July 16, 2012; Washington, DC, USA; United States guard LeBron James (6) drives to the basket with the ball as Brazil guard Alex Garcia (8) and Brazil center Nene (13) defend in the first half at Verizon Center. Team USA won 80-69. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE
Why compare Team USA to a squad from 20 years ago when the 2012 Americans haven't even proven they are as good as the 2008 edition yet?
As is the case every four years, the biggest storyline surrounding the formation of the 2012 Olympic Team has been how it compares to the Dream Team. In reality, the modern version of the Spanish national team is a far more relevant measuring stick.
There's still a talent gap between the United States and the rest of the world, but it's no longer overwhelming. Spain has a front-line with two All-Star 7-footers (Marc and Pau Gasol) -- two more than Team USA has. It has Serge Ibaka, an athletic 6'10, 235-pound big man quickly becoming an All-Star caliber player in his own right, as well as five NBA-caliber guards -- Rudy Fernandez, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro, Sergio Rodriguez and Sergio Llull -- on the perimeter.
It has a rotation seven to eight deep without any glaringly weak players, with Ibaka the only one not comfortable creating his own shot. The Spaniards can all pass and shoot, and while their guards aren't great defensively, they know how to play as a unit and can be protected by the length and athleticism of their frontcourt.
Spain absolutely dominated the European championships in 2011, going 10-1 with a margin of victory of +13.5. Its only loss came in a meaningless game during group play where it was resting Pau Gasol.
They're not quite the juggernaut the Spanish soccer team is, but they share a similar aesthetically pleasing and passing-intensive style of play. Just as Xavi and Iniesta learned the game as teenagers at FC Barcelona's "La Masia" Academy, the core of the Spanish basketball team has grown up together, competing in international competitions for over a decade.
Spain, without a super-athletic 6'8+ small forward type to match up with LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, is an underdog, but it is more than good enough to win one 40-minute game against anyone. Due to Marc Gasol's dramatic improvement over the last four years, it is much better than the 2008 version, which lost to Team USA 118-107 in the gold medal game.
The real question coming into the Olympics is whether the United States is as good as it was in 2008, not 1992. It is smaller and less athletic up front than the group four years ago. It doesn't have anyone with Dwight Howard's size and finishing ability or Chris Bosh's length, shooting touch and athleticism. Kobe Bryant has put four more years and hundreds of NBA games on his body, and none of its guards finish in the paint and make plays as easily as Dwyane Wade did in 2008.
There's no reason to compare them to the Dream Team, except to find them wanting in comparison. Even if we accept that the 1992 team was the most talented group of basketball players ever assembled, why must we be forced to re-affirm its greatness every four years?
The celebration of the Dream Team is a great example of how our culture mythologizes the past at the expense of the present. In a recent edition of Rolling Stone, the magazine ranked the top 500 albums of all-time: 292 of them came out in the 1960s and the 1970s. Apparently, music peaked when the Baby Boomers were coming of age, and everything since has paled in comparison. The same phenomenon is occurring when the Dream Team's players are asked how they would fare against the modern team.
In comparison to evaluating NBA teams between eras, there's far less data to go on in discussing international squads, making it an inherently subjective exercise often shrouded in nostalgia. The Dream Team was never seriously challenged: the best team it faced, Croatia, had only three NBA players -- Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja and Drazen Petrovic -- and no All-Stars.
There's no guarantee the 2012 team wins the gold medal this summer, but LeBron, Durant and Kobe could probably rampage through the other teams at the 1992 Olympics fairly easily. There are plenty of flaws with the BCS, but strength of schedule is a valid thing to take into account when comparing the relative strength of teams.
The Dream Team was undeniably great, but how can we know for a certainty that it would defeat the 1960 team, which featured Jerry West and Oscar Robertson and won by an average of 42.4 points a game? If we're going to note that centers in 1960 only weighed 220-230 pounds, it's fair to point out that LeBron is 30-40 pounds heavier than Jordan. West and Robertson had their time, just as Bird, Magic and Jordan did 20 years ago and LeBron and Durant do now.
There's never been an Olympic basketball field as deep as the 12 teams that will be competing in London in a month, a great development for anyone who is a fan of the game, regardless of whether Team USA ultimately falls short. Why are we insisting on living in the past when there are so many interesting things happening in the present?