Sunday, August 19, 2007

Ranking The Dream Teams

Okay, there really only was one Dream Team. We all know the story. 1992. Barcelona. MJ. Bird. Magic. Sir Charles. +43.8.

To this day it’s uniformly considered the greatest basketball team ever assembled.

Since then, there have essentially been eight different versions of Team USA, with the current senior team training in Las Vegas, Nevada for the this week’s FIBA Americas Championship soon to be the tenth overall.

For ranking purposes, I'm only considering Team USA's that featured different groups of professional players that played in competitive tournaments. Judging by that criteria, there are nine to compare:
  • 1992 Olympics
  • 1996 Olympics
  • 2000 Olympics
  • 2004 Olympics
  • 1994 World Championships
  • 2002 World Championships
  • 2006 World Championships
  • 1999 FIBA Americas
  • 2003 FIBA Americas
There is a lot of hype surrounding 2007's Team USA, and rightfully so. But where will history rank this team? The Olympic team next year is of greater importance than this summer’s team. And it should challenge the top three. But it’s too difficult to forecast that roster, and the games must first be played.

Ranking the Dream Teams:
This is the team that we can in large part thank for the rest of the world falling in love with, and ultimately becoming very good at basketball. The Dream Team that traveled to Barcelona, Spain showcased not only the greatest collection of basketball talent the world has ever witnessed, but revealed what happens when maximum individual talent conforms perfectly to the concept of unity.

The roster is the most striking ever assembled, doubly impressive considering the legendary players all fell between ages 26-32 aside from Larry Bird (35) and Christian Laettner (22).

Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, and Chris Mullin were each 29. Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, and John Stockton each 30. These guys were not only the ultimate superstars, they were in prime condition.

The team’s run to gold medal was also the most convincing. Their first Olympic game was a 116-48 trouncing of Angola and they finished with 117-85 win over Croatia. They went 8-0, winning by an average of 43.8 points. It is fair to note that the competition Team USA faces now is far superior on the whole. But don’t overlook the Croatian team they beat twice in 1992. It featured more-than-capable players like Toni Kukoc, Drazen Petrovic, and Dino Radja.
Still living up to the Dream Team nickname, this group featured five holdovers from the original: Barkley, Malone, Pippen, Stockton, and David Robinson.

This is a good time to bring up the fact that Barkley is the greatest of all Team USA performers, and not just for bringing home two Olympic gold medals. In the 1992 Olympics, Barkley shot 59-83 (.711) from the field including 7-8 (.875) on three-pointers. In addition, he led the team in scoring (18.0). He followed that up in 1996 by shooting 31-38 (.816) from the field and 2-4 (.500) from beyond the arc. He also led the team in scoring (12.4) and rebounding (6.6).

On paper this team rivals the original Dream Team. Barkley was joined in the post by Malone, Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and a spry, 24 year-old Shaquille O’Neal.

Reggie Miller replaced Mullin as the designated sharpshooter.

They also rivaled the 1992 squad on the court by easily winning all eight games, culminating in a 95-69 gold medal victory over previously unbeaten Yugoslavia.
Team USA’s most devastating inside-outside duo yet? Try 1994's Shaquille O’Neal and Reggie Miller.

shot 62-87 (.713) from the field, and led the team in scoring (18.0), rebounding (8.5), and blocked shots (1.8). Meanwhile, Miller connected on 30-57 (.526) three-pointers and 19-20 (.950) free-throws.

And this group was tough. Joe Dumars, Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, and Alonzo Mourning typified the won’t-back-down grit of this team.

Strong outside shooting also stood out, with Team USA making nearly twice as many (103-55) three-pointers as its opponents, led by Miller, Majerle, Dumars, and Mark Price. Steve Smith, Derrick Coleman, and Dominique Wilkens added to the onslaught for this offensive machine. They averaged over 120 points per game and annihilated Russia 137-91 to win the gold medal.
This is a glimpse of what could have been in the disappointing 2004 Olympics. Unfortunately, the most dominant modern (post-2000) Team USA did not stick together long enough to win anything of great importance.

Key pieces of this team like Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Ray Allen, Jermaine O’Neal and Mike Bibby were not a part of the Olympic team a year later.

