LeBron James and Yao Ming in the 2008 Olympic Games. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Written by Matthew Waters
The 1992 men’s Olympic basketball team was a fantasy fulfilled. The best hardwood talent America could offer vying for a gold medal against overmatched international competition. For the players, it was an opportunity to live in an alternate universe where victory was assured. Put Jordan, Bird, Pippen, Barkley, Malone, Stockton, Magic Johnson on the same floor, among many other luminaries, and enjoy the brilliance. The Dream Team’s invincibility was awesome, but unsustainable.
Despite it’s unbelievably impressive opening act and subsequent successes in the ’96 and ’00 games, the U.S. Men’s Basketball team eventually regressed over the years, and faced genuine adversity in 2004 due to the same factors that govern most professional forms of competition.
“To some extent, ‘great’ performances also require a less-than-great performance by the opponent. Sports are zero-sum games, after all,” says Neil Paine, a writer for the statistical and analytical behemoth sports-reference.com. “For instance, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once analyzed the dearth of .400 hitters (in modern baseball), concluding that the presence of incredible outlier performances like hitting .400 was actually indicative of a weaker sport — the rationale being that, if the best of the best stay roughly at the maximum human skill level, but the average player is much worse, then a weaker league will give the great player more chances to have great performances. The absence of dominating performances now just means the average player has caught up to the great player, elevating the overall quality of play.”
The cruel part about dreams is that they inevitably end. After continuing their mastery of International foes through the year 2000, team U.S.A. needed a rally to attain the bronze medal in 2004. This disappointment drove a reformed and wittily dubbed ‘Redeem Team,’ to gold emblazoned glory in 2008.
“And I think that’s exactly the same as you see in international basketball,” says Paine, referring to his previous point about a lack of .400 hitters in modern baseball reflecting a more competitive game. “The rest of the world playing the U.S. close actually means the worldwide quality of the sport has improved markedly. Which I do believe makes U.S. victories, like those of the Redeem Team, more valuable. When you learn not to take something for granted, it means more to you.”
What exactly happened between 1992 and 2004 that made the team’s obvious dominance evaporate like mist? Kevin Pelton, a NBA analyst for Basketball Prospectus and ESPN Insider, was ten when the Dreamers first joined and rolled through Barcelona. “It was obvious even at that age that the Dream Team was a unique collection of talent,” Pelton asserts. “Now, after two decades of having it applied to various incarnations of the National Team, the Dream Team moniker feels contrived. Back then, the notion of seeing Larry Bird and Magic Johnson on the same team, of Michael Jordan setting up Charles Barkley, etc. really was a fan’s fantasy coming to reality.”
There were specific reasons why the ’04 incarnation didn’t measure to the established standard. International competition had already begun closing the gap. “In terms of individual skills, shooting was certainly an issue,” says Pelton. “That group shot 31.4 percent from the shorter three-point line, while opponents shot 44.1 percent. The floor wasn’t spaced well enough to allow the USA to take advantage of its ability to create off the dribble. I don’t think Larry Brown was a particularly good international coach because his style is relatively inflexible, and does not incorporate the three as a major element, which did not translate well to FIBA. More than anything, though, I think this group was much less talented than other Olympic squads because of several top players pulling out of consideration.”
Pelton pointed toward an article he penned for Basketball Prospectus to further this point. “I took a look at the NBA performance the previous season of players on each USA roster from the 2000 Olympics through the 2008 Olympics, and the 2004 team was far and away the worst by this measure.”
An accumulation of factors conspired against the ’04 team. “The biggest reason is that the international game flourished so much in the 12 years between ’92 and ’04,” Paine concludes. “In 1992, basketball was still in its infancy in many foreign countries, while in ’04 you saw the fruits of a new generation of talent that was, ironically, brought to the game by the Dream Team and other American efforts to proselytize the sport overseas,” he adds.
Reality ultimately has a say. The dream ended, and the U.S. was forced to adjust. “Most observers said the biggest adjustment was building the team like a “real” basketball team instead of a disjointed collection of individual talent,” wrote Paine. “But they also had more talented players filling those roles than, say, the ’04 team. It was a mixture of talent and cohesiveness, whereas the 2004 team had neither in spades, by Team USA standards. They could still have won in ’08 with a team equal in talent to the ’04 squad, but it would have by no means been a high-probability event. By adding better players and making them commit to the team long-term, they greatly improved their probability of winning gold.”
The probability for gold this summer is threatened by a familiar foe from the ’08 gold medal game, Spain.
“Injuries to Rudy Fernandez and Ricky Rubio have taken a bit of a toll on Spain’s perimeter talent,” says Pelton. “But the Spanish frontcourt is better and deeper than the USA’s with the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka. I think it would be a surprise if anyone but Spain and the USA meet in the final.”