By Vincent Thomas
For the past couple days, ESPN has had a picture of the MJ-Barkley-Magic trio superimposed with the Bron-Kobe-Melo trio, asking just how closely this 2007 incarnation of Team USA compares to the original Dream Team….
Don’t get me wrong, I dug the way this squad Deebo’d the comp, but to even begin comparing them to the Dream Team is ridiculous for so many reasons that it’s really not worth debating. Would Michael Redd, Chauncey Billups, Mike Miller or even Amare Stoudemire and Dwight Howard get consideration on that ’92 squad? Of course not. Forgetting Christian Laettner for a moment, what Dream Teamer wasn’t supremely ill with the rock? Don’t sleep on Chris Mullin. Mulls was a ball-playin’ fool from Queens. He knew basketball, knew angles, knew movement, had witty court vision and – most importantly – used to flick that nasty lefty from 25-feet whenever on a whim. And you aren’t snoozin’ on Clyde the Glyde, too, right? Or are you? The season leading into the ’92 Olympics – the one where Clyde led Portland to the Finals – dude averaged 25, 7, 7 and 3. Put it like this: I’d take Clyde over every perimeter player from ’07 save Kobe and POSSIBLY LeBron. Yeah, I said it.
And we know the rest of the squad: MJ, Scottie, Malone, Barkley, Ewing and Robinson in their primes. Yeah, Magic was coming out of retirement, but just a year after he won MVP and months after he won the All-Star MVP. Seriously, this shouldn’t be a discussion.
But to be perfectly clear, ’07 actually comes in a rather distant third in the Team USA hierarchy. Go study. After you do the knowledge, I’m almost positive that you’ll conclude that the ’96 Olympic squad is discernibly better – so much better, in fact, that this also should not be a discussion. If you break these squads down by position and skill-set, it’s seriously not even close.
POINT GUARDS: This ’07 squad is not lacking. Kidd and Billups are vets and highly skilled, even if both wouldn’t be considered at the peak of their prowess. But the ’96 point guards were John Stockton and Gary Payton. ’96 Stockton was in a stage of his career almost identical to ’07 Kidd, except Stockton had yet to be injured (he had one more season of 82 games before his first injury-plagued season); still doing 15, 11 and 2. Where ’96 obliterates ’07 is when you factor in GP – a young (27), spry, nasty, ornery GP, fresh off the Finals surprise of taking the 72-win Bulls to 6. This was the second year of a five or six-season string of some of the best GUARD play (not just point guard) in the game’s history. At his peak (and GP had arrived at his peak here), Payton was the best perimeter defender in the league – save maybe Pippen (MJ was slowing down defensively, a bit, at this point), could play an entire game with his off-hand, had the post-game of a skilled power forward and could knock down an international trey regularly.
The Real: As brilliant as Kidd was during this tournament, he and Chauncey are not seeing a Stockton-Payton tandem on any day. And that’s even with the chore of avoiding the sight of Stockton and his camel-toe in boy-shorts.
SHOOTERS: Redd is good, sometimes outstanding. Mike Miller is a marginal player that has his moments. ’96 trotted out Reggie Miller – a gun-slinging Reggie Miller, who, like Mullin, shot international treys like Tiger putts chip shots. He may be the greatest shooter ever. And you’re not sleepin’ on Mitch Richmond are you? By this time, Mitch was pretty much universally accepted as the league’s second best two-guard. He averaged big points, and these were big points in an NBA still dominated by big men, an NBA where perimeter defenders used to literally wrestle with kats playing that 90s, physical, hand-checking, Knicks/Pistons-influenced defense. But besides the fact that he was built like a smaller version of Karl Malone, dude was straight wet from long-range. He shot about 44% from long distance in the 95-96 season, 43% in 96-97. Forget for a moment that Regg and Mitch were ridiculously more skilled players – two of the best of their generation – and that Redd and Mike Miller aren’t and shouldn’t be mentioned among today’s elite (I’m not a Redd fan like that); Regg and Mitch, in terms of the specialty they brought to their Olympic squad, were simply better, more consistent shooters. Redd and Miller took turns struggling from long-range half the time.
