oliver game-winning three just missed at the buzzer) and Russia (66-64; the US led by 10 points inside of three minutes) away from an undefeated tournament.
The negative spin is that, as the nation that invented basketball, nothing but Gold is acceptable to the United States. The challenges that the 1998 team faced really wasn’t that different than those faced by teams from the pre-1992 era, and for the most part they all seemed to do just fine. Had expectations really fallen to being satisfied with moral victories and a medal of any color?
Scoring leaders were Oliver (Spanish Club Ciuda De Huelva; Purdue) and Wendell Alexis (German club ALBA Berlin; Syracuse) at 11.8 and 11.6 ppg, respectively. Clearly the 1998 team would get crushed head-to-head against both the 2004 and 2002 teams, but it gets slotted ahead based on its on-court results and (as painful as it is to say) lesser expectations.
#7: 2006 FIBA World Championship
Losses: Greece 101-95
Points per Game: 4th (104)
Average Margin of Victory: 7th (20)
PG: 9th (Chris Paul, Kirk Hinrich)
SG: 7th (Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson)
SF: 4th (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Shane Battier)
PF: 3rd (Chris Bosh, Elton Brand, Antawn Jamison)
C: 8th (Dwight Howard, Brad Miller)
By 2006, USA Basketball was in a rut, having won Gold only once since 1996. Despite a line-up that included several elite stars including LeBron, D-Wade, Carmelo and Elton Brand, the 2006 team couldn’t quite break the drought due to a 101-95 loss to the upstart Greeks in the semifinals.
In what had become a theme for Team USA by 2006, the Americans had a roster with backcourt issues. While Paul and Hinrich were more traditional pass-first PGs than some of their predecessors, Paul was only a rookie and Hinrich was a good-not-great NBA PG (15.9 ppg, 6.3 apg in 2005-2006). Wade, Johnson, James and Anthony all brought offensive firepower from the wing, but none filled the sharpshooter role needed in international play.
The 2006 team may have had an unexpected lasting impact on the NBA. Were the first seeds of the Miami Heat’s Big Three sown back in 2006 with LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh all suiting up together for Team USA? Ironic that it was an awfully ordinary national team that spawned the era of super teams…
#6: 2010 FIBA World Championship
Points per Game: 7th (93)
Average Margin of Victory: 5th (25)
PG: 5th (Chauncey Billups, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook)
SG: 8th (Andre Iguodala, Eric Gordon, Stephen Curry)
SF: 5th (Kevin Durant, Danny Granger, Rudy Gay)
PF: 9th (Kevin Love, Lamar Odom)
C: 9th (Tyson Chandler)
The 2010 team will be remembered for the lack of participation from the NBA elite. No Kobe, LeBron, D-Wade. No Howard, Stoudemire, Bosh. No Carmelo. No Rondo. For a variety of reasons, not a single player from the Gold medal winning Beijing 2008 squad returned to defend the USA’s crown in the World Championships. Not a single 1st team or 2nd team All-NBA’er suited up for Team USA in 2010.
None of it mattered. It was a refreshing show of US dominance on the international stage, as the “B-Team” took home the Gold medal in Turkey. The Americans received a 70-68 scare from Brazil in group play, but no other team came within 10 points.
The run to gold became the Kevin Durant Show as he averaged 22.8 ppg on 56 percent shooting, with no other players averaging in double-figures. In a fitting achievement for the selfless group, the 2010 team’s 68.2 points allowed per game ranks #1 among US teams in the post-Dream Team era.
The B-Team may not be the greatest assembly of US talent, but it found a way to accomplish its mission in a way the United States used to take for granted. No small feat given the previous 12 years of USA basketball.
#5: 2000 Sydney Olympics
Points per Game: 6th (95)
Average Margin of Victory: 6th (22)
PG: 4th (Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Tim Hardaway)
SG: 5th (Ray Allen, Allan Houston)
SF: 9th (Vince Carter, Steve Smith)
PF: 4th (Kevin Garnett, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Antonio McDyess)
C: 6th (Alonzo Mourning, Vin Baker)
Team USA coasted to Gold in 2000, but for a variety of reasons, the world yawned. Now in its third Olympics, the novelty of Dream Teams had worn off. The time zone differences with Sydney made for odd start times in the US. The roster was missing some key superstars like Shaq, Duncan and Kobe.
Vince Carter led the US in scoring (14.8 ppg) and in ridiculous dunks while jumping over seven-footers (one). Six other players scored more than 7.5 ppg in what was a balanced effort.
The competition had picked up by 2000, with Lithuania in particular giving the Americans headaches in 9 point and 2 point contests. Team USA did win the Gold, but largely did so in unspectacular and unmemorable fashion (other than the Vince dunk which was so good it deserves to be linked again).
