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Dreaming of a Larry Bird Kicker…

April 20, 2012 Leave a comment

If you were playing a poker game with the modern U.S. Olympic team and the Dream Team members as the cards, would you rather flip over LeBron or a Magic? A Stockton or a Paul? A Kobe or a Jordan?

Last month, in a pair of BS Reports, Grantland Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons asked Chris Mullin and Magic Johnson what would happen if the famed 1992 team was sucked up into a time portal vacuum and deposited into the modern day to play this year’s U.S. Olympic team – think of it like Terra Nova, but with actual viewers.

Bill felt that despite the Dream Team being, uhm… well, the Dream Team, they would fall at the hands of the modern squad. He lays the foundation for this on two principles:

  1. That despite their gaudy names, Bird and Magic weren’t exactly Bird and Magic.
  2. That Derrick Rose and Chris Paul and the rest of their cohorts would create match-up problems that the Dream Team couldn’t overcome.

Frankly, that sounds logical. Bird’s body was older than Moses, and Magic was barely beyond the Announcement. And there is no denying that this year’s Olympic squad is going to be otherworldly. By my count, there are 14 locks for a 12 man roster:

LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard*, Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Deron Williams, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin, and Russell Westbrook.

That is an obscene collection of basketball talent, and I can see how it might induce one into thinking that this is an unbeatable team, but is that really the case? Could the 2012 team defeat even the vaunted Dream Team as Bill suggests, or would the Dream Team prevail as Magic Johnson contends?

*This was written before the news broke yesterday that Howard will miss the Olympics, so for the purposes of this piece, we’ll pretend he isn’t a whining, coach sabotaging, quitting on the team” super” star injured.

As Bill points out, the Dream Team wasn’t really a full 12 man roster: they had a crippled Larry Bird and an overmatched Christian Laettner. There is no doubt that by 1992 Bird’s body was being held together with bobby pins and scotch tape. In 1990-91 he played in 60 games and in 1991-92 he managed a barely standing 45; the 1992 Olympics were his swan song. So, ostensibly he’s not really on the roster, at least not as LARRY BIRD, Basketball Jesus. But, there is a place for him and we’ll get to that in a couple thousand words.

For reasons unknown, or at least for reasons I don’t give a crap about, the Dream Team brass decided to hand a free trip to Barcelona to a token college player; selecting Christian Laettner to serve as the team’s gopher and lame duck whipping boy. Obviously if the Olympic committee had been selecting the most talented collegiate player, they would have picked a sprightly young giant by the name of Shaquille O’Neal, but they instead paid tribute to then assistant coach – and current head coach – Mike Kryzyzzzzzzzzzzyzski by taking his best player.

While it’s obviously an absurd decision in hindsight, Laettner was the star player on the two time defending champs and he was the collegiate player of the year. In the context of the era – and of wanting a collegiate player – it’s defensible; in hindsight it’s as dubious as making Ozzie Guillen the face of your franchise, but here’s the thing: if the 1992 Dream Team was playing a serious 7 game series, there’s no point when coach Chuck Daly would look down the bench and call upon the 12th man. Nope, Chuck would go ten deep and even then, only for brief spurts.

With the 11th and 12th men out of our way, lets get to the meat of the debate, by breaking down the starters. Other than Michael Jordan, no player started every Olympic game for the Dream Team, but if they were transported to today and forced to play in a barbaric Hunger Games style death match, I think we can safely say, that this would be their starting five:

PG – Magic Johnson

SG – Michael Jorden

SF – Scottie Pippen

PF – Charles Barkley

C – David Robinson.

In contrast, we can reasonably assume that the 2012 team will start:

PG – Derrick Rose

SG – Kobe Bryant

SF – Kevin Durant

PF – Lebron James

C – Dwight Howard.

There is no denying that the 2012 team is a monster, but better than the Dream Team?

One of the pieces that makes the 2012 team seem so unstoppable, is that other than Kobe, those starters are all at the peak of their powers, but guess what? So were the Dream Teamers. Sure, Magic was 32 (a year younger than Kobe), but Robinson and Scottie were 26, while Barkley and Jordan were 28.

Lets start with a pair of obvious match-ups: center and shooting guard. Dwight Howard is the no-brainer, go-to best center in the NBA, but how great is he historically? Doesn’t his standing as the preeminent center have a little more to do with the paucity of quality pivots? Really, look at the landscape of the league, guard play is out of control, but I’m starting to believe that my Grandma could make the Eastern All Stars as a center, and she’s a 4’11” Scottish lady.

