Generation Gap: Dream Team vs short-term memory

- July 15th, 2012

Just when things have gone bland and pale, leave it to Kobe Bryant to get people talking again.

Rarely one to shy away from providing a headline-generating quote over the course of 16 brilliant seasons in the NBA, Bryant got the conversation started again this week. A man who has regularly provided fodder for message boards, fans and the lunatics of sports talk radio was at it again recently when he answered a question about this year’s version of the U.S. Olympic basketball team in comparison to the trendsetting 1992 Dream Team.

“Well, just from a basketball standpoint, they obviously have a lot more size than we do — you know, with [David] Robinson and [Patrick] Ewing and [Karl] Malone and those guys,” Bryant said. “But they were also — some of those wing players — were also a lot older, at kind of the end of their careers. We have just a bunch of young racehorses, guys that are eager to compete. So I don’t know. It’d be a tough one, but I think we’d pull it out.”

In the pantheon of memorable quotes, Bryant’s doesn’t register in the top 100 and it’s certainly not a robust statement of cockiness from one of the fiercest competitors of the past 20 years. But it had legs and it didn’t take long for word to travel to Bryant’s idol and former Dream Teamer Michael Jordan, who laughed off the comment and told Kobe, essentially, that he was pretty stupid to say something like that.

Bryant answered the question the way you’d want him to — and really the only way he could: He acknowledged the challenge the ’92 team would provide and then, knowing full well what he was doing, stood up for his own group. Truthfully, the quote was an innocent one.

The more tantalizing of Kobe’s quotes actually came a couple of days later once the story had bounced back from Jordan and teammate Charles Barkley‘s retorts.

For the record, I think the comparison is a little less than ludicrous: It’s not “guy wearing tinfoil and screaming obscenities”, but anyone saying that the 2012 team is somehow better than the 1992 team is either too young to have the accurate context to make a comparison, or speaking haphazardly. Generational comparisons are not new and I don’t find Bryant’s comments out of line with sane, rational thinking. The 2012 U.S. team is very good. It’s just not THAT good. And it’s not even close.

magic

Magic Johnson averaged a double-double and seven rebounds per game in 1990-91. There aren't many on this year's squad who come close to that.

As our world becomes more instantaneous and impatient, collectively we seem to be irrationally quick to find The Next, and often that rush to anoint new Golden Boys comes at the expense of the past. I’m not here to shovel antiquated “they don’t make them like they used to” platitudes like someone’s grandfather extolling the play of Paul Arizen and the Philadelphia Warriors. But at the same time, in the past decade or so, our hindsight has become myopic. From one-and-dones becoming the new saviours for lottery teams, to networks showing “classic” games from less than five years ago, the conditioning is there to easily forget that, not too long ago, there was pretty damn good players walking around.

Kobe isn’t better than Jordan, yet some people feel the need to argue it as if there were any metric in existence that possibly says he is. Heck, even the Kobe-LeBron debate that some want to engage in is silly: Kobe fans point out five championships; LeBron fans point out the here-and-now, conveniently overlooking the fact Bryant is much closer to the end of his career than to the beginning. Debates are fine and fun to get into, don’t get me wrong, but the imperatives and the forced certainty that accompany the arguments now are over the top.

And it is in that framework that this 2012 vs 1992 debate exists. Those pushing the 2012 side of the debate, I can only imagine, are experiencing fresh and vivid images and are weighing those against faded memories not easily recalled. And with each passing day, those games and athletes of the past carry a little less punch. Trust that, in 2032, some kid who is five years old right now will spout off about how the star player on Team TBA would kick Kobe’s (or LeBron’s or Kevin Durant‘s) ass. And that Jordan guy? Man, he played in the 90s! (If you happen to run into that kid all grown up, be sure to thank him for his input, then point out to him that he was five in 2012 and he should probably keep his trap shut because the adults are talking.)

