As an NBA assistant coach since retiring after a Hall of Fame career, Patrick Ewing might have a better seat than many of his contemporaries to compare this year's U.S. Olympic men's basketball team to the fabled Dream Team of 20 years ago.
Ewing was one of 11 Hall of Famers on that team and played in the shadow of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and even Charles Barkley in Barcelona. But Ewing doesn't't think the current team led by LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant could compete for one simple reason.
"There's no question about it — we'd kill them," Ewing said after watching this year's team practice and scrimmage Saturday at the D.C. Armory. "We were much bigger. Our bigs were much bigger and if not the same, [even] more athletic. We had Magic, Michael. I think we would dominate them."
In many ways, this year's team will not only be chasing its second straight gold medal under Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski when it goes to London later this month, but it will also be chasing a ghost — the overwhelming legacy cast by the 1992 team, the first U.S. team to include NBA players.
Krzyzewski has never liked to compare his Duke teams from different eras — again, most have paled in comparison to his own 1992 NCAA champions — and won't get caught up in trying to break down the respective lineups between this year and the 1992 U.S. team that won its games by an average of 43 points.
"I don't really spend much time thinking about the comparison of teams. We're trying to put a team together," said Krzyzewski, whose team will play Brazil on Monday night at Verizon Center in its final U.S. appearance before heading to England later this week. "The '92 Dream Team won a gold medal and they're legendary. This team is in the process of trying to win a gold medal."
This year's team might not even be as strong as the 2008 team that beat Spain by 11 points to win the gold medal in Beijing. Injuries have depleted the frontcourt of Dwight Howard and the backcourt of Dwyane Wade. Two expected Olympic newbies, power forward Blake Griffin and point guard Derrick Rose, are also hurt.
It has left the Olympic team structured like many of Krzyzewski's recent Duke teams — a bit undersized and relying a great deal on its perimeter game. Still having the likes of James, Anthony and Durant inside is a little more intimidating than having Ryan Kelly and the Plumlee brothers.
"Because we don't have a lot of big guys, Carmelo, LeBron and Kevin Durant will all be at the 4 [power forward] and 5 [center]," Krzyzewski said. "Andre Iguodala will be at one of the bigs, too. We have to compensate our loss of big guys with athleticism."
It is that athleticism — particularly from James, Durant and Russell Westbrook — that has given Bryant the kind of confidence to proclaim this year's Olympic team the equal of the 1992 team or even superior to it.
Bryant, who at nearly 34 is in a similar elder statesman role to the one Johnson and Bird played two decades ago, has displayed the same kind of swag in talking about his team as Jordan and Barkley still demonstrate in reminiscing about the Dream Team.
During training camp last week in Las Vegas, Bryant told reporters that this year's team "is a bunch of racehorses who are incredibly athletic" compared to a 1992 team that "consisted mainly of players at the tail end of their careers."
Bryant's comments immediately brought sharp rebuke from Jordan and Barkley, and now Ewing.
"I heard Kobe say we were not athletic," Jordan said during a charity golf tournament in Charlotte, N.C., where he is the majority owner of the NBA's Bobcats. "But we were smart. He said we were too old, but I was 29 and in the prime of my career. [Scottie Pippen] was 26 or 27, Barkley was 29, Patrick was 29 and Chris Mullin was 29. Almost everybody was still in their 20s."
In an interview with a Philadelphia radio station Barkley questioned Bryant's age and the overall talent of the 2012 team, saying, "How old is Kobe Bryant? He's 34? And he's calling us old? ...Other than Kobe, LeBron and Kevin Durant, I don't think anybody else on that team makes our team."
Aside from Bryant, few of the current U.S. national team players want any part of talking Olympic trash.
Asked Saturday whether he enjoyed the verbal jousting between Bryant and members of the 1992 team, James said, "It's nothing fun about it. That's a great team, we understand that. They set the standard for a lot of us. We're trying to make our own mark so that teams will come after us."
Anthony, who along with James will be playing in his third Olympic Games, said that he grew up a fan of Johnson in particular. Anthony hasn't watched the recent documentary about the 1992 team, but is familiar enough with its legendary cast to know it might sound foolish to join the debate.
"Why can't it all just be love? It's always got to be us against them or them against us," Anthony said. "We all USA basketball players, man. I'm not here to sit and say we're better than them, or better than this or that. We're trying to make a statement with the game we have. What they did back in '92 will never be duplicated. We're just trying to start our own thing and hopefully continue our legacy."
Said point guard Deron Williams, "I'm not going to engage in [the debate].That team was the best team put on one court. I don't think it's fair to us, I don't think it's fair to to them to compare the teams."
But Williams did offer a suggestion to settle the matter.
"I think right now, if they come out here, we'll beat them," Williams said, suppressing a smile. "Right now."
Aching knees and all, Jordan would probably jump at the chance. Barkley, maybe not.