Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Answering the "Dream Team" Question

Greetings! I've been slacking in this space, and I apologize. Let's get it going with a full breakdown of the one and only Dream Team from 1992 against the 2012 Olympic squad... answering the question once and for all about who had the better squad.

It is critical to remember that "career arc" doesn't particularly matter in this instance, and that we have to actually examine the player in that current year.

Let's break it down by position group...

Point Guard
1992 - Magic Johnson, John Stockton
2012 - Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook

This is the prime example of an instance where you can't just look at face value of player recognition. Magic Johnson hadn't played in an NBA game in over a year when the Olympics took place. Yes, he averaged 19 points and 12 assists a game in 1990-91 (with a 25.1 PER), but he had already been diagnosed with HIV and was pretty rusty. Stockton was in the prime of his career, coming off of a season in 1991-92 where he averaged 16 points, nearly 14 assists (which is insane), and 3 steals a game with a 22.8 PER. That said, he was pretty banged up and played in only 2 Olympic games, so that needs to be taken into account.

On the 2012 side, the athleticism advantage is pretty scary. I wouldn't characterize Chris Paul as wildly athletic but the other 2 guys are pretty top-notch in their respective areas. Paul posted a PER last season of over 27, and is the best point guard on the planet at the moment in my opinion. I think he's the best player of the 5 when you factor in era, and the fact that Magic wasn't MAGIC (in capital letters). Williams and Westbrook both have comparable efficiency numbers to Stockton, and I think this is actually an advantage area for the 2012 team. Edge: 2012

Shooting Guard
1992 - Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler
2012 - Kobe Bryant, James Harden

Jordan was already the best player on Earth by 1992. He had just finished the Bulls' 2nd title run, averaged 30 points, 6 boards, and 6 assists a game, won the MVP, and made the all-defensive team. We know about MJ. Drexler, on the other hand, gets forgotten in the midst of all of the other superstars. That said, he was coming off a 91-92 season where he finished 6th in the league in PER and averaged 25/7/7 on the season. 25 points, 7 boards, 7 assists! That's a top-10 player in the league today without question (and probably higher) and he's the backup to the best player on Earth... see where I'm going here?

For the 2012 squad, Kobe is still a big-time player but he's seen a clear decline from his peak. At 33, he posted his lowest PER since 2000 (finishing outside the league's top 10), and while he still averaged 28 points a game, he needed an inefficient 23 shots per game to do so. Kobe is still a top-10 player in 2012, but the difference between prime MJ and slightly-aged Kobe is pretty severe. Harden is a nice player who found his way onto the team because Dwyane Wade is injured, Eric Gordon can't stay on the court, and there's a serious 2-guard shortage right now. I think Harden is the worst non-college player on either team, and with Drexler being where he was in 1992, the difference is enormous. Big Edge: 1992

Small Forward
1992 - Scottie Pippen, Larry Bird, Chris Mullin
2012 - Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Andre Iguodala

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a Scottie Pippen homer. He's probably the best perimeter defender I've ever seen, and he averaged 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists a game as the #2 option. He's wildly underrated historically, and was at the peak of his powers in 1992. Larry Bird, however, was not. We all know Larry Legend is a top-10 player of all-time, but giving that disclaimer, he wasn't himself by 1992. In his final season, the Legend played only 45 games because of severe back trouble, averaging 20 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists game. He was still a very, very good player, but by the time the Olympics arrived, he was basically retired, and only played 2 games in the tournament. If you ever want to stump someone on guys from the dream team, Mullin is usually the guy that people forget. That is crazy when you consider that he averaged 26 points a game in 1992. Twenty-six! He was 3rd in the league in scoring that season, and the number of guys who averaged that many in 2012 is exactly four. Mullin was an elite scorer and shooter, and while he was limited defensively, was certainly a better player than Andre Iguodala is currently.

Kevin Durant is big-time. The Pippen/Durant debate is a wildly interesting one because of how different they are as players. Durant has the edge in PER (26 to 22) and PPG (28 to 21), while Pippen was the superior all-court player, a wildly better defender, and had just won the title with MJ. I'm not going to declare a winner, although most people would probably lean to Durant, because I am so high on Scottie. Carmelo Anthony has taken a step back in recent years. Melo still averaged 23 and 6 this season, but his efficiency has dropped off the table, and there are serious concerns about his "superstar" status. There is no doubt that when Larry Bird could function enough to play, he was likely still a more valuable player than Carmelo, but with his injury, I'll call it a wash because Carmelo has proven to be a very effective player in International play, to the point where he's even starting over Durant. Iguodala is on the team purely as a defensive stopper. That said, he was the worst PER of all 22 NBA players on the two teams combined, and with Pippen as the defensive stopper for 1992, best of luck. Slight Edge: 1992