Where the 1992 team would struggle is with quick guards, and the 2012 squad has that, specifically with Russell Westbrook, who has one of the quickest changes of pace going to the rim that you’ll ever see. But we’re also not playing one-on-one here either. As much as an NBA game can turn into a series of isolations, this is still not asking John Stockton to go beat Westbrook straight up, although let’s not gloss over Stockton’s merits as a defender. He is, after all, the NBA career leader in steals. So certainly there is an argument to be made for the current crop’s athleticism and the advantage they would have in that department, but athleticism is such a small criterion in team basketball. The Internet isn’t big enough to house a list of athletic players who weren’t that good at basketball. (“Athletic” is also often used as a euphemism when you’re trying to sugarcoat if a player doesn’t have, you know, “an actual skill set.”)

Part of Bryant’s hypothesis surrounded the age factor, with him suggesting the players on the 1992 team were long in the tooth and at the tail end of their careers. This is a surprisingly inaccurate and unsound point from a man who is in fact quite a knowledgeable source on the history of the game. It is also ironic that Kobe references age — and cites Magic Johnson — when Bryant himself is on the cusp of his 17th NBA season at soon-to-be 34 years old on knees that needed some rejuvenation last summer. On the 1992 team, Kobe would have been the second oldest player next to Larry Bird, and would also have 50,000-plus minutes on his body.

Bryant can still compete and perform at a high level, there’s no question, but he also just posted the poorest shooting numbers since his first two seasons in the NBA, when he was a teenager. Conversely, Johnson (since we’re discussing old Lakers), who was in the midst of the HIV maelstrom, averaged 19.4/12.5/7.0 in the 1990-91 season, hardly the numbers of a player with waning ability. James is the only player on this year’s roster who can even rival the same type of statline.

Barkley’s comment that only Bryant, James and Durant would make the 1992 team might be a bit overstated, but not much. In order to put one from 2012 on, you have to take one from 1992 off. Chris Paul for Stockton? Nope. Stockton averaged 15.8 points, 13.7 assists, three steals and shot the three at over 40%. Paul is statistically inferior in every category except for points (19.8/9.1/2.5/.371). Westbrook? Please. Is this not the same player who within the past 12 months, while showing flashes of being a truly great player, frustrated fans and teammates with his stubborn (read: terrible) shot selection, mercurial attitude and a reluctance to accept a role as second banana to his team’s obvious star?

To me the argument begins and ends with the fact the 1992 team had 11 Hall of Famers, while Kobe and LeBron are the only 2012 players who are inevitable locks for the Hall. Durant could easily get there one day, but you’d have to legitimately construct a case for everyone else on the roster. And you could also talk in intangibles, like the fact that anyone playing in 1992 was playing in an NBA that was decidedly more physical than today’s game — a fact not to be glossed over when considering how tough it was to score and penetrate when hand checking was barely called and hard fouls were the norm. Of the 2012 players, Bryant, Paul and … no one else … would cope well in that setting.

But forget intangibles. The facts are plenty.

Again, because this isn’t a one-on-one game, the simple breaking down of position by position doesn’t really get you far either. Could Stockton guard Westbrook straight up? Probably not, but neither can 90% of the other guards in the NBA — and yet somehow Russell Westbrook doesn’t just get to do layups every single possession. That’s because defence in basketball is a five-man chore and the Dream Team boasts Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen and Jordan, five of the toughest defenders the game has ever had. Speaking on team defence, the 1992 team is light years ahead of what the 2012 team would have. (Not for nothing, but Pippen — another famous second banana — averaged 19.6/6.5/7.2 in 91-92.)

Where the 2012 team has an advantage in guard quickness, the 1992 team absolutely dominates on the inside with Ewing, Robinson and Malone. Tyson Chandler, who is 29 as Ewing was in 1992, is 2012′s answer and while he is defensively stout, he is also offensively limited and not nearly the game-changer Ewing was nor possessing the same breadth of skills that Robinson had. To even discuss Chandler in the same sentence as Robinson or Ewing is doing a disservice to the entire sport.

Blake Griffin (keeping him in despite his Olympics-ending injury), is a shadow of the player Malone was. In fact, Griffin is a picture-perfect example of why the athleticism argument holds little water. Athletically Griffin is close to unmatched, but then you remember he can’t shoot a lick, has no discernible post moves and has played only two seasons in the NBA. But, boy, can he jump high.