As dominant as Howard is, is he appreciably better than a pre-glomerulonephritis (and yes, I copy and pasted that) Alonzo Mourning? In Zo’s last season with a fully functioning liver, he averaged 21.7/9.5/1.9 on 55% shooting, with 3.7 blocks and a 25.8 PER. In contrast, last year old wishy wash Dwight’s line was 22.9, 14.1, 1.4 on 61% shooting, with a 26.0 PER and 2.4 blocks per game. Both men won Defensive Players of the Year awards, Howard was obviously a far superior rebounder, but Zo was the better shot blocker. Overall, the numbers are pretty close. And, here’s the rub: as good as Zo was, he resides on a tier well below the peak of 1990s centers.

It was just a different era. Throughout his career, offensively, Robinson had to score against preeminent defensive centers like Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Mark Eaton, and Mourning. Defensively he had to battle the Dream, Patrick Ewing, Brad Daugherty, and that precocious young kid, Shaq. In contrast, Howard has made a name for himself defending such offensive luminaries as Brook Lopez, Al Horford, and Andrew Bynum. As good as Bynum has been, I don’t think he’s a threat to drop 71 as the Admiral did to win the 1993-94 scoring title. On the other end of the floor, Howard’s had to throw down on defensive stalwarts like Kendrick Perkins, Joakim Noah, and Tyson Chandler. We all love Chandler’s tenacity and Noah’s pluck, but nobody’s confusing those two for Mount Mutombo or the Dream.

As ESPNs John Hollinger continually points out, one of the reasons that Orlando has had so many problems with Atlanta in the playoffs the past few seasons is the presence of the big bodied Jason Collins. Let me repeat that for effect: JASON FREAKIN’ COLLINS. If Howard can’t lead his team past the Atlanta Hawks because Jason Collins is thwarting him, what the heck is he going to do against David Robinson?

Howard’s great, obviously, but his offensive game has all the elegance of a Republican debate: big slams and one way spins. Robinson spent his days dealing with Hakeem’s myriad shimmies, spins, twists, floaters, and, of course, his Dream Shake. After Olajuwon, Robinson could guard Howard with one hand, while saluting the flag with the other.

At shooting guard you have Michael Jordan against Kobe Bryant. And to that, all I can say is… DAMN. The greatest player of all time against the modern incarnation of his game is worth the price of admission all on its own. Kobe’s awesome. He’s a five time champion, an MVP, a two-time finals MVP, a 2 time scoring leader, a nine time All-NBA Defensive 1st Team selection, and a better 3pt shooter than Jordan, but Michael’s a six time champion, a five time MVP, six times Finals MVP, a ten time scoring champion, a nine time ALL-NBA first team selection, and a defensive player of the year winner. And, sure, Kobe was a better three point shooter, but ask Clyde Drexler how well Jordan was shooting the 3 in 1992.

Kobe’s a career 45% shooter (who is currently shooting 43%), Jordan’s a career 50% shooter (who shot 51% in 1992). You know the old song, “anything you can do I can do better?” Well, Michael would just be walking up and down the court singing that to Kobe, while dropping 37 on him on one end and forcing him into a 6 for 24 on the other. Seriously, Kobe’s a top ten player all time, but Jordan’s a top ONE player all time. Plus, we’re talking about 1992 Jordan (28) against 2012 Kobe (33). It’s a no brainer, so lets put this one to bed.

Now it gets interesting: at power forward, you have LeBron James who is the best basketball player alive. But, lets be honest, despite being the best basketball player alive, LeBron has demonstrated a flaw or two. Namely, he shrinks in the moment and despite being the biggest boy in the playground, he can get bullied into taking crappy jump shots. So, who does the Dream Team have to cover him? Well, if Jordan wasn’t on Kobe duty, that might be an interesting challenge for Mr Air, and Scottie Pippen is probably the greatest perimeter defender of all time, so he’d get some run, but the man to shut down LeBron is none other than Charles “After losing 70lbs I can finally wear color again” Barkley.

This is where living in the moment does us a disservice. Today, April 12, 2012, LeBron is the best player in the NBA and Barkley is the goofy, opinionated, still overweight, SNL hosting, tortured golf swing having, TV pundit. We think of him as a small whale, or large seal, racing a 97 year old referee. We forget that before LeBron was a once in a generation athletic marvel, there was Charles Barkley.

