Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dream On

The Dream Team was plain and simple the most influential basketball team ever constructed, but does that necessarily mean it was the best team ever built? The team’s impact on the world at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics is undeniable.

But how does Michael, Magic, Charles, and company stack up with the current stars of today’s NBA?

The Dream Team’s roster was interestingly constructed—9 players at the peak of their powers (G John Stockton, G Michael Jordan, G Clyde Drexler, F Scottie Pippen, F Chris Mullin, F Charles Barkley, F Karl Malone, C David Robinson, and C Patrick Ewing), 1 player who had just sat out a season (G Ervin “Magic” Johnson), 1 player on his way to retirement (F Larry Bird), and one uber-successful college star (F Christian Laettner)—because the roster was balanced with players who filled the typical point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center positions.

For sake of comparison and contrast, let’s construct the 2012 Olympic Roster in similar fashion—four guards, four forwards, two centers and the two best players at flex positions—and see who would hypothetically come out on top.

The problem with naming point guards for the 2012 team is that many of the players who dribble the ball up the floor for today’s team are more combo guards than anything. In the most recent NBA Finals, the assists leaders were Russell Westbrook at 5.9 per game and LeBron James at 5.6 per game. Westbrook never played point guard until Oklahoma City drafted him out of UCLA where he was primarily a shooting guard, and James definitely does not fit the role of a prototypical point guard. The two players that come closest to playing the pass first, score second game are Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Both players have averaged close to a double-double for their careers in points and assists, and the team being built to face off with the Dream Team certainly will not lack in scoring. So the point guards will need to fill the facilitator role instead of the scoring role. Players like Westbrook and 2010-2011 MVP Derrick Rose will definitely receive consideration in the flex spots, but Magic Johnson and John Stockton were distributers first and that is exactly what Paul and Williams provide to the equation.

Shooting guard is probably the scarcest position in the NBA today. Players who line up at the 2 are usually hyper-athletic slashers and wings that do not have a natural position and are not be listed at shooting guard because they cannot shoot. Shooting seems to be an obvious requirement for this position, but even the two clear cut, best shooting guards do not shoot three pointers at a very high clip. Kobe Bryant (career 34%) and Dwyane Wade (career 29%) are the two best guards available, and all-around are fantastic players that there really cannot be much of a debate with any other two-guard. But it does leave a flex spot for a marksman available.

After watching LeBron James dominate the Oklahoma City Thunder in the low post, I think it is safe to no longer list him as a small forward, but as a power forward, or at the very least a point forward. Removing James from the mix, small forward becomes much easier to decipher. Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are scoring machines averaging 25+ points for their careers. They both rebound relatively well for their position and shoot three pointers on par with Bryant at 36% and 32% respectively. The one area they lack is defense, but all the previous players named are above average defenders, but it leaves the door open for stoppers like Andre Iguodala off the bench.

The power forward spot behind LeBron James can go a few different directions: top pick-and-roll player Chris Bosh, elite rebounder/deadly three point shooter Kevin Love, or high energy but raw Blake Griffin. The biggest problem with all three is their lack of defensive prowess, especially considering they would hypothetically be matched up against two of the most offensively gifted power forwards ever in Barkley and Malone. Bosh is a lightweight in the post, Love struggles against quicker forwards, and Griffin is still new to the whole post-defending concept. Subbing in one of these guys for James is serious drop-off. With the type of high-scoring team we have built so far, a role player will really be needed above all. A slight nod for this roster spot goes to Bosh barely over Love. Bosh has proved the past two years in Miami that he can be effective without seeing the much off the ball. Love remains in contention for a flex spot because of his rebounding and shooting

At center, it is Dwight Howard and then what? Andrew Bynum? Tyson Chandler? Al Jefferson? Much like power forward, the drop off after the top spot is considerable. There is no question that Dwight Howard protects the rim like no one else in today’s game, but it can be argued that his offensive proficiency is a little skewed due to the limited skills of the big men he faces on a nightly basis. Nonetheless, on this team it will not matter because the scoring load will fall elsewhere, and Howard will be most useful protecting the rim and rebounding. With that being said, I think we want the same thing from our center off the bench as well. Chandler, the 2011-2012 Defensive Player of the Year, fits this bill much better than Bynum or Jefferson. Protect the rim and rebound; let the scoring load fall on the capable shoulders of Bryant, Wade, Durant, Anthony, and James.

