Last weekend in Las Vegas, Team USA capped off what proved to be a mesmerizing performance in the Americas’ Tournament, earning both the tournament’s gold medal and an automatic berth in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing in the process. Team USA was unconscious from the perimeter in its semifinal blowout against Puerto Rico on Saturday, making over 60% of its shots from behind the arc, and blew Argentina, its most highly touted competition in the tournament, out of the gym in the first quarter of Sunday’s final. A thoroughly dominating performance the likes of which Team USA turned in during this tournament will invariably trigger comparisons to the gold standard of USA Basketball- 1992 Dream Team. More on this later. First, a quick look back at Labor Day Weekend for Team USA:
On Saturday afternoon, Team USA took the floor at the Thomas & Mack Center for its semifinal game against Puerto Rico, with not only a spot in the final of the Americas’ Tournament, but an automatic berth in next summer Olympic Games in China, at stake. The United States was facing Puerto Rico for the second time in four days, having blown them out 118-79 three days earlier. Despite a spirited effort from Puerto Rico, who were within six points after one quarter and down by just 15 at the half, this meeting turned out to be even more lopsided than the first, with Team USA cruising to a 135-91 victory against at outclassed Puerto Rico team. En route to the win, Team USA put on one of the most incredible shooting exhibitions in recent memory, making a ridiculous 23-of-36 3-point attempts (63.9%). The stars of the show were Carmelo Anthony, who got the USA off and running, making his first 6 3-pointers on his way to a team-high 27 points, and the 2nd half knockout punch that was Michael Redd, who added 23, thanks to making seven of his eight 3-point attempts. Even without the dialed-in combo of Redd and Melo, who knocked down thirteen of fifteen 3-point attempts, Team USA shot nearly 50% (10-for-21) from behind the arc, led by Mike Miller (4-for-6), Jason Kidd (2-for-3) and Kobe Bryant (2-for-4). Having made quick work of Puerto Rico and stamped its ticket to Beijing, Team USA looked ahead to a Sunday afternoon match-up against Argentina, its toughest competition and the next most talented team in the tourney. Smells like the recipe for a letdown, doesn’t it? Yeah, about that…
Since they’d both already qualified for the 2008 Olympics by simply qualifying for the final, national pride (and prettier medals) was the only thing at stake in the tournament final between Argentina and the United States. In the teams’ first meeting Argentina hadn’t pushed Team USA much harder than any other team in Vegas, although a late rally did cut the final deficit to a more respectable 15 points. On Sunday, Team USA looked like it may in for a bit of a fight, managing just a six point lead (20-14) in the game’s first 6 minutes. That was about all the suspense this game would provide, as over the next 4+ minutes, the Americans proceeded to drop the hammer on Argentina, scoring the last 15 points of the first quarter and opening the second with a Chauncey Billups 3-pointer. Halfway through second quarter, Team USA pushed the lead to thirty points and never looked back. The United States was led by LeBron James, whose performance in the tournament, was absolutely awe-inspiring. In the final, LBJ played another near-perfect game, leading four US players in double figures with 31 points on 11-of-15 from the floor, making eight of his eleven 3-point attempts, adding four rebounds and three assists. He finished the tournament shooting a video game-esque 76%. Dwight Howard turned in his best game of the tournament, making all seven of his field goals on the way to 20 points, adding 5 rebounds and 4 blocked shots as well. Kobe Bryant turned playmaker in Sunday’s victory, scoring just 5 points on six field goal attempts in 22 minutes, but adding an impressive eight assists.
Yes, it’s important to maintain perspective. But let’s not become incorrigible cynics in the process. The ultimate goal for the Team USA is a gold medal in Beijing, but their outstanding performance in Las Vegas shouldn’t be ignored. Team USA’s dominant showing in the America’s Tournament is exactly the shot in the arm that USA Basketball was in desperate need of. Congratulations to everyone on Team USA on this gold medal performance.
It was fantastic to see USA Basketball return to dominance, especially playing a beautiful and unselfish style of ball not seen since the 1990s. Speaking of the 90s, Team USA’s performance in Vegas raised a heretical question- could this team be as good as the 1992 Dream Team? I don’t have the answer but, if for no other reason than to show respect to Team USA’s present-day stars, the question deserves to be asked.
For fifteen years, ever since the gold medal ceremony in Barcelona, it has been universally accepted that no team will ever join the 1992 United States basketball team on the Mount Rushmore of basketball. Why is that? Two reasons- timing and sentimentality.
When the Dream Team took the floor in 1992, the popularity of the NBA was at an all-time high- Michael Jordan, fresh off leading the Chicago Bulls to consecutive NBA titles, was approaching mythic status, fans were eagerly awaiting the arrival of recent #1 over draft pick Shaquille O’Neal in Orlando, and despite their recent and imminent (respectively) retirements, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were international legends, each looking capitalize on the only chance he’d ever get at Olympic gold. In 1992, NBA fans were more plentiful, less jaded and emotionally committed to the game and its players. These factors, combined with the incredible anticipation of seeing NBA stars in the Olympics for the first time created the perfect backdrop for the Dream Team. The audience in 1992 was considerably more receptive than the one today.
Additionally, there is a generation of basketball fans that simply doesn’t want for there to ever be a team as good as the Dream Team. I’d like to think that I’m more objective and open-minded than that. But I’m not. I am a life-long Lakers fan, Magic Johnson was/still is my favorite NBA player ever, and I was 13 years-old in the Summer of ’92- you think I can keep myself from romanticizing the Dream Team even a little bit? And therein lies the problem. The NBA’s recent decline in popularity, along with USA Basketball’s recent failure to capture gold in any major competition have cast a could of cynicism over USA Basketball, a cloud so dark that a truly great team with statistical credentials similar to their legendary predecessors, could slip between the cracks.
There’s no way to scientifically compare this team with the 1992 version, but if we as basketball fans can part with our emotional biases, what we’ll see is that the gulf in talent, as well as achievement, is not nearly as large as we’d like to believe. The 1992 quartet of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley (Bird was omitted because he was injured and on the decline) was phenomenal to be sure, but were they so far out-of-this-world that Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudamire don’t even deserve the respect of a comparison? Did Christian Laettner really contribute any more than Tyson Chandler? What did Chris Mullin achieve in the NBA that, given time, Michael Redd couldn’t match? You get the picture.
As for performance on the international stage, let compare the teams’ respective showings in the Tournament of the Americas (now the Americas’ Tournament). It’s a small sample, I know, but in the interest of comparing the teams’ efforts in similar competitions, so far this is all there is. Consider this: in six games in the 1992 Tournament of the Americas in Portland, the Dream Team averaged 121 points per game and shot 63% from the field, while holding its opponents to 70 points per game on 38% from the field. In ten games (against superior competition) in 2007, Team USA averaged 117 points on just under 59% shooting and held the opposition to 77 points on just under 38% shooting. Is one team statistically superior to the other? Not if you consider the significant improvement in competition over the past fifteen years. Does one team have a clear edge in talent? The Dream Team had the legendary names and the greater body of NBA work, but talent gulf is not as wide many would think. Also, if fans could ever get past the dogmatic impression of Michael Jordan as an eternally untouchable “God in shorts”, the answer to this question becomes “not really”.
I’m not saying that one team is better or worse than the other, but if we remove emotion from analysis, this debate becomes one worth having. I realize that I’ve used an absurd amount of words here just to conclude, “Who knows?” but when comparing a basketball team to the 1992 Dream Team, it’s a pretty radical statement.