#4: 1994 FIBA World Championship (Dream Team II)
Points per Game: 1st (120)
Average Margin of Victory: 2nd (38)
PG: 7th (Kevin Johnson, Mark Price)
SG: 3rd (Reggie Miller, Joe Dumars, Dan Majerle)
SF: 8th (Dominique Wilkins, Steve Smith)
PF: 6th (Shawn Kemp, Derrick Coleman, Larry Johnson)
C: 3rd (Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning)
The second Dream Team was a combination of veteran all-stars left off the original Dream Team (Dominique Wilkins, Reggie Miller, Mark Price) and the next generation destined for superstardom (Derrick Coleman, Larry Johnson, Shaq). With revisionist history it’s an odd collection of players, but at the time it worked.
Led by the inside-outside combo of Shaq (18.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and Miller (17.1 ppg), 1994 dominated like no team but the original Dream Team, and no team was more prolific offensively than Dream Team II, including the original.
1994 also continued Isiah Thomas’ star-crossed international career. After the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games and getting snubbed in 1992, Zeke was named to the US team in 1994 only to be forced to the sideline by injury. He never saw action in Olympic or World Championship play. Tim Hardaway was also selected in 1994, but sat out due to injury.
#3: 2008 Beijing Olympics (The Redeem Team)
Points per Game: 3rd (106)
Average Margin of Victory: 4th (28)
PG: 3rd (Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Deron Williams)
SG: 2nd (Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Michael Redd)
SF: 3rd (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Tayshaun Prince)
PF: 5th (Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer)
C: 5th (Dwight Howard)
If a series of World Championship disappointments didn’t ignite a little American pride, the train wreck that was the 2004 Olympics did. In 2008, playing for your country was cool again and the best the US had to offer went to Beijing on a mission. LeBron summed it up in Time magazine: “It’s the gold, or it’s failure.”
The Redeem Team dominated like it was the 1990s, and that’s saying something considering how far the level of international competition had come since 1992. The Spanish team with Pau & Marc Gasol, Rudy Fernandez and Ricky Rubio that the US beat relatively easily (118-107) in the Gold medal game was arguably the best non-US international team in the professional era.
While the face of the 2008 team was the trio of Kobe (15.0 ppg), LeBron (15.5 ppg) and D-Wade (16.0 ppg), it was Chris Paul that had the type of point guard production (33 assists, 18 steals and only 9 turnovers) that the US had been missing in previous tournaments.
#2: 1996 Atlanta Olympics (Dream Team III)
Points per Game: 5th (102)
Average Margin of Victory: 3rd (32)
PG: 2nd (John Stockton, Gary Payton, Anfernee Hardaway)
SG: 4th (Reggie Miller, Mitch Richmond)
SF: 2nd (Scottie Pippen, Grant Hill)
PF: 2nd (Karl Malone, Charles Barkley)
C: 1st (Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson)
Dream Team III consisted of five original Dream Teamers, two from Dream Team II and five first timers, including Hakeem Olajuwon who had become arguably the best player in the world during Michael Jordan’s hiatus from the NBA. Hakeem, along with Shaq, Robinson, Malone and Barkley was also part of the greatest collection of post players Team USA has ever seen.
Like the other early Dream Teams, international opponents were little competition for the Americans. Playing in front of a home crowd in Atlanta, not a single team came within 20 points of the US. In true All-Star fashion, an amazing eight players averaged between 9.0-12.0 points per game.
The third Dream Team had it all. That is, all except Magic, Larry and Michael, which keeps it from the No. 1 spot. Still the 1996 team slots in at No. 2. The Redeem Team may end up with a more impressive collection of individual achievements, but 1996 gets the nod because of its experience and dominating big men.
#1: 1992 Barcelona Olympics (The Dream Team)
Points per Game: 2nd (117)
Average Margin of Victory: 1st (44)
PG: 1st (Magic Johnson, John Stockton)
SG: 1st (Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler)
SF: 1st (Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullin)
PF: 1st (Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Christian Laettner)
C: 2nd (Patrick Ewing, David Robinson)
Obviously. It would be grossly negligent to have any other No. 1 on a ranking of Team USAs. In fact, this team would likely sit atop a ranking of best teams in any sport. The Dream Team was truly the best of the best, loaded with depth at every position.
Over their careers, the 12 players combined for 117 all-star appearances (next best was 1996 with 110), 56 All-NBA 1st teams (44), 15 MVPs (6) and 23 NBA Championships (16). When the NBA announced its 50 Greatest Players in 1996, 10 played on the 1992 Olympic team.
In its opening game against Cuba, the Dream Team won by 79 points, and the rest of the world only did marginally better. Between the Barcelona Games and the Olympic-qualifying Tournament of the Americas, the United States went 14-0 with an average margin of victory of 47.1 points.
The original Dream Team was so good that it wasn’t even really about basketball that year. It was a spectacle of greatness that went beyond just sports. It wasn’t only fans that were in awe, but also opposing players that begged for pictures and keepsakes with the American superstars before, after and even during games.
With the world watching, the 1992 team probably did more to improve the quality of international basketball than anyone or thing else. Players from all over the world began to compete on the highest stage. Just ONE international player was drafted to the NBA back in 1992, compared to 16 in 2011. No American team will ever again dominate like the Dream Team, in part because it raised the level of competition for the US teams to follow.