Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson or LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant?
That is not an easy choice by any stretch of the imagination, but popular opinion gives the edge to Michael Jordan and the original Dream Team. After all, who would pick against the greatest basketball player of all time?
I say the two NBA greats LeBron James and Kobe Bryant got it right when they said that they’re picking the 2012 Olympic team over the guys that played two decades earlier.
Hear me out before you jump to the comments and vehemently disagree.
First, let’s get the Michael Jordan argument out of the way. In no way am I disputing the greatness of Jordan, who at 29 years old was already a three-time NBA Finals MVP and three-time regular season MVP.
His accomplishments before hitting 30 are unmatched.
But at age 27, LeBron James is already vying for greatness. ESPN’s Bill Simmons ranked him as a top-20 player all-time in 2010—before he even won the NBA Finals. His shooting is nowhere near Jordan’s and unless something drastic changes soon, it never will be. But in about every other facet of the game, the two are very comparable.
LeBron has not won a Defensive Player of the Year award just yet, but defending all five positions on the basketball court is something Jordan could not do.
Magic Johnson was a solid defender in his prime. Look no further than the 1980 NBA Finals when Magic started at center for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 42 points and 15 rebounds later, Johnson’s Game 6 effort has gone down as arguably the greatest playoff performance in NBA history.
But the Dream Team did not come along until more than a decade later and Magic was in the twilight of his career. He was no longer the point guard he was in the 80s—in fact, he was coming off an HIV-positive announcement and brief retirement.
Looking at a comparison of each team’s best scorers, I would give the edge to the 2012 team. As great as Michael Jordan was, there is not enough behind him. The 2012 team has the lights-out shooting Kevin Durant as well as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony.
That’s high-powered scoring from four different positions.
Perhaps the best place to look is at a two-deep depth chart of both teams. At point guard, the 1992 team has Magic Johnson and John Stockton. Both are Hall of Famers and two of the greatest of all time, but the advantage at point guard goes to Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.
Johnson (32) and Stockton (30) could not keep up with Westbrook (23) and Paul (27). Not only that but while Johnson and Stockton are primarily facilitators, Westbrook is an elite scorer and Paul averaged 20 points per game in 2011-12.
At shooting guard it’s MJ and Clyde Drexler vs. Kobe Bryant and James Harden. Here, the Dream Team definitely has the edge. Jordan was in his prime—in 2012, Kobe is well past his prime. Drexler was already at the top of his game and Harden is still working his way up. Offensively, defensively and in terms of intangibles, the Dream Team wins this battle.
At small forward it would be Scottie Pippen and Chris Mullin vs. LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Larry Bird did not even score 20 points during the entire 1992 Olympics. He was there as a symbol of the NBA’s greatest but was not a contributor. In fact, Mullin ended up scoring more than even Jordan in the 1992 Olympics.
For as much as the 1992 team was favored at the SG position, the 2012 small forwards would be even more heavily favored when compared to their 1992 counterparts. James and Durant are premier scorers and James is a superb defender. Pippen and Mullin were both in their prime, but there’s no comparison.
In terms of big men, the Dream Team has an edge—but not by a huge margin. Kevin Love (260 pounds) weighs more than Charles Barkley or Karl Malone and is taller than both. He also averaged 26 points and 13 rebounds this past season in almost 40 minutes played.
That’s better than Barkley’s 1991-92 season and about equal to Malone’s ’91-’92 season.
At center, the 2012 team has reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler. The Dream Team had Patrick Ewing and David Robinson. While Ewing and Robinson definitely have an edge offensively, there is only one center position and one power forward position. That means only two of Robinson, Ewing, Barkley or Malone can be on the court at a time.
So if the 2012 team stretches the minutes of Love and Chandler, the Dream Team would really only have the slightest advantage.
Take away Magic Johnson and both teams have five players 6’8” or taller. Both teams have five players 230 pounds or heavier. As you can tell, that is not much of a difference.
LeBron James is roughly the same size as the 1992 big men—in fact, he weighs more (250) than Robinson (235) and Ewing (240) and is much more athletic. Add Anthony Davis and Carmelo Anthony into the mix and it's nearly a toss-up as to who is better.
And in today’s game, it has been proven that big men can be neutralized. Look at each of the top centers currently in the league: Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, Roy Hibbert and DeMarcus Cousins.
None made it to the NBA Finals.
Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City showed that you don’t need a scoring post presence to succeed. LeBron James and the Miami Heat played with Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem playing center when true power forward Chris Bosh was not.
Not only that but the competition is better and more refined, which also suggests the 2012 team would do well against the 1992 team. They are flexible defensively and have incredibly potent offensive weapons.
Westbrook and Paul are better than Johnson and Stockton (at the respective points in their careers). Jordan is the best player on either team but LeBron and Kobe would figure out a way to slow him down. Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are better than Scottie Pippen and Chris Mullin, no doubt.
The ’92 team's four Hall of Fame big men can only play two positions, and the 2012 team would figure out a way to matchup whether it’s with James, Chandler, Love, Durant or Anthony.
In a seven-game series it would be 4-3 in favor of today’s team. The 2012 team has depth and versatility at every position.
The 2012 American Olympic team would be the Dream Team’s nightmare.