After two blowout victories to kick off the 2012 Olympics, the American men's basketball team has done little to discourage comparisons to the 1992 Dream Team. Sure there were some early struggles against Tunisia, and the Americans ran into some foul trouble against France, but there's been no doubt about the outcome of either game. Instead, this group continues to draw comparisons to the 1992 squad that dominated during their run in Barcelona, winning by more than 43 points per game on their way to gold.
This 2012 team, however, is far from the first to be compared to the 1992 gold medalists. Those comparisons started as early as 1994 with the FIBA world championships, when a group sometimes referred to as Dream Team II took the title. The more intriguing group, however, and the first to be seriously compared to the original Dream Teamers, was the group that defended the gold medal at the 1996 Games in Atlanta (often called Dream Team II or Dream Team III). This was a squad that included five members of the original team, along with some younger stars who hadn't been ready for Barcelona. Since both had to chase gold medals while being compared to the 1992 team, perhaps an interesting comparison could be made between the 1996 team and the current squad competing in London.
Wins and championships are important, but margin of victory should be used carefully given the relative abilities of the competition. For example, it's one thing to blow out a Brazilian squad whose only weapon is Oscar Schmidt, but quite another to do the same to the current roster with solid NBA players in Nene, Leandro Barbosa, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter. The competition across the board in 2012 is far stronger than even a decade ago, which is what made the recent victory over France with its six NBA players so impressive. Perhaps the best way to compare is to match up the respective USA squads against one another, by looking at them by position.
Both teams are loaded at the point, with some potentially great matchups. The 1996 team had an aging John Stockton, whose best days were behind him, along with Gary Payton and Penny Hardaway. Hardaway at the time looked on his way to a certain Hall of Fame career, having just finished third in MVP voting while running with Shaq in Orlando. Unfortunately for him, and for the future of the Magic, nobody could predict the injuries that would begin derailing his career the following season. Payton at the time was the top-scoring point guard in the league, as well as unquestionably the best defender at his position (he remains the only PG to win the Defensive Player of the Year award).
The 2012 team has their own version of a likely HOFer in Chris Paul, along with an offensive star in Russell Westbrook and the consistently outstanding Deron Williams. Westbrook still remains somewhat enigmatic, as his up-and-down playoff performance this year would indicate, while Williams just quietly puts up solid numbers year after year in the relative anonymity of Utah and New Jersey (maybe the move to Brooklyn will change that).
So who has the advantage at the point? The 2012 group has a greater ability to move the ball quickly to set up others, since both Payton and Hardaway were better known for their scoring than for distributing the ball. However, the 2012 team would likely have difficulty stopping Hardaway and Payton from scoring due to their height advantage - Penny played at 6'7", four inches taller than any of the current group, and Payton would have four inches on Chris Paul. Stockton would likely be overmatched on the defensive age given his advanced age, but Payton would likely be able to handle any of the current players in that area. One of the more intriguing possible matchups would be the speedy Westbrook trying to work one-on-one against The Glove, which would be two forces against each other in their prime. If you had to pick one group over the other, it would likely come down to personal preference as there isn't really a wrong answer.
Even at 33 years of age, is it possible for anyone to win a matchup against Kobe Bryant? In the case of the 1996 team, their starter at the position for five of the eight games was Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, the Pacers star who had averaged 25+ PPG for four straight seasons. Reggie was an outstanding offensive player who could break down a defense and make shots from anywhere, but Kobe is arguably one of the ten best players of all-time. Kobe could match Miller on the offensive end, and defensively Bryant is a far better option.
Off the bench, both teams have outstanding high-energy options in Mitch Richmond (who started three games) and James Harden. Both players have the ability to take the ball to the basket, or to step outside for long twos and three-pointers. The advantage likely goes slightly to Harden, who would likely be more effective defensively. It should be noted, though, that Richmond could have been a better defender if he had played in a system where it was stressed instead of the run and gun Golden State Warriors before becoming the top scoring option for the Kings throughout the '90s. Those Run TMC teams in Oakland were a pleasure to watch, but defense was not a priority.
