BEIJING – With each successive blowout, each complete manhandling of competition exponentially greater than Magic, Michael and Larry could have fathomed, the question about the current USA men's basketball team isn't about redemption, it's about greatness.
As in, is this the greatest basketball team ever assembled?
Could they even take the original Dream Team?
Immediate reactions of blasphemy aside, the debate is certain to heat up if Team USA continues its blitzkrieg of the Beijing Olympics and wins the gold.
The team play has been extraordinary, the defense suffocating and even the outside shooting precise. On top of its game, the 2008 team is a tour de force to behold, its 119-82 annihilation of world champion Spain being the finest indication that this, at the very least, is the best Olympic team since 1992. And that includes a rather dominant 1996 U.S. club.
"They wanted to show everyone they are superior, and they did," shell-shocked Spanish center Pau Gasol said.
|1992 DREAM TEAM|
|Charles Barkley||F||6-6||250||Phoenix Suns|
|Larry Bird||F||6-9||220||Boston Celtics|
|Clyde Drexler||G||6-7||222||Portland Trail Blazers|
|Patrick Ewing||C||7-0||240||New York Knicks|
|Earvin Johnson||G||6-9||220||Los Angeles Lakers|
|Michael Jordan||G||6-6||198||Chicago Bulls|
|Christian Laettner||F||6-11||235||Duke University|
|Karl Malone||F||6-9||256||Utah Jazz|
|Chris Mullin||F||6-7||215||Golden State Warriors|
|Scottie Pippen||G/F||6-7||210||Chicago Bulls|
|David Robinson||C||7-1||235||San Antonio Spurs|
|John Stockton||G||6-1||175||Utah Jazz|
|2008 REDEEM TEAM|
|Carmelo Anthony||F||6-8||230||Denver Nuggets|
|Carlos Boozer||F||6-9||258||Utah Jazz|
|Chris Bosh||F||6-10||230||Toronto Raptors|
|Kobe Bryant||G||6-6||220||Los Angeles Lakers|
|Dwight Howard||F-C||6-11||265||Orlando Magic|
|LeBron James||F||6-8||240||Cleveland Cavaliers|
|Jason Kidd||G||6-4||210||Dallas Mavericks|
|Chris Paul||G||6-0||170||New Orleans Hornets|
|Tayshaun Prince||F||6-9||205||Detroit Pistons|
|Michael Redd||G||6-6||215||Milwaukee Bucks|
|Dwayne Wade||G||6-4||212||Miami Heat|
|Deron Williams||G||6-3||205||Utah Jazz|
Superior even to the original squad? Here's why the argument, first broached by Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post, is at the very least a valid one.
The 1992 team didn't need to bring its "best" team to Barcelona to roll through the Olympics. USA Basketball selected it in part based on personality, marketing and even lifetime achievement.
Magic Johnson had been retired for a year. The Larry Bird of '92 was long past his prime, six years removed from his final league most valuable player award.
John Stockton was chosen over Isiah Thomas because Michael Jordan didn't want Thomas around. Twelfth-man Christian Laettner, the NCAA player of the year, was selected as a nod to the past days of collegians representing the country.
Those four players averaged the fewest points on the team. Not that any of it mattered. The U.S. outscored opponents by an average of 43.8 points per game and became a phenomenon in the process.
In 2008 there is no such luxury, not with the improved play of the rest of the world.
All 12 of the current American players are either in their prime or about to enter it. This team is younger, quicker and certainly more focused, mostly because it needs to be.
Comparing results at these games is almost futile. The 1992 team could party the night away in Barcelona, roll out of bed and still win by 40. There have been no reports of such a thing here, where preparation is paramount.
"We realize that we made a sacrifice to come out here, and part of it is our bodies need to sleep," said Carlos Boozer. "This is what we signed up for. Let's go do whatever it takes to get it. If it takes leaving the arena at one in the morning to get the gold medal, we'll [do it to] get the gold medal."
The thing is, had they needed to be, the 1992 team would've been just as focused. Jordan would have assured that.
If anything tilts the balance forever in the original team's advantage, it is MJ. In the summer of 1992, he was 29 years old and in the middle of winning six NBA championships and five NBA MVPs, numbers that could've been higher had he not chosen to play baseball for a season and a half.
He is undeniably not only the greatest player in the history of the game, but arguably its greatest crunch-time player and, along with Bill Russell, the best at simply finding ways to win. If it came down to a final shot, who's betting against him?
The current team, as talented as it is, would have no logical answer.
However, the idea of Kobe defending Jordan, his idol, would be intriguing.
Conversely, the 1992 team has nothing quite like the physical freak that is the 6-foot-8, 240-pound LeBron. Scottie Pippen on him would be a hellacious matchup, though.
As good as the perimeter talent on the 1992 team was – especially Jordan, Pippen, Clyde Drexler and knock-down shooter Chris Mullin – the current squad is deeper and certainly capable of its own fireworks.
It is inside where the 1992 team would hold a significant advantage and likely determine the game.
The Dream Team's post combinations were breathtaking – Patrick Ewing and David Robinson at center and Charles Barkley and Karl Malone at power forward, all in their prime. The current group of Dwight Howard, a tender 21 years old, Chris Bosh and Boozer would be overwhelmed and perhaps systematically fouled out. Carmelo Anthony, an uninterested defender, would have to be counted on here to help.
The only way for the current team to win would be to push the ball, score in transition and find a way to prevent the 1992 club from dumping it down low.
Could they do it?
The most difficult thing to determine is effort level. The 1992 team didn't need it. This team is focused almost exclusively on it, especially on the defensive end.
"For 40 minutes we (want) to be nonstop movement and chaos," said Chris Paul. "That's what we try to do. We wreck havoc. Every time down we're all over the point guards. Our big men are up, we're not relaxing."
In a single elimination game, that may or may not be enough.
"You will see a team of professionals in the Olympics again," 1992 U.S. coach Chuck Daly said at the time, "but I don't think you'll see another team quite like this."
If anything, you could argue that while the 1992 version may remain the greatest team ever assembled and one that would be favored in a hypothetical matchup, no team has ever played the game at a higher level than the current U.S. team.