What’s the greatest basketball team ever assembled? The 1992 USA Men’s Basketball team, aka The Dream Team, right? The 2008 Redeem Team came the closest to matching them, yet one Team USA that was never constructed could’ve risen to the challenge if given the opportunity. You just have to look hard enough.
This team would have had to have everything – shooting, passing, dribbling, defense, leadership, heart, and post play. Taking players from the 2000-01 NBA season would give you the best chance. They had the talent, athleticism, and toughness at least to give the 1992 squad a good fight.
The roster would include Jason Kidd (passing, defense, leadership), Gary Payton (leadership, defense), Allen Iverson (scoring), Kobe Bryant (shooting, defense, attitude), Ray Allen (shooting), Paul Pierce (scoring), Vince Carter (scoring), Tracy McGrady (scoring), Chris Webber (inside presence, rebounding, passing), Kevin Garnett (inside presence, scoring, defense, rebounding), Tim Duncan (rebounding, post scoring, defense), and Shaquille O’Neal (post play, scoring, defense, rebounding, toughness).
The Dream Team was ridiculous, featuring the likes of Magic Johnson, John Stockton, Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullin, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, and Christian Laettner (insert eye roll and chuckle here). Head coach Chuck Daly sent out a starting five of Magic, Jordan, Bird, Malone, and Ewing for the gold medal game, however, Barkley and Pippen ended up playing more minutes than Malone (and especially Bird) and would therefore be starters for this game.
Magic versus Kidd. Very similar players. They were both pass-first savants seemingly born to be the point guard on a team full of superstar scoring options. Magic was five inches taller and a better player overall, but by the summer of 1992 he hadn’t played competitive basketball for nearly a year (unless you count the ’92 All-Star game in Orlando, which you shouldn’t) and turned 33 years old during the games. Kidd, on the other hand, was in his absolute prime in 2001 and about to lead the Nets to back-to-back Finals appearances. His shooting was still brutal, though, and Magic was still excellent during his final season in LA. He would also have had a few months to get back in the flow of things before the gold medal game.
Advantage: Magic (slightly)
The most anticipated match-up would be Kobe against MJ. Kobe is the closet thing to Jordan since, well, Jordan, and their style of play, moves, competitive nature, and winning mentality make them mirror images of one other. However, the edge, obviously, still goes to Jordan. Why? Because by this point in each of their respective careers, Jordan was older and a more mature veteran. He was a master at the game and let his preparation do the heavy lifting. With Kobe’s competitive nature, this fight would turn into an “anything you can do, I can do better” situation, but His Royal Airness would have the upper hand in the end.
The battle at small forwards would be an interesting one: “The Truth,” aka Paul Pierce, versus the greatest “Robin” of all time, Scottie Pippen. Pierce, 23, was blossoming into a star in Boston, having averaged over 25 points per game in the 2000-01 season. His biggest issue would be lack of quickness to match Pippen, who at that point was the best perimeter defender in the world. Still, Pierce was a superior offensive player who by that point had proven his ability to score on all types of defenders. At a minimum, he could have kept Pippen out of the lane by drawing him out to the perimeter. During that season, Pierce shot over 38% from the NBA line; he would have been nearly automatic from the international one.
Advantage: Pippen (slightly)
This is where the 2001 team starts to assert its dominance. At power forward, the game would feature Tim Duncan versus Charles Barkley. Is Barkley faster than Duncan? Absolutely. However, Duncan’s positioning, IQ, and height would make it very difficult for Barkley to find any breathing room. There’s a reason why Duncan is named the “Big Fundamental.” Flip to the other end of the floor and Duncan has a tremendous size advantage (a 7-footer over the smaller 6-6 Barkley) and would score at will. He’s the best power forward of all time and would have the edge over Barkley or Malone. Plus, if Barkley was able to give him trouble by being quicker and smaller, it would be easy to replace Duncan with Garnett off the bench, immediately limiting Barkley’s advantage.
Shaq versus Patrick Ewing. Ewing was great, a deserved Hall-of-Famer, but lets be real, he was more known for not being clutch and getting dunked on than for being a beast. Shaq, on the other hand, was at his most dominant in 2001. His huge 7-foot body, 300+ lbs of muscle, and surprisingly quick feet made him a nightmare for anyone to guard. He was exceptional at passing out of the double team or spinning away from it for his patented push shot. With Ewing as the only player over 6’8 on the court, the Dream Team would have been as helpless as any other opponent at stopping this unmovable force. With Jason Kidd throwing entry passes to Shaq, who could then either score, get fouled, or find Pierce or Kobe on the perimeter or Tim Duncan in the high post, this team could score against ANY opponent.
The Sixth Man
For the new school squad, the first guy off the bench would have to be the league’s MVP, Allen Iverson. Although Gary Payton would make the most sense to replace Kidd, throwing AI in the game with Kobe and Shaq would be an unfair advantage. Not only does the team get a player who isn’t afraid to attack the bigs, you get someone who can score at will and change the momentum in a heartbeat.
For the Dream Team, Clyde Drexler would be the perfect sixth man. This would allow Jordan or Pippen to play the point and operate a perimeter-oriented offense with Jordan, Pippen, and Drexler. Iverson would struggle to guard any of them, but on the other hand, none of them could guard him. The challengers could just put him on the guy with the worst outside shot and tell him to play off.
This is where the tide really shifts to the new school.
David Robinson, John Stockton, Larry Bird, Chris Mullin, Christian Laettner, and Karl Malone round out the remaining six spots of the Dream Team’s roster. They would match up against Gary Payton, Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Chris Webber, and Tracy McGrady. The Dream Team obviously has more experience, but are we sure the likes of Bird, Stockton, and Mullin would really want a piece of Payton, Carter, KG, and McGrady?
Stockton may have had a better career, but he wouldn’t have much fun matching up against Payton. Payton may be the greatest one-on-one defender ever among point guards, and would hound the Gonzaga grad up and down the court.
In 1992, Bird was a shell of himself. He had begun his fight with his deteriorating back and could no longer move or play the way he was accustomed to. If Bird were forced to match up against a young, athletic Carter or McGrady, it would be a bloodbath. Sorry Larry, but you’d stand no chance against either of the cousins. The same is true to a lesser degree for Mullin.
These weaknesses never showed up in the 1992 Olympics for obvious reasons, but against this team the depth of the entire roster would be severely tested. Ray Allen coming off the bench to drain open jumpers would be a game changer. KG and Webber were both terrifying in 2001 and would create match-up nightmares coming off the bench. Karl Malone is thought of as the better player for some reason, but a 24-year-old KG would tear him apart up and down the floor. And Webber was one of the six or seven best players in the world in 2001.
Advantage: 2001 Team
The 2001 squad has two major advantages: paint dominance with Shaq, Duncan, Garnett, and Webber, and three-point shooting. Kobe, Ray Allen, Carter, and Pierce were threats when left open, and Iverson and Kidd could knock them down when in the zone.
Depth also matters a lot, especially if the 2001 team (who would be coached by Phil Jackson) was smart enough to roll their substitutes out in waves, à la hockey. By the second half, key players like Jordan, Pippen, and Barkley would be (somewhat) worn down by the frantic, up-and-down pace, while the 2001 team would be rolling younger, insanely athletic players like Carter, McGrady, and Garnett off the bench in waves.
In the end, this theoretical matchup would be very close, and likely to come down to the final shot. The Dream Team would have MJ, but young Kobe would be 100% convinced that he was just as good. That confidence would allow him to hit the winning shot and give the 2001 team a 106-105 win in a game that will sadly never happen.