Many high-profile American basketball players have passed on the upcoming Rio Olympics, including the two biggest stars of the recent NBA Finals, LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
All have offered their own reasons for removing their names from consideration for Team USA, with varying degrees of vaguery. (Looming over each decision, of course, is the threat of Zika infection, which has led to a number of prominent athletes across different sports withdrawing from the Olympics.)
Despite the absence of James and Curry, among others, America's basketball cupboard will hardly be bare. Kevin Durant, the NBA's biggest name of the summer, will be there, as will fellow stars Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson. Still, the string of sit-outs raises a pair of related questions: Just where does the 2016 version of Team USA rank among its modern predecessors, and is it arguably the weakest American Olympic squad since the Games added NBA players in 1992?
Let's take a closer look.
Still the Best
The original Dream Team was aptly named: more than two decades after they stormed through the Olympic draw (and, in the case of forward Charles Barkley, the local nightlife) in Barcelona, the 1992 version of Team USA remains the gold standard for basketball excellence, the squad against which all subsequent iterations will be judged.
The All-NBA Teams contain the very best players from the very best league in the world. In 1992, the All-NBA First Team selections were Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin, Karl Malone, and David Robinson; all five players were on Team USA. The Second Team selections included Barkley, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, and Patrick Ewing, all of whom were also on the squad. Add in the two biggest legends of the 1980s, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, as well as one of the best collegiate players in history, Christian Laettner, and we likely will never see as distinguished a collection of basketball talent again.
How's this for a collective resume: heading into Barcelona, the Dream Team's members had racked up 61 All-NBA awards, 37 of the First Team variety, and made 68 All-Star Game appearances. More impressively, each of the team's de facto captains—Jordan, Bird, and Magic—had also won three league MVPs by that point. On the team success front, the Dream Teamers had combined to win a dozen NBA titles, including the most recent championship won by Jordan and Pippen's Chicago Bulls against Drexler's Portland Trail Blazers that summer.
The flag below has a white block for every All-NBA selection, a red block for every All-Star Game appearance, and a white star for every MVP award that a Dream Team member earned prior to the 1992 Olympics. (Note: To make a perfect rectangle, I had to scrimp a bit, cheating Barkley of one All-NBA white block. Sorry Chuck!) Behold the glory:
In stark contrast to 1992, four of the five current First Team All-NBA selections—James, Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Kawhi Leonard—opted not to join Team USA for the Rio Games.
Here's what our same Stars and Stripes visualization looks like after 2016's numerous withdrawals:
Add it up, and that's 24 All-NBA selections, 33 All-Star Game appearances, and one MVP award. Not too shabby, but not very dreamy, either. Of course, the team's focal point, Durant, has earned his fair share of recognition—he would certainly be able to hold his own among his Dream Team predecessors. But after Durant, it's four-time Olympian Carmelo Anthony who fills out our flag more than any of his other teammates. And his bars and stripes are more reflective of his admirable NBA longevity than his current, post-career-peak performance level.
This summer's Team USA is no match for the Dream Team. No shame there. But how does it compare to all of its Olympic predecessors? Let's compare the relative strengths of America's rosters over the years, and see where Durant and company stand.
Comparing USA Basketball Teams
One useful summary statistic for making historical comparisons of personnel is Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), a box-score-based metric of overall player quality. Take a look at the cumulative team VORP for each USA Basketball squad from 1992 to 2016:
Here's our first surprise: the Dream Team isn't quite at the top of the list. Why? Because Team USA, circa 1996, was sneaky good. The squad lost its three biggest names—Jordan, Bird, and Magic—but kept several other still-productive vets: Robinson, Malone, Pippen, Barkley, and Stockton. To that core, the Americans added five Hall of Famers—Gary Payton, Hakeem Olajuwon, Reggie Miller, Mitch Richmond, and Shaquille O'Neal—plus two more players, Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill, at the peaks of their injury-marred careers.
These guys were so good that Olajuwon, coming off back-to-back NBA championships with the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995, couldn't get any runs. His name was literally "Dream," and he couldn't get on the floor! Nor could O'Neal, who was the third-string center. Also keep in mind that the 1992 team—in a pretty weak nod to Olympic tradition—also included one amateur athlete on its roster, Laettner. Since he was not in the NBA in 1992, he didn't contribute any VORP to the team total in the plot above. Likewise, because Magic Johnson did not play in the NBA during 1992 season, his VORP contribution was nil.
VORP isn't the end-all, be-all of basketball summary stats, but it does suggest that there are three tiers of U.S. Olympic basketball squads. And clearly, the 2016 iteration is not in the same class as the Dream Team and its immediate sequel. Moreover, this year's team appears a level below the James-led teams of 2008 (when a chastened USA Basketball program reclaimed gold) and 2012 (when Kobe Bryant decided he could openly challenge the supremacy of Jordan and his original Dream Team ... dream on, brah).
Instead, the 2016 team belongs in tier No. 3, alongside the likes of the 2000 and 2004 squads. Team USA 2000 was the only one of the seven teams that didn't feature a single player with at least one NBA championship to his name (not at the time of the Olympics; some of the players won a title subsequently). That said, at least they got the job done, beating up on some international stiffs and posterizing poor Frederic Weis while winning gold. By contrast, the 2004 team lost three separate games during the Olympic tournament, including one to Puerto Rico—no, really, Puerto Rico—and touched off a flurry of media handwringing over the state of American basketball en route to a disappointing bronze medal.
The Bad Dream Team of 2004 is the only one of the seven with a lower team VORP score than the 2016 roster. And that leaves us with a burning question.
Who's the Worst Team USA in the Modern Olympic Era?