Power Forward
1992 - Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Christian Laettner
2012 - Lebron James, Kevin Love

In the midst of the clown that he's become at times, we've forgotten that Charles Barkley was one of the 5 best players on Earth in 1992. He led the Dream Team in scoring and rebounding (16 and 7 per game), was coming off a season where he averaged 23 and 11 with a 25 PER, and was an absolute force. Karl Malone was Karl Malone. You could put 28 and 11 on the board every night for him for about a decade, and his 1992 PER of 25 was good for 3rd in the league. It's a fantastic combination. Laettner was one of the best college players ever, but didn't see the court for the US team, and we'll pretty much leave him out.

Lebron James is the only guy on either squad in the stratosphere of 1992 Michael Jordan... and he's still not there. LBJ averaged 27/8/6 this season with a 1st-team all-defensive team to boot. His PER of 30.7 is actually better than the number that MJ put up in 1991-92 and he's the second best player of the 22 guys we're discussing. In the vitriol over Lebron, including the Decision and the pre-season party 2 years ago, I think the general public forgets how absolutely ridiculous he is as a player, and that he's one of the best we've ever seen at their apex. Kevin Love is underrated... still. This guy just finished a full season with 26 points a game, 13.3 rebounds, and he shot 37% from three (on 282 attempts!). He's a limited defensive player so he's a cut below the other guys, but let's not think that Kevin Love doesn't belong here. With the "stretch" of Lebron at the 4-spot, I think his edge balances it out. Advantage: Push with a lean to 2012

1992 - David Robinson, Patrick Ewing
2012 - Tyson Chandler, Anthony Davis

David Robinson had the 2nd-highest PER of anyone in 1992 behind Michael Jordan. The guy was an absolute monster at this stage of his career, averaging 23 and 12 with nearly five blocks a game on 55% shooting. He was Dwight Howard... but better. Ewing was no slouch either, as he averaged 24 and 11 with 3 blocks a game for the Knicks in the 1991-92 season and easily would be the best or 2nd-best center alive if he walked in the door right now (depending how you feel about Dwight Howard). Both were legitimate NBA superstars at the time of the team's selection, and were absolute no-brainers.

This is where the 2012 argument really dies. Dwight Howard isn't on the team. Let me repeat. Dwight Howard isn't here! Even with Howard, it's a stretch, but when you factor in that the best center alive right now isn't playing AND that Andrew Bynum (who I hate, but still) isn't playing either, it can't be argued. Oh, did I mention that there's only one NBA center on the entire roster and he's not even a top-3 guy in the league? Tim Duncan isn't here, Al Horford is from the Dominican Republic, Pau Gasol is from Spain, Greg Monroe and Demarcus Cousins weren't invited, and the list goes on. Tyson Chandler is a very, very good basketball player. He's an elite rim-protector who averaged a double-double this season and was the defensive player of the year. I'm not killing him. That said, the difference between Chandler and Anthony Davis and David Robinson/Patrick Ewing is the Grand Canyon. Giant Advantage: 1992
If you look at it position-by-position, 1992 would have a 3-1-1 lead, with possibly 3-2 if you give the power forward edge to the current squad. That doesn't even factor the gaping hole at center, or the fact that MJ vs. Kobe is a pretty big gap at the correct era. It's really not particularly close.

I will say this. A lot of people are forgetting that the 2012 version is completely short-handed. In 1992, all of the best players in the country played on the team, depending on how you feel about Isiah Thomas. ALL OF THEM! This year, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Andrew Bynum, and Lamarcus Aldridge are all unavailable due to injury. Does this widen the gap? Absolutely!

For instance, if the US team had their absolute apex roster, it would likely look something like this:

PG - Paul/Rose/Williams
SG - Bryant/Wade
SF - Durant/Carmelo
PF - LBJ/Love/Aldridge
C - Howard/Bynum

Looks pretty scary right? Even if you just took one of Aldridge and Bynum (I'd take LA) and put Davis back on the team, that's a much, much better team with a more legitimate argument. With Howard being roughly equivalent to Robinson/Ewing, it would at least off-set the gaping advantage there, and with either Bynum, Aldridge, or even Tyson Chandler as the back-up, it wouldn't be embarrassing up front. In addition, the Dwyane Wade upgrade on the wing would be a noticeable one from James Harden, and with a guy like Drexler on the opposing roster, that can't be oversold.

However, as Rick Pitino infamously told us, those guys aren't walking through that door, and because of that, I've come to a decision.

Game, Set, Match to 1992 and the only Dream Team.

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