A Louisville-based journalist named Jason Riley recently posited the following question on Twitter: Could the best players of the last 15 years, in their prime, beat the Dream Team? Riley listed a roster of nine: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwayne Wade and Allen Iverson. We shall call them the New Guys.
As the author of Dream Team, I was the logical recipient of the question, and that’s fine. I fear, however, I’m being cast as rather the hoops version of Da Bears fans on the old “Saturday Night Live” bits, when the late, great Chris Farley and Norm from “Cheers” gather to drink beer, overdose on brats and canonize Mike Ditka.
“Jack, whodaya tink would win between a mini-Jordan and a hurricane as long as da hurricane wasn’t named Michael?” And I, of course, would say, “Mini-Michael fershore.”
It is true, though, that when addressing most inquiries about the Dream Team I have been unwavering and fulsome in my praise. (Then again, so has everyone else.) They were a moment in time that will never be duplicated.
But, look, the team propounded by Riley is obviously great, so the question is valid, keeping in mind that there is nothing quite as theoretical as a theoretical game between players of different eras. I mean, honestly, who the hell knows who would win? But we’ll give it a crack.
A few things first:
+ The New Guys have only nine players, so the first thing we have to do is fill out their roster. We have to add two more players to get up to the Dream Team’s 11. Oh that’s right, Christian Laettner was on the team. So three more. (Cruel joke check.)
The choices would seem to be among, in alphabetical order, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Paul Pierce. Hmm, you can’t go wrong, but I’d take Nash (for three-point shooting), K.G. (for defense and rebounding) and Pierce (for his all-around stone-coldness and so he could carp about his young teammates, like Curry, as he is wont to do).
Obviously, that’s a pretty strong team.
+ Second, Riley stipulated that the New Guys would all be in the prime of their careers, so you had the turn-of-the-century Kobe, Shaq and A.I., the mid-2000’s Duncan, Wade and Dirk, the current Durant, Curry, and, I suppose, LeBron, although most years of his career would be okay. So, what would be the starting lineup?
I would go with James and Durant at forward, Shaq at center and Kobe and Curry at guard. (I don’t necessarily want to be the one to tell Iverson that Curry is starting ahead of him, so you can do it.) On a different day, I might start both Shaq and Duncan in the frontcourt with LeBron and bring Durant off the bench. Or you could put LeBron at point forward and spread Bryant, Nash, Nowitzki and Durant around him, putting shooters all over the floor and not even sacrificing that much size. It’s an endlessly versatile squad.
+ Another point: Riley insisted that the Dream Team players not be in their prime. This is a major factor in the analysis. If you recall, neither Magic nor Bird played an NBA game after Barcelona. That’s a distinct disadvantage for the Dream Team, which consists of players over a 13-year span (Magic and Bird came into league in 1979) versus in-their-prime players ranging from 1992 (Shaq’s first year) until the present. I will state unequivocally, that an in-their-prime Dream Team with the mid-80s Bird, the late-80s Magic and Chris Mullin, the anytime Jordan, the early-90s Pippen, Barkley, Clyde Drexler and Patrick Ewing, and the mid-90s David Robinson, Karl Malone and John Stockton would be the superior team.
But I get it—the Dream Team is what it is, a collection of players in a real moment in real time. So for this game, hard as it might be, I would not start Bird, who was in the throes of severe back pain. I would still start Magic at the point but would, let’s just say, monitor his minutes very carefully for reasons that appear below. Earvin would team up, of course, with Jordan in the backcourt, and I’d go with Pippen (for defense) and Barkley at forward and Robinson at center, though the Admiral and Ewing would probably get almost equal minutes.
+ A point about playing style. It is a massive understatement to say that the game has changed since 1992. That’s a major subject in my soon-to-be-published book Golden Days—nothing like an opportunity for a plug—that traces the increasing importance of the three-point shot. I interviewed Mullin, an ex-Warrior, at length for Golden Days, and he talked a lot about how the trey really wasn’t in the game back in his day. The Dream Team had two outstanding marksmen in Mullin and Bird but neither shot from the perimeter with anywhere near the frequency of Curry and Durant, or even take-it-to-the-hoop attackers like LeBron and Bryant.
So if you’re asking the Dream Team to play the way it did in 1992 and the New Guys to play the game the way it’s played now? No contest. New Guys win. So I am going to make the assumption that, for this theoretical exercise, a more perimeter-oriented style would be familiar to the Dream Team, allowing for the demonstrable fact that, yes, the New Guys have more shooters.