As of today, we don't know for sure who will start this summer in Rio, and who will come off the Team USA bench. Durant will almost certainly start. Beyond that, there's a pretty good chance that Kyrie Irving will joint Durant, given his ties to former college coach and current Team USA boss Mike Krzyzewski. (Coach K already favored Irving over Curry in the 2014 FIBA World Cup, so he seems likely to give Uncle Drew the nod over Kyle Lowry this time around, too.)
Personally, I think it would be fun to trot out the Golden State Warriors trio of Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green as part of a second unit, because they already have a demonstrated synergy playing together. That would leave Paul George and Jimmy Butler to pair with Durant, Irving, and one of the centers as starters. I think the first-string big man will be DeMarcus Cousins, given that he has previous Team USA experience while DeAndre Jordan is a newbie.
With those hypothetical coaching decisions in mind, here's a player vs. player comparison of the 2004 and 2016 teams.
● Allen Iverson vs. Kyrie Irving
This is a fun comparison between the forefather of the modern crossover dribble and the guy who is using that move more devastatingly than any other player in today's NBA. Iverson was still in Philadelphia in 2004, but already 29 years old, three years removed from his lone Finals appearance, and starring for a team that was 16 games under .500. He was past his prime. As such, we have to give the nod to the 24-year-old (and recent NBA champion!) Irving.
●Stephon Marbury vs. Jimmy Butler
In 2004, Team USA went with a double-point-guard starting lineup, because Larry Brown. The six-foot-seven Butler is much taller than the six-foot-two Marbury, and a much better defensive player. Moreover, while Butler's three-point shooting isn't as good at Thompson's, his rival for Team USA minutes, his career percentages are pretty comparable to Marbury's. Again, the advantage goes to 2016.
● Richard Jefferson vs. Kevin Durant
Richard Jefferson was more of a stud than anyone remembers. A third-year NBA player in 2004, Jefferson already had been to two Finals. But, c'mon, he's not Durant. He's not even close. Durant led the 2012 Olympic team with 34 threes in eight games (4.25 per game); I feel like he's going to hit 50 this summer. Huge edge to the current Americans.
● Lamar Odom vs. Paul George
Odom offered great defensive flexibility, moving between the two forward positions, and offensive creativity, too. George offers all of that, plus he can stroke the three. The 2004 team comes up short, again.
● Tim Duncan vs. DeMarcus Cousins
Finally, score for one the Bad Dream Team! This was peak Duncan. I mean, Duncan's peak lasted for like 15 years, but 2004 was legitimately the peak of his peak. He won championships with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003 and again in 2005. His individual playoff performance in 2003 was one of the best ever: he contributed more Win Shares in that tournament than any other player in NBA postseason history. Heck, I'd probably still rather have 2016 Duncan than 2016 Cousins, and that's only partially retirement-fueled hyperbole.
● Dwyane Wade vs. Kyle Lowry
This was the summer after D-Wade's rookie season. He wasn't quite ready to be a team leader yet, but his defense made an impact in 2004, just like it would in 2008, as he averaged over two steals a game off the bench. By contrast, I'm not sure how Lowry's game translates to the FIBA of play. I give the edge to the precocious Wade.
● LeBron James vs. Klay Thompson
James was a 19-year-old rookie in 2004. He was great for the Cavs from the jump, but he didn't make an immediate impact on the Olympic team, averaging only 5.4 points per game. [Editor's note: We were there in Athens, and nobody understood why the grumbly, blame-deflecting Brown didn't play James more. It was, and remains, absurd.] By comparison, Thompson is a veteran player with international experience who already has shown his mettle on the NBA's biggest stages. His sweet stroke is ideal for FIBA competitions, too. It's hard to type this without feeling dumb, but I'll take today's Thompson over Baby LeBron.
● Shawn Marion vs. Harrison Barnes
I'm not sure Barnes will see much action this summer. He'll probably end up behind DeMar DeRozan and/or Anthony on the depth chart. However, if we're comparing Barnes to Marion, I'm giving the edge to peak Matrix. His versatility helps any team in any competition.
● Carlos Boozer vs. Draymond Green
Draymond's quickness is a major asset in international competitions. Hustle machine Kenneth Faried destroyed the FIBA World Cup tournament in 2014, and Green pretty much figures to be a souped-up version of the Manimal. As for Boozer? Well, he was actually on two Olympic teams. Did you know that? Boozer had a nice career, but Green's defensive ability, versatility, and offensive playmaking makes him the better choice. That is, assuming he'll be allowed to leave the country pending the resolution of his current assault and battery case.
● Amar'e Stoudemire vs. DeAndre Jordan
Stoudemire had transcendent offensive skills but was a limited defender. Jordan is the opposite. Push.
● Emeka Okafor vs. DeMar DeRozan
Okafor was the collegiate representative on the Bad Dream Team. He didn't play much. DeRozan might not, either. Which is better? Better question: Who cares?
● Carmelo Anthony (age 20) vs. Carmelo Anthony (age 32)
Anthony is excited about becoming the guy who played on four Olympic teams. Which version of him would you rather have anchoring your bench? I'll take the old-man strength and wisdom of the 32-year-old.
Team USA isn't going to have any trouble in Rio. They'll almost certainly go undefeated and win most of their games by double digits. Their only real competition is against the 2004 squad, and when it comes to being the worst American squad of the NBA Olympian era, the Bad Dream Teamers figure to stand alone, as the only U.S. team to both have an average margin of victory of less than 20 points per game, and also lose a game in Olympic play. Congrats, Class of 2016!
That's the good news. The bad news? It would have been so much fun to see James, Curry, and Westbrook share the court with Durant—and to see Coach K roll out a Curry-Durant-Thompson-Green Warriors 2017 lineup, too. (Though maybe not fun for Barnes.) Oh well. There's always Tokyo. James will be only 35 in 2020, which means there's a chance.
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