Now that we have got 10 team members down on paper, the final two flex spots become intriguing. We know what we have at point guard: two pure passers and with LeBron James on roster we also have a player very capable of distributing the load. Giving one of these spots to a combo guard eliminates the need to also select a backup wing player because modern point guards can also feature well off the ball in an offense. Two players jump out immediately and leaving one of them off the roster will be the most difficult choice for this team. Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose? On paper, these two players are very similar: both average around 20 points, dish out almost 7 assists, and shoot around 30% on three pointers. Watching them play, their high-energy and athletic play jumps out immediately. Rose has a slight edge on field goal percentage, which spikes over Westbrook’s, because of his ability to get to the rim at will. Neither player would be the wrong choice here, but Derrick Rose gets the slight nod over Russell Westbrook.

For the final roster spot, we can either choose what the Dream Team did and select a college player bound for the NBA or be different and take another proven star. Luckily for this go around of Team USA, the best college player also happens to be a power forward who has demonstrated his ability to protect the rim and make an impact on games without needing too much of the ball. Anthony Davis may seem like a risky pick, but given the makeup of this team, Davis’s athletic play around the rim fits in perfectly with the overall goal of the 2012 Olympic Team: protect the rim and rebound.

So we have our twelve: G Chris Paul, G Deron Williams, G Derrick Rose, G Kobe Bryant, G Dwyane Wade, F Kevin Durant, F Carmelo Anthony, F LeBron James, F Chris Bosh, F Anthony Davis, C Dwight Howard, and C Tyson Chandler.

The one glaring hole on the Dream Team, and it truly pains me to write this, was Larry Bird. The Legend was given a roster spot and a starting nod purely out of respect for what he did for the game in the 1980’s. By this point of his career (the Gold Medal Game win over Croatia would be his last competitive game), Bird’s back was so bad he had to lay down on the sidelines during breaks in play.

With the goal to beat the 2012 Olympic squad in mind, I am going to take the liberty of sliding Bird to the bench and insert Scottie Pippen into the starting lineup at small forward in Bird’s absence. So our Dream team starting five consists of PG Magic Johnson, SG Michael Jordan, SF Scottie Pippen, PF Charles Barkley and C Patrick Ewing.

And the starting for for the 2012 team would look like this: PG Paul, SG Bryant, SF Durant, PF James, and C Howard.

Matchup problems galore across the board entirely!

Magic Johnson at 6’9” is handful no matter who guards him, but at 6’0” Chris Paul will definitely have his work cut out for him. The one thing Paul has going for him are his lightning hands and propensity for stealing the basketball. On the opposite side, the one knock on Johnson over his career was his ability to defend quicker guards, and no one is as quick as Chris Paul. The obvious advantage here goes to Magic, one of the five greatest players ever, but I think both players would excel tremendously on the offensive end of the floor. The interesting proposition at point guard would be shifting LeBron James there permanently. Yes, we would lose his presence in the low post, but he would have no problem defending Magic and creating plays on the offensive end. Honestly, it would just be ideal to clone LeBron James and start him at all five positions to compete against the Dream Team.

The matchup up that would have everyone talking would be Michael Jordan vs. Kobe Bryant, which surely would feature no passing and a lot of trash talk. In 1992, Jordan had finally reached the apex of his career as a complete player. He had won the first two of his eventual six championships and was finally beginning to at least tolerate coach Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. On the other hand, the 2012 version of Kobe Bryant appears to finally be slowing down. He can still score with the best of them, but his offensive game looks much more forced at this stage of his career as opposed to the effortless explosion that was the hallmark of his younger years. Defensively, Jordan was at his peak in 1992, while the 2012 Bryant definitely has lost a step. A major advantage here for the dream team as Jordan would probably light Bryant up on offensive and then bust out the Toni Kukoc shutdown special on defense to try and make Kobe’s life miserable.