+ Finally, we have to establish what the real question is. Is it: Could the New Guys beat the Dream Team? Well, of course they could. The Golden State Warriors lost to the Timberwolves, the Kings and the Bulls, to name just three, during their dominating 2016-17 championship run. I remember the ridiculous controversy that Kobe initiated when he said during the 2012 Olympics that the current U.S. squad could beat the Dream Team. First of all, what else is a guy like Kobe going to say? He could be on a team with four middle-school players and Mamba is still going to insist, Hell, yeah, we can beat them. It goes without saying that this team, even a lesser team, could beat the Dream Team on a given night. Or three given nights.
So the question must be: Which team is better? So to further establish that, let’s use this:
Which team would win a seven-game series?
REASONS THE NEW GUYS WOULD WIN
+ Top to bottom, their roster is better. No Laettner, no Bird with an aching back.
+ With Curry shooting threes, Magic’s effectiveness would be limited. He couldn’t chase around Curry, so what then? Put Jordan on Curry and move Magic to Kobe? No good either. Put Pippen on a guard and move Magic to defending Durant? That might work, but most chess games favor the New Guys.
+ Even an in-his-prime Shaq was not a great pick-and-roll defender, but the presence of Duncan is key. Duncan was that rare center who both defended to midrange distance (sometimes beyond) and also protected the basket, so that obvious exploitable Shaq weakness could be overcome.
+ The versatility of LeBron, who can play four positions, and Bryant and Wade, both of whom can play two, give the New Guys so many options, never mind if Garnett, who can play 3, 4 or 5, is on the team.
+ Bryant would probably start off defending Jordan, but LeBron and Wade could spell him.
+ The aforementioned perimeter shooting. Even if we allow that the Dream Teamers would’ve put more trey in their tank, a twosome of Bird and Mullin can’t match Curry, Durant, Dirk and Nash.
+ Youth. Since they’re all in their prime, well, they’re not going to get tired.
REASONS THE DREAM TEAM WOULD WIN
+ Their almost perfect mix of experience and athleticism. Over the years I’ve been told many times that a 1992 team, even this one, would be overwhelmed simply by athletic evolution. I understand that argument but don’t accept it. In any era, the athleticism of the 1992 Jordan, Pippen, Barkley, Robinson, Malone and Drexler are a match for anyone. Combine that with their experience and guile. Call it an anomaly, but those guys were far along the athletic evolutionary path.
+ With the possible exception of Kobe, the Dream Team players are tougher than the New Guys, grittier, feistier and nastier. Especially nastier. Jordan, Barkley, Malone, Ewing and Bird (if he’s in there) can intimidate any team, including the New Guys.
+ The Dream Team can vary their offensive tempo as well, if not better, than the New Guys. Yes, Durant and Curry just won a championship with a runnin’ and gunnin’ team that also excelled in the halfcourt. But the Dream Team was like that, too. When most of the players talked about their offense years later, they would gush about their transition game and how they could score off one or two passes.
+ The New Guys have two sets regular-season teammates (Kobe-Shaq and Durant-Curry) on the roster, but they can’t match the longevity of the Jordan-Pippen and Stockton-Malone twosomes. I remember Bird telling me that he was in awe watching how Jordan and Pippen worked in tandem on defense without even communicating outwardly about it. And if the Dream Team offense happened to get off-course in this theoretical series, the reliable Stockton-to-Malone formula would be a good remedy.
+ The Shaq-Duncan pivot tandem is formidable indeed. But the Robinson-Ewing pairing is more devastating offensively. Robinson was a streamlined athletic machine—he turned 27 during the ’92 Olympics—who could play high or low. Ewing, always a glowering force and a reliable back-to-the-basket option, was also on his way to becoming what amounted to a “stretch 5,” someone whose range, particularly from the corner, was at least 20 feet.
+ The Dream Team would be much less prone to committing costly turnovers than the New Guys; as brilliant as they all are with the ball, Curry, Kobe and even LeBron can be high-turnover players. This would matter in a tight series.
Which brings us to what in my mind is the crucial element in what would almost certainly become a seven-game series:
+ The Jordan Factor. Try as I might, I can’t envision a scenario in which Jordan loses a Game 7. Perhaps you’ve heard too much about his mental toughness, but it’s not a myth. The Dream Team gets it to seven, and Jordan pulls it out.
So at the risk of being accused of hidebound traditionalism, I’ll stick with the guys from ’92. Then again, you were probably expecting that, right?