I've grouped these positions because both teams have some overlap in players able to perform at more than one position, especially with athletes like Lebron who have the ability to play at any spot on the floor. With some positions deeper than others, both teams possess the ability to move players around in order to accommodate others.
When it comes to true centers, there's no competition. Tyson Chandler is an excellent player and a great defender, but he's got the misfortune of having to match up against three players selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest players list in Shaq, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon. Olajuwon by this time was starting to slow down, but Shaq was ascending and Robinson was only a year removed from winning the league's MVP award. All three could score, and they weren't bad on the defensive side. Olajuwon was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and Robinson made several all-defensive teams. If there's any one area where there is serious separation between the two teams, it's in the middle where the 1996 squad was arguably even stronger than the '92 team.
The other frontcourt groupings would match up Lebron, Anthony Davis, Carmelo Anthony, Andre Iguodala and Kevin Love against Charles Barkley, Grant Hill, Karl Malone and Scottie Pippen. On the small forward side, Lebron and Carmelo would make for an outstanding matchup against Pippen and Grant Hill. Pippen was in his prime and Grant Hill was another guy who looked at the time like he was headed for Springfield. Pippen would soon be voted to the 50 Greatest list, and an LBJ-Pippen matchup would be a dream come true for any long-time NBA fans. It's likely that they'd be the toughest assignment the other has ever faced, at least one-on-one. Hill and Carmelo are both amazing reserves who can run the floor.
The other area where the 1996 team seems to have a significant positional advantage is at the power forward spot. Kevin Love has proven to be an outstanding rebounder in Minnesota, and Anthony Davis should have a bright future, but going against Karl Malone and Charles Barkley would be difficult at both ends. It's tough to imagine Love or the inexperienced Davis trying to muscle either of those players on the block. The 2012 team might be better off leaving Carmelo Anthony at the small forward spot and matching up LBJ in this position.
So, what would be the likely outcome of such a matchup? While it may sound like a copout, it really is impossible to say. What we'd likely have is the 2012 team using Paul or Williams to distribute the ball to Kobe and Lebron, both of whom have the ability to score against anyone from any generation. The 1996 team would likely use tight interior defense that stresses their advantage in the middle, pushing the current group to settle for outside shots, while also trying to feed the ball down low for offense. The 1996 team has a serious advantage in the low post, but with the exception of Pippen the 2012 team would seem to have a speed advantage, especially in the high post. Where the current Olympic team may fall short is in depth, especially since they've had to include a college player where the 1996 team had only established NBA stars. However, while we remember the teams from the 1990s as being unbeatable, we shouldn't sell short this current version.
Both teams also have outstanding coaches in Chuck Daly and Coach K. Daly famously went through the 1992 Olympics without calling a timeout, something Krzyweski plans to do this time around. Daly obviously had coached pros much more than Coach K, but the latter has been involved long enough with USA Basketball that any doubts or nerves he may have had twenty years ago as an assistant for the Dream Team have long since disappeared.
We should also remember that the 2012 team would be much stronger if they hadn't been bitten by a serious injury bug. I'm not convinced that Blake Griffin is yet a superstar, but there's no doubt this team would be much improved with Dwayne Wade, Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard. Rose runs the point and scores as well as any current point guard, Wade is a leader and superstar, and Howard would provide some assistance for the current squad's shortcomings in low-post defense and rebounding. Certainly, it would make any difference between the two teams much smaller.
It's too bad that such fantasy matchups can never be played out. While it allows us endless speculation, it's also tough because we will never know who's right. Still, it's fun to picture Pippen defending Lebron, or Westbrook trying to take Gary Payton to the hole. We may never know who would win, but it's likely that it would be a far better matchup than we'll see for the American team in these current Games.