The 2012 sympathizers will undoubtedly continue to go back to this notion of athletic ability and “who could beat who” but it’s not rationale that applies to an actual basketball game. Bryant and James have both at times during their career lobbied publicly for their teams to surround them with more help to win a championship, an acknowledgement that no one is doing it alone.

No kidding.

Teams don’t win games on hero ball, and teams don’t win on paper and athleticism alone, otherwise we’d have talked about the 2011 NBA champion Miami Heat, and not the deeper, more cohesive Dallas Mavericks.

karl-malone-and-john-stockton-are-one-two-in-nba-turnover-history

One is considered one of the top two power forwards to ever play the game; the other is the NBA's all-time leader in steals and assists. Together they're the best pick-and-roll duo in NBA history. And they came off the bench in 1992.

And that speaks to another issue: Depth. The Heat won the 2012 title and James’ performance was a huge reason for that. But this current era in the NBA glorifies a Big Three and anyone who buys into that whole-heartedly foolishly ignores the importance of contributors. James was the MVP by far, but the Heat absolutely without question don’t win an NBA title without getting what they got at various times from Norris Cole, Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller and, most notably, Shane Battier.

And so with everyone enamoured with the Big Three concept, it’s fair to throw some cold water on that and point out that depth, chemistry and team basketball are collectively far more important than who your superstar is. And that’s a far-from-insignificant fact when comparing the two U.S. teams. The 1992 team could go to the greatest pick-and-role combo ever, Stockton and Malone, OFF THE BENCH. Plus it could stick Chris Mullin out there (25.6 ppg plus .534/.366/.833 shooting) and, oh yeah, Clyde Drexler, a guy who — if we’re so excited about athleticism — could get up and down pretty well, too. Read Mullin’s numbers again. A guy who averaged nearly 26 a game that season and could kill you from the perimeter, is well down the bench.

Conversely, the 2012 team is going to go to NBA Sixth Man of the Year James Harden (who was invisible during the biggest games of his career a month or so ago), but are also going to bring out ball-stopper Carmelo Anthony and the talented but limited Andre Igoudala, who wouldn’t have a prayer of cracking the 1992 team. (Note: Anthony started in a tune-up game against the Dominican Republic, but Durant’s a solid bet to move into the starting five). Kevin Love provides some match-up issues because of his inside-out ability, a true throwback player who fits in with the skill sets of the 1992 team. But the depth, while tremendous comparatively to other teams, pales in comparison to what the Dream Team had.

And to further emphasize the point of how good the 1992 team was, look at these players:

  •  Isiah Thomas (16 ppg and 9 apg, Hall of Fame)
  •  Reggie Miller (22 ppg and 40% from 3 in 91-92)
  • Kevin Johnson (averaged 22 and 10 assists in 1990-91; 19.7 and 10.7 in 91-92)
  • Tim Hardaway (23 and 10 as a 25-year-old)
  • Brad Daugherty (22 and 11 rpg, .524 FG%)
  • Mark Price (17 ppg, 7.4 apg; .947 FT%, .387 3FG%)
  • Dominique Wilkins (26.9 ppg/9.0 rpg plus .835 FT% and a career 32% from 3. Hall of Fame)
  • Dennis Rodman (9.7 ppg, 18.7 rpg, Hall of Fame)
  • James Worthy (19.9/5.6, Hall of Fame)
  • Larry Johnson (19 and 11 as a rookie).

None of them made the team. All of them would have made 2012.

Drexler was famously the last player picked to fill out the roster and do you know what he did in 1991-92? 25 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game.

That from a guy who could have easily been watching the Olympics from home.

If you want to compare this group to any other, your more accurate comparison is to the 2008 Olympic squad that had a younger Bryant, as well as current teammates James, Paul (prior to his 2010 knee injury), Anthony and Deron Williams, along with younger/healthier Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer, who was a 21-and-10 guy the season before Beijing.

This year represented the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team and a well-viewed documentary commemorated it, bringing the 1992 team really back into public thought for the first time in years. With that in mind, a reporter asked a question looking for a quote and he got it.

Kobe was right to answer the question the way he did. His famous unquenched drive and unshakeable confidence is what tells him he’s right.

Thing is, there’s a long list of actual facts to prove he isn’t.

—feed—

Twitter: @LarkinsWSun

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