Playing in the FIBA Americas, competition was limited, but strong nonetheless. They started off by dominating a strong Brazil team 110-76. And finished with a gold medal, the prize for a thirty-three point crushing of rival Argentina, whom they had also beaten earlier in the tournament.

Considering this tournament occurred only four years ago, it’s difficult to understand how the stereotype that Americans can't shoot persists. This team was much more selective than its opponents shooting from the outside (158 to 215 attempts), and much more effective (.468 to.363).
Marking Team USA’s final unblemished run to gold medal before the ugly 2002 World Championships, Team 2000 faced the new era of upgraded international competition and still prevailed.

Vince Carter starred, leading the team in scoring (14.8). At some point, as people recognize the increasing relevance of international basketball, performances like Carter’s in the 2000 Olympics (YouTube evidence here) will be properly appreciated. As it stands, players are judged by performances in the NBA playoffs first, NBA regular season second, and college third. With basketball becoming more global every day, performances for national teams must now enter into discussions with great prominence.

In soccer, club play is valued religiously, never overlooked. However, leading one’s nation to glory is unmatched. Basketball is heading in the same direction. Kobe Bryant knows it. LeBron James know it. Jason Kidd knows it. International basketball is already supremely relevant. It’s only a matter of time before we all realize it.

Back to Team 2000. This group jived. Carter, with his explosiveness, outside shooting, and ability to defer, was a perfect fit for Team USA. As was Kevin Garnett. Don’t let anyone tell you those two guys aren’t winners. Throw in the ultimate pass-first point guard (Kidd), a dominant defensive center (Mourning), a deadly outside shooter or two (Ray Allen and Allan Houston), and you have Team USA gold. It’s not really that simple, but it’s not just by chance that this was the last time our basketball heroes made us proud.
Characterized by its defense, something people inexplicably and incorrectly think Americans cannot effectively play, the 1999 team ran the table. The roster was built around defensive stalwarts Garnett, Kidd, Tim Duncan, and Gary Payton. each of whom started all ten games. They were joined in the consistent starting lineup by Houston.

Team USA was never threatened, winning by an average of 31.6 points while defensively dominating, holding opponents to just 66.2 points.
After failing in previous international competitions, Team USA got serious in 2006. And they mostly dominated before coming up a little short against the Greek pick-and-roll.

In a tournament that Team USA came out on top against stars from around the world such as Carlos Arroyo, Yao Ming, Marco Bellinelli, Andrew Bogut, Dirk Nowitzki, and Manu Ginobili, their undoing was their inability to defend the simplest of offensive plays against a team (Greece) with a big player (Sofoklis Schortsanitis), a lot of big sounding names (Panayotis Vassilopoulos), but no real big names (LeBron James).

Aside from that game, Team USA mostly shined, including a forty-point drubbing of Australia and an impressive, face-saving win over Argentina.
The Olympic failure in 2004 was an extension of the 2002 World Championships disaster, in that highly questionable personnel decisions deserve blame, rather than failing basketball talent in the United States.

Gunning guards Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury shot Team USA mostly into the ground.

Youngsters Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Emeka Okafor weren’t ready. In fact, next time someone insists that Anthony be a part of the 2008 team because of his exceptional performance in 2006, ask how Anthony was invited back in 2006 after his dreadful showing in 2004, when he shot 7-28 (.250) from the field.
The low point in USA Basketball, without a doubt. After opening 5-0, the United States lost to Argentina 87-80, ending the 58-game winning streak. To compound the misery, they lost twice more. Team USA ended up finishing sixth out of the sixteen teams, two spots behind a New Zealand team they beat by 48 points earlier in the tournament.

And all this happened at home, in Indianapolis, Indiana.

A lot went wrong in 2002. Mostly before anyone played. The lack of focus and preparation was apparent. And there were some nice players on the team: Elton Brand, Ben Wallace, and Paul Pierce. Then there were some, that in modern international basketball, didn’t belong on: Raef LaFrentz and Jay Williams.

Unfortunately, it took such a drastic and devastating blow to USA Basketball for the whole system to be overhauled. Thankfully, the present direction of Team USA leads me to believe a disaster of 2002's proportions is the remotest possibility heading into the FIBA Americas and 2008 Olympics.

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