The two forward spots have to be combined and compared together because I believe Scottie Pippen would be the one tasked with guarding LeBron James and Charles Barkley would then shift over on Kevin Durant. Watching James and Pippen go at it would be almost as compelling as the Jordan vs. Kobe matchup, but for more basketball related reasons. There probably is not a better defensive player in NBA history than Pippen, and there definitely is not another player that boasts LeBron’s skill set. LeBron would have a slight advantage on offense over Pippen, but it would be ever so slight. With Barkley on Durant, we would get the complete opposite styles going head-to-head: Barkley’s brute force against Durant’s silky-smooth efficiency. Barkley has been noted throughout his career for his elite quickness despite his large size, but keeping up with Durant outside the paint would pose a problem for Sir Charles. For Durant, he would have to keep his head in the game and not turn into the invisible man with Barkley playing the most physical defense that Durant will have seen. On the other end of the floor, I believe the matchups would switch and Durant would take Pippen and James on Barkley being the marquee matchup. Barkley was a great scorer on the low block and seeing how James defends him would be interesting. Durant and Pippen almost cancel each other out with Durant only being an average defender and Pippen being an above-average scorer at best. Overall, the forward spot is a tough one to call; much harder than picking Magic and Michael at the first two spots. LeBron James appears to be on a path to greatness, but with the best defender in NBA history on him and then having to contend with the Dream Team’s top scorer on defense; LeBron would fall just short and the advantage would again go to the Dream Team.

Thankfully the 2012 Olympic Team has Dwight Howard at center because if not, they would get dominated in a huge way. Howard is the modern NBA’s best two-way center, and he might be the only two-way center in today’s game. Both Dream Team centers, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson, dominated at both ends of the floor, and Ewing received the starting nod in 1992. Howard’s career averages are right on par with Ewing’s peak years, but it leads to the question: Ewing put up huge numbers against the best crop of big men in NBA history, who is Howard even competing against? If Howard was transported back in time to 1992, he would be eaten alive by the likes of Ewing, Robinson, and the even more formidable but not yet a U.S. citizen Hakeem Olajuwon. Big advantage here to the Dream Team; at the very worst, Ewing and Howard cancel each other out.

Now for the one area where the 2012 Olympic Team may have an advantage: deeper and better guard-play off the bench. John Stockton was as crafty as they come, but seeing him keeping up defensively with Deron Williams or Derrick Rose would be difficult. The modern NBA point guard is fast and athletic, two things that Stockton is not. At shooting guard, Clyde Drexler and Dwyane Wade are at the very least comparable players all-around with Wade having a slight advantage offensively. The overall theme here among the backup guards is just how athletic and explosive the 2012 Olympic Team would be, especially in the transition. So, for the first time in this game, advantage 2012 Olympic Team.

The reserve forwards also show promising signs for the 2012 Olympic Team with Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Anthony Davis matching up against Chris Mulllin, an aging Larry Bird, and Christian Laettner. The advantage again is clearly athleticism with all three Dream Team reserves being noted as slow throughout their careers. The Dream Team bench guys can counter the speed with outside shooting which cannot be overlooked off the bench. Mullin and Bird were both better outside shooters than anyone the 2012 Olympic Team has on their roster. The problem would be guarding Anthony, who is the best pure scorer off the bench for either side. If the responsibility fell to Bird, advantage Anthony, but if Mullin picked up Anthony, he would have a much more difficult time scoring. Bosh would bring energy and an elite ability to score in pick-and-roll situations, and the 2012 Olympic Team would have to like what Davis gives them over the flat-footed Laettner. The advantage goes to 2012 stars, but they should be thankful that the 1992 version of Larry Bird was on the roster as opposed to the 1987 premium edition.

Center is the one position where the Dream Team comes out on top with David Robinson bringing much more to the table than Tyson Chandler. Best-case scenario is that Chandler equals what the Admiral does on defense, but Robinson unequivocally has the supreme advantage on the offensive end. In the easiest of decisions, advantage Dream Team.

Despite all the talent that the 2012 Olympic Team has and given how they are expected to dominate the world scene (even without almost half the players named to this roster that are out with various injuries), the most influential basketball team ever would probably retain its title as the greatest team of all-time. The 2012 Olympic Team would definitely give the Dream Team a closer game than their average victories of 44 points, but, as noted, most of the matchup advantages belong with team that took Barcelona and the world by storm in 1992.

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