Kudos to Kobe Bryant for deftly roping the sporting world into actually debating whether this current Team USA would beat the landmark 1992 Dream Team. I thoroughly dug Marc Gasol’s take on the argument that warrants no argument. “Who has created this debate? They have, right?” cracked Gasol. “On a bad day for the ’92 team, the current team would lose by just 15 or 20 points against them."
Tuesday, Kobe and Team USA flicked away Gasol’s Spain 100-78 in Barcelona, the site of the 1992 Olympics where the Dream Team forged its legacy. Every version of Team USA will face comparisons to the Dream team, because that’s the benchmark. How close are you to immortality? But, perhaps, the most telling context to analyze this Team USA and today’s NBA is to compare this squad to the Team USA that competed for a FIBA World Championship in Indianapolis 10 years ago.
Team USA’s 2002 squad was the first team comprised of NBA players that failed to win a gold medal. In fact, that crew didn’t win a medal, at all. The dudes finished sixth.
That 2002 squad was the nadir for USA Basketball. The Team USA that begins Olympic play in London on Sunday is on a whole other level, specifically when it comes to play and perception.
Back in 2002, it was hip for the top tier players to flat out decline an invite; not due to injury – which kept Ray Allen and Jason Kidd off the 2002 squad – but, simply a lack of desire to play. Kobe, Shaq, Vince Carter, Chris Webber – the crème passed. That left you with a team of one borderline superstar (Paul Pierce), a few All Stars (Jermaine O’Neal, Baron Davis, and Elton Brand) and then, well…Antonio Davis was on the squad. No – even better – Raef LaFrentz. Solid players. Andre Miller lead the league in assists that season, but (good hair and all), he was no Gary Payton.
This summer’s 12-man roster breaks down like this: 10 All Stars, eight of which were All-NBA selections, the Sixth Man of the Year and the top pick of the 2012 NBA Draft. So, there’s that.
And it’s not just a team full of talent or athleticism. This squad is versatile and skilled. The 2002 squad suffered because it was full of one-trick ponies and players with serious flaws. Miller couldn’t shoot; B-Diddy shot too much, Ben Wallace wasn’t skilled, at all.
"Look at the foreign teams," said Jim Tooley, USA Basketball’s executive director Jim Tooley, at the time. "All five players can shoot, all five can pass, all five are selfless."
The most striking visual that this current Team USA presents is the versatility of its “big men.” LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are in the stature-realm of Antonio Davis, LaFrentz, Brand and the other bigs from 2002. But they have Pierce’s skill set. Coach Krzyzewski has gotten freaky with the lineup and played a LeBron-Melo-Kevin Durant front court. It’s a sight to behold, Exhibit A for the evolution of basketball.
This squad’s point guards are hole-less point guards. Its sixth man (Russell Westbrook) plays with a mania that Charles Barkley brought off the bench for the Dream Team. Its 10th man – Kevin Love – is its best rebounder, power forward with 23-foot range. The squad’s defensive stopper (Andre Iguodala) is a do-it-all cat that sees the floor, rebounds and scores. The team doesn’t need a “three point specialist,” because its best shooter (Durant) is also its best scorer. And also, Kobe is on this team.
To illustrate just how deep the NBA talent chest is right now, remember that Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose and Chris Bosh couldn’t participate due to injuries.
It was also interesting that Tooley used the term “selfless” to describe the foreign teams. That was no accident. The NBA – and, thusly, Team USA – had a perception problem, back then. The players had the rep of being selfish, myopic ball hogs.
"Is the money and greed of the NBA having an effect on our competitive nature?" asked, Karl. "Yeah."
That’s where professional basketball in America was at in 2002 – the coach of its national team calling his players greedy and questioning their desire to win.
But look how the narrative has changed. The player Karl infamously benched before the squad’s final, embarrassing loss – Paul Pierce, the team’s leading scorer – is now a champion, who’ll get his jersey retired in Boston. Tooley lamented his 2002 team lacked the versatility of its foreign opponents and, now, versatility is the hallmark of the 2012 squad. It is, in fact, probably the most versatile squad in the history of international play.
So, word, Gasol spit the truth when he predicted that the Dream Team would give this 2012 Team USA a double-digit L. But this team is good enough to drop Spain – said to be Team USA’s chief opponent – by 22 points, in Spain’s crib. That sounds like a gold medal, to me. And, given where we were 10 years ago, it sounds like progress, too.