Sure, he wasn’t as big as LeBron, but Chuck was a bulldog. Conservatively 6’6″, Barkley was one of the leading rebounders during an era of dominant big men. He fought for balls, his tenacity around the hoop and dogged determination evidenced by his grabbing 2600 offensive rebounds in his first 8 seasons (or, about 400 more than Dwight Howard has grabbed over the same time span). And Sir Charles could score; known as the Round Mound of Rebound, Charles was an athletic freak. Sure, he wasn’t on LeBron’s level, nobody is, but in the five seasons leading up to the 1992 Olympics, Charles averaged 26 points per game, on 58% shooting. His PER ranged from 24.5 to 28.9 and he led the league in True Shooting Percentage in four of those years. Charles was a beast.

And here’s the thing, was Barkley as good as LeBron? No, but he sure as hell would annoy the crap out of the King. This is the first year that LeBron has taken advantage of smaller defenders and shown some semblance of a post game, but do you think he’s backing down Charles Barkley? Really? No, I didn’t think you were that foolish. He’s going to have to drive past him and at some point in the first game, as LeBron went past Charles, he’d end up with an “unintentional” mouthful of knuckles, and in the same way that Jason Veritek emasculated ARod in July of 2004, LeBron would spend the rest of the game settling for 18 footers; shots that will fall in quarters 1-3 and then roll out in the 4th. If I were doing advantages, this is a win for the 2012 team, but not an overwhelming one.

When Bill was talking to Mullin and Magic, he guessed that against Derrick Rose, the Dream Team would have to hide Magic on D. He mused that the Chuck Daly would play Scottie on Rose and Magic on Kevin Durant. This would make sense (as would using Jordan on Rose, and Magic on Kobe – who’s by far the least athletic member of the modern Olympic squad), but I don’t think you have match up that way the whole game. Rose is awesome, no doubt, but he’s still not a lights out shooter. And at 6’9″ Magic TOWERS over him. Looking at the 2012 squad, Kevin Durant’s their scariest scorer and I’d rather force Rose to beat me. I’d put Scottie on Durant (which would be an awesome battle, the game’s best current scorer against its greatest defender) and have Magic sag off Rose, daring him to shoot. Even sagging off of Rose, is Magic going to get beat sometimes? Sure, but this is where the presence of David Robinson and the 4.5 blocks a game he averaged in 1992 come into play.

With Scottie and Jordan locking down Kobe and Durant, with Barkley annoying LeBron, and with Robinson negating Howard, you’re left with Rose attacking Magic, and that’s fine, because it’s a two way street. Assuming that Kobe covers Jordan and Durant covers Scottie, the 2012 team has to decide between LeBron guarding Magic and Rose being ABUSED by Barkley, or LeBron shutting down Barkley and Rose having to cover the six inch taller Magic.

Now, you could argue that a recently HIV diagnosed Magic wasn’t Magic, but go back and watch the 1992 all-star game, or find tapes of the Dream Team games. Magic was just fine. As the man himself said to Bill, “sure, we’d have problems with Rose, but we’d just come right back at them on the other end.”

Both starting lineups are awesome and the match-ups are drool inducing, but ultimately, this battle becomes about who’s going to flinch first. And who are you picking to flinch? The starting five that has five rings (all from Kobe), or the starting five that has 19 rings? (admittedly, they only had 11 in 1992, but still). A starting five where the no-brainer best player is Michael Jeffrey Jordan?  Or a starting five where the best player is LeBron “2011 NBA Finals 4th Q LVP” James? A starting five where LeBron, Dwight, and Durant have all shown themselves to be a little too interested in pre-game photos, capes, and post-game backpacks, or a starting five where Magic, Scottie, and Michael cared only about demoralizing you as they drove their foot into your ass?

Seriously, who you got? Yeah, I thought so.

With the starters out of the way, lets take a quick look at the pine. The second unit of the 2012 team will look something like:

Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, and Tyson Chandler.

The most obvious edge for the 2012 squad is at the two guard spot, where Wade would be going against Clyde the Glide Drexler, but we’ll get to this one in a minute.

