If you’ve already tired of the Dream Team 1992 versus Dream Team 2012 debate, apologies for tossing my non-opinion into the fray.
To be direct: I have no idea who would win. In a single game, inferior teams win all the time.
But the reason this debate is so fun, and maddening, is, of course, that these two teams come from different eras, a fact that reflects how the original Dream Team indelibly changed the league.
For all the talk of matchups — who would guard David Robinson?! Could Magic Johnson defend anyone on the 2012 team? — the whole Dream Team argument seems to be wrapped up in what we mythologize about that team, best exemplified by the singular Michael Jordan.
Specifically, that Jordan was more competitive, worked harder and cared more than anyone else playing the game then or since. Hard to prove, but fine. But let’s look at what he actually did that differentiated him at the time (not from everyone, but from many): supreme athleticism, a real commitment to defense, lifting weights seriously, working with a personal skills trainer to add new weapons, such as his killer post game, each year.
Jordan represented an evolutionary step forward in a time when basketball was becoming the modern game as it’s largely played today. The end of the 1980s was when the league started to look into developing active help defenses and offenses that focus more on getting good shots than getting as many shots as possible. That transition was brewing during the Bird-Magic decade (1980-1991), and Jordan was basically the thing that emerged from all that primordial NBA ooze.
Having defined the modern NBA, someone is going to come along and mighty special to be an obvious evolutionary step forward to achieve a Jordan-esque separation from his peers.
Maybe LeBron James will do just that, he’s certainly the first player to hint that such a thing is truly possible — that a player would just be flat out better than Jordan. The gap between James and the rest of the league is real, and if he continues to be unstoppable in the biggest moments (a big ol’ IF if ever there was one), all he’s missing is the mythology, which takes a bit of time to develop.
But look at what Jordan did with his body and skills compared to many of the great pros today. Did he really work that much harder or train any smarter than James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and others? It’s only fair to judge Jordan against his own generation and to assume guys like him, who conquer everything put in their path, would have similar success in other circumstances, but it’s also important to acknowledge how his legacy has improved the entire league. In a way, he provided a model to greatness that was, during his era, something people hadn’t seen.
But now? What truly great player isn’t putting in that kind of offseason work?
There was a meaningful difference between Jordan and his own generation … but look who that was: Mullin running on the treadmill and not being an alcoholic was a big step forward for him!
Can you think of a current Dream Teamer, perhaps besides Carmelo Anthony, whose fitness has ever really been an issue in his career?
It’s just a different time, and we owe that to Jordan. And because it’s a different time, I have to think that if the modern Dream Team played with today’s rules against the old Dream Team those old timers, astronomically talented as they are, would be surprised as some of the new players’ new tricks.
That’s a major credit to the original Dream Team considering how they moved the NBA game forward. The way the league has changed in terms of strategic sophistication, athleticism, training and commitment is the greatest argument in the current Dream Team’s favor. But it’s also fair to wonder if those advancements would ever have come without certain members of the original Dream Team showing the world that these things were not just possible, but necessary to achieve greatness, in the first place.