The debate raging these days between those arguing whether this year's U.S. Olympic men's basketball team could compete with the Dream Team of 20 years ago is not answered simply by a generational divide.
I for one, being of sound mind and slightly broken-down body, believe the 2012 version is not being given the respect it deserves before it ever steps on a court in London. I also think the 1992 team was not quite as invincible as they were made out to be because the international game was far from what it is today.
So let's try to break down the two rosters, the respective coaches and the competition to get an answer closer to what Kobe Bryant and half of the '92 Dream Team seem to be saying in what is certainly one of the great public trash talking sessions we've heard in years.
BEST PLAYER: Though there were 11 future Hall of Famers on the '92 team, Michael Jordan was unquestionably the Dream Team's star. He was 29, had just finished his eighth season and had led the Chicago Bulls to their second straight NBA title while winning his third MVP. LeBron James is in the same stratosphere as Jordan. He is considered by his peers as the most dominant player in the game. James is 27, has just finished his ninth season and won his first NBA title since going to the Miami Heat last season and the third MVP of his career. What James did in this year's playoffs in all facets – including hitting clutch shots on a regular basis – makes this a more compelling argument than before. I will still give the edge to Jordan, but the gap is closing.
SECONDARY STARS: Here's where things get interesting. If you ask the average fan who were the other big names on the '92 team, they will probably say Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. But Charles Barkley led the U.S. in scoring in Barcelona. Johnson and Bird were almost human monuments at that stage of their careers – Johnson coming out of an HIV-forced retirement the previous November and Bird debillitated by back injuries. If you look at this year's U.S. team, Bryant is certainly more of a force at age 33 than either Magic or Bird were then. Carmelo Anthony, despite his reputation as a one-dimensional shooter, proved to be a pretty good team player on the 2008 Olympic team. And Kevin Durant, at least going into the NBA Finals, was starting to get mentioned right along with James as the best player in the league. In this case, I give the edge to the young guys.
SUPPORTING CAST: It's hard to argue against the 1992 team when it comes to bringing the likes of Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, Clyde Drexler, David Robinson or Patrick Ewing off the bench depending on who Chuck Daly started. About the only NBA great who wasn't on that team was Isiah Thomas, because of his long-standing feud with Jordan. While this year's team has more rising stars such as Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, injuries have cost Mike Krzyzewski the services of Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose and now Blake Griffin. I think the biggest difference, as Ewing told me for a story in today's newspaper, was the size and depth at center. I am not going to argue that Tyson Chandler is as good as Ewing and Robinson, but I think that he and Anthony Davis, who took Griffin's place, are better defensively and will be more than capable of holding their own in London.
COACH: This is probably the most difficult comparison, since Daly was strictly a Hall of Fame NBA coach (who, it should be noted, cut his teeth coaching for Vic Bubas at Duke on a staff that included Hubie Brown) while Krzyzewski was solely a Hall of Fame college coach until his first foray into the international game prior to the 2008 Olympics. This might not be a popular position to take as a Maryland taxpayer, but Coach K showed he could be just as effective as Daly was in 1992 in what he did in leading what was called The Redeem Team in 2008. Given what he did four years ago in helping erase the embarrassment of the U.S. losing in 2004, I think I have to give the edge to Krzyzewski.
COMPETITION: There were only a handful of European players in the NBA when the Dream Team demolished their way to gold in Barcelona. While I don't think the U.S. should be challenged much in London, there are NBA players dotting several rosters. Spain has a pretty formidable frontcourt with the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka, and if Ricky Rubio hadn't blown out his knee this season in Minnesota, it would have made a pretty good backcourt with Rudy Fernandez. Several current NBA players, including Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki, have said that the 1992 Olympics were the fuel for their own dreams of playing in the U.S. someday. It is now more of a world game. I think if the U.S. wins by an average of 25 points in London, which might happen, it would be even more impressive than what the Dream Team did all those years ago in winning by more than 40.
So here's an old-school guy who still likes to take hooks and bank shots – especially when I'm playing against thirtysomethings who've never seen them before – who thinks that this year's team wouldn't get blown out by 25 against the Dream Team, as Pippen suggested. In a seven-game series, I would probably take the old guys in six depending on the setting. But if it was just one game for the gold, who knows? I don't think it's crazy to think the 2012 team is just as good.