At the point, it’s Paul against John Stockton, which would have been a solid “W” for the 2012 team three years ago; yet as great as Paul remains, he’s playing on a knee and a half, and there’s no disputing that he’s lost a step. Stockton’s a five time ALL-NBA 2nd team defender, who throughout his career covered Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Johnson, Tim Hardaway, Mark Price, Gary Payton, and Allen Iverson.

Is Paul a harder match-up than Hardaway or the Glove, let alone Thomas? Don’t be fooled by the fact that he looks like a choir boy in short-shorts, Stockton was tough as snot. He wouldn’t shut Paul down, but he’d make Paul work. Besides, Paul would also have to stop Stockton and here’s the thing about the Dream Team:

Stockton to Malone is COMING OFF THE BENCH! D-Wade might be the greatest sixth man ever, but that’s in large part negated by the Dream Team just having a two man, automatic, punch the clock, two point machine on their bench.

Karl Malone might be overrated, gaining a career boost by outlasting the golden age of players (ie. the Dream Teamers and their ilk) and dominating the late 90s “Me-Stars”, and he obviously wasn’t clutch, but for 20 minutes a game? You’re telling me that with 3 minutes remaining in the first and third quarters and for the first half of the second and fourth, you couldn’t bring in Stockton and Malone and run that pick and roll until the 2012 team is dizzy? Malone, coming off a season in which he averaged 28 and 11, wouldn’t have to be clutch, because when the game gets tight and late, he’d come out and Jordan, Magic, Scottie and the rest would take over. He could just roll to the basket, take the easy pass from Stockton, throw some elbows and count the bucket.

Kevin Love is awesome and what he did before getting hurt, with a 51-14 and 30-20 in the same weekend, is straight up stupid, but he has yet to play on a team that finished .500 in a season and he’s not exactly known for his lockdown D. Are Paul and Love stopping the Stockton to Malone pick and roll? No, I didn’t think so.

Even if the Mailman is waylaid, Stockton has other options. Ewing is being guarded by Tyson Chandler (PUH’lease), Chris Mullin is out on the wing to drain open threes, and if they need someone to create a basket, Clyde could get into the lane.

Defensively, this isn’t a lights out unit, but Ewing, Malone, and Stockton were above average defenders, and while Mullin was a turnstile, so is the man guarding him: Carmelo Anthony (and wouldn’t that just be another delectable match up). Sure Anthony might drop 40 on Mullin, but as Mullin showed against Magic in the 1991 playoffs, he’ll just come right back with 40 of his own.

So, as I said above, the only spot in the second unit that the 2012 team has a clear advantage is at the two, but a) The Olympic pay scale might preclude Wade from even showing up; b) Clyde’s probably a little underrated because he played in Jordan’s shadow; and c) if push comes to shove and this spot’s killing his team, do you think Chuck Daly’s really leaving Jordan on the pine? No. He’s going to bring in Jordan (or even Pippen) to neutralize Wade.

In a tight game, the starters are going to play the lion’s share of minutes. A coach will really only go eight, maybe nine deep. So, assuming that Jordan’s going to play 38 or 39 minutes and that Scottie might take a couple minutes covering Wade, Clyde’s only going to play 8ish minutes. Same thing really for Mullin. So the Dream Team can survive the Wade mismatch without Daly losing any sleep.

All of which brings me back to the 11th man on the bench: Larry Joe Bird. Sure, he was a broken down version of himself. His prodigious talent betrayed by a decaying back, but… on this team, even to win a seven game series over the 2012 team, Larry wouldn’t have to play meaningful minutes. He’d be a veteran presence on the pine, a co-captain, and source of the Basketball Son of God like wisdom. But… if the game was tight and the Dream Team needed a basket, a floor spacing shooter, or a decoy, you’re telling me that there’s someone better than the Legend?

Honestly, lets put the question to the man who started this whole thing: Bill, in the closing minutes of the game, with one team needing a basket and Coach K or Chuck Daly looking down the bench for the 11th man to drive a dagger into the hearts of the opponent, who’d you rather have, a barely standing Larry Legend, or Chris “I’m Getting a 115 million to be an inferior version of Horace Grant” Bosh?

Yeah, I thought so.

A seven game series between the 2012 U.S. Olympic team and the Dream Team would be epic and the 2012 team has perhaps the best chance to beat the 1992 squad as any other collection of basketball talent in history, but in the game of trumps, there’s just no getting around the fact that whoever you flip over in 2012, the Dream Team can always come back with a little Magic, a lot of Michael and a Larry Bird kicker.

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