The Real: Come on, this shouldn’t be debated. Forget Mike Miller, there were times when Redd would go cold and I would think I was looking at Kenny Anderson, since they’re both left-handed and both have waterheads shaped like the alien on Indepence Day.
THE THREE PERIMETER STARS: This is where people might actually be slightly surprised. Not only were Bron and Melo forced to play out of position on this squad, but went compared straight-up, strictly on talent and production and skill, there is a STRONG argument to be made that the Penny-Grant Hill-Pippen trio of ’96 is over the Kobe-Bron-Melo threesome. Maybe his 5-year stint in Orlando has caused you to forget, but Hill kinda went bizerk during his first five years in the league with the Pistons. For the immediate seasons before and after the ’96 Games, Hill averaged about 21 points, 9.5 boards and 7 assists. That line is utterly ridiculous. Penny was and still is the closest thing we’ve seen to Magic, specifically since Cleveland has almost totally rewired any point guard tendencies LeBron brought with him from high school. Pippen was Pippen. All three of these dudes could score (excessively) when called upon, were top-flight defenders and maybe the most versatile players of the last 25 years, other than Magic and (MAYBE LeBron). These three dudes could all play point, two-guard and small-forward with equal aplomb and lock down each of those positions on defense, as well. And each of them were incredibly smart players, something that Bron and Melo, as youngsters, can struggle with.
The Real: They aren’t definitely the scorers that Bron-Melo-Kobe are and none of them are the singular talent of Bron, let alone Kobe…but if I was Colangelo and I had the choice of bringing a ’96 Hill-Hardaway-Pippen trio to Beijing or an ’07 Kobe-Bron-Melo; I’m actually gonna take Hill-Hardaway-Pippen and not spend much time questioning that decision.
CENTERS: This is where it gets laughable. Hakeem and Robinson are two of the 10 greatest centers of all-time. It’s quite possible that you’d put Hakeem in your Top 15 Players of All-Time. The hallmark of international big men is their mobility and comfort playing on the perimeter. Dream and Robinson may be the two most mobile, agile and graceful big men ever – they moved like small forwards. You’d have to field an ’04 Duncan-Garnett duo to match them. But Amare-Howard??? Don’t get it twisted, I dig both of those young dudes, but this shouldn’t be a discussion either. In fact, one could argue that, on a very fundamental level, Amare, but especially Howard, aren’t necessarily very good basketball players. Talented? Very. Athletic? Supremely. But no one is gonna pop in tapes of Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudemire to teach a young kid the subtle nuances of the game of basketball. Here’s a prediction: in Beijing, Howard and Amare are going to take turns staying in foul trouble, have difficulty getting off shots in half court sets and probably get beat for boards they should grab with ease (even though I must admit that Howard is a great rebounder).
The Real: This part of the squad would be the greatest disparity of talent and acumen if it weren’t for…
THE THREE LEFTOVERS: With the two point guards, two shooters, three perimeter stars and two centers out of the way, you’re left with three roster spots. ’07 fielded Deron Williams, Tayshaun Prince and Tyson Chandler in these spots. And that’s cool. ’96, however, suited up Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and a young, Marvel-comic Shaq. This comparison is downright hilarious.
The Real: I won’t even answer this. But, just for discussion sakes, since the 12th man is usually a low-minutes player, can’t we just go get Mateen Cleeves from whatever overseas league he’s playing in (Haiti, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, wherever)? Just think of how many times we’d see him tap dance in celebration after a dunk.
DEFENSE: Just to seal this issue and drive home how the chasm between these two squads is quite wide, the ’96 squad featured a team full of skilled and tenacious defenders – Payton, Pippen, Dream, Robinson being four of the best defenders to ever play. Even Reggie was sneaky and wily and full of guile. Only Barkley and Shaq slummed it. ’07 features folks like Melo and Amare, who don’t know how to play defense; Miller, who can’t play defense; and Kidd and Billups that can struggle locking down quick points.
The Real: Same ol’ thing. I mean, even Mike Krzyzewski’s nose is considerably worse than Lenny Wilkens’ good-hair. The squads don’t compare.
’07 was ill and, barring injury, ’08 – with the additions of Wade and Bosh – will definitely be a historic team. But it has no chance of seeing the ’92 and ’96 Olympic squads.
Let’s not bring this up again.