With preliminary events already underway for the Summer Olympics, and wall-to-wall coverage from all over our NBC affiliates, it’s official - London has taken over our lives at 30 Rockefeller Center.
And between the hype, Nike’s campaigning, barbs being traded between contemporary and past players, and Team USA instagramming out pictures of themselves non-stop - basketball has been on my mind. Not just this year’s team, but the teams I grew up watching.
Being a not-so-secret sports nerd, I started looking up the rosters and trying to piece together one ULTIMATE Dream Team by picking and choosing from the pool of U.S. Olympians. This post is the result of that.
Here are the rules: International competition, so it’s a 12 man roster. I get the player in the year from which I choose them - NOT at “their peak.” I have to specify which year for players that have been on multiple teams, i.e., you have to choose between Jason Kidd in 2004 - when he was at his athletic peak, or you can have him in 2008, as the seasoned veteran and the vastly superior shooter. No matter what, I’m choosing the roster based on them having to compete in this year’s Olympics. Make sense? Good. First you get my roster, then you get my explanation.
PG: Magic Johnson, 1992
PG: Gary Payton, 1996
SG: Michael Jordan, 1992
SG: Kobe Bryant, 2008
SF: Grant HIll, 1996
SF: Scottie Pippen, 1992
SF: LeBron James, 2012
SF: Kevin Durant, 2012
PF: Charles Barkley, 1992
PF/C: Tim Duncan, 2004
C: Shaquille O’Neal, 1996
C: Hakeem Olajuwon, 1996
So first thing you’ll notice is that my team - like most Team USA’s - is loaded on the wing. When I put the roster together, initially I was nervous about it. But, the original Dream Team only had two point guards, and two centers. So we’re on solid ground. Magic is a no-brainer. Not necessarily because he’s the best ‘point’ available - but because this team needs a captain. Every story about the original Dream Team talks about how all decisions went through Magic. The historical significance of the 1992 team is part of what got Magic selected then, and it’s what is getting him rostered on my ultimate team as well. I won’t have a team of my dreams without Magic. Payton will play significant minutes and hound the other team’s ball handlers. He’s the greatest defensive point guard in the history of the game, and he’d make a ridiculous change of pace when Magic comes out.
The wings are loaded. I have Michael Jordan in his physical prime, and 2008 Kobe that emerged as the leader of the “Redeem Team.” By ’08, Kobe’s game has gotten craftier, he’s no longer the best athlete on the floor when he plays, but he’s methodical. Jordan in 1992 was one of the only U.S. players that was watching film of his opponents. Plus, he’s the greatest player in history… I’m not sure who starts and who sits, but I know that practice is probably a war zone. The thing is, at their respective ages - they’re both strong enough to play small forward. So theoretically you could play them at the same time. In fact, you’d probably be forced to play them at the same time almost exclusively, or never - and alternate starts. But that’s for my coach, Chuck Daly, to figure out.
From there I chose a slew of Small Forwards that I knew would compliment the ball-dominant 2’s. Scottie Pippen functions as a de-facto backup point guard - and our defensive stopper. I struggled with which year to take him from. By ’96 he was a much better shooter and had rounded his game out. He had an MVP caliber season during Jordan’s brief retirement. But in 1992 he was at his physical peak, and I love the idea of rolling out a Payton/Jordan/Pippen press, and watching them wreak havoc. Grant Hill is probably a surprise to you, but in 1996 he was a regular All-NBA choice, fresh off a 20/7/10 season (look it up), a terrifically underrated defender, and wouldn’t need the ball in his hands on this roster. The perfect complimentary player.
I struggled with “LeBron from 2008” who might be a little more deferential to MJ and Kobe, versus “LeBron from 2012” where he’s clearly an alpha male. In the end, he just had too good a season, and all chemistry aside, I want to put LeBron, Kobe, and Jordan on the floor at the same time, at their respective bests. LeBron established himself as bar-none the best player in the NBA this season, showed a willingness to work out of the post, killer instinct, and still retains the passing ability that would make this team so much fun to watch. Plus he improved his 3-point shooting this year to a career-high 36%, and the one thing my team lacks is shooters. Which is why I put Kevin Durant on my team - for starters, he’s a matchup nightmare. He works well off the ball, and will shoot right over zone defenders. He’s won three straight scoring titles, and while he may not be the pure shooter that Bird, Redd, Mullin, and Shuttlesworth were - he’s still awesome.
My frontcourt may not be terribly deep, but Charles Barkley led the original Dream Team in scoring and rebounding. And the other three? Well, they’re the best three big men of the last 20 years. Shaq was never the defender he should have been, but he’s such a force I’d be crazy to keep him off this roster, he was too physically dominant. Daly can go high-low with Duncan at the elbow. Tim Duncan is the only player from the 2004 team (for obvious reasons), but he’s an all-time great and provides Hall of Fame production at both ends of the floor. I wanted to put ’92 David Robinson on the team, but I went with Hakeem Olajuwon because - for my money - he’s the most skilled center in history. I could play him at power forward with Shaq/Duncan at center, or I could play him at center and run the ball through him. Plus, he should have been on the ’92 Dream Team, but the citizenship process and FIBA held him out.
So that’s my roster, Chuck Daly coaches it, and LeBron, Jordan, and Kobe probably kill each other in a game of “21” after practice. Some of the toughest omissions were the point guards, anyone from Jason Kidd, to Chris Paul, to Stockton could have played on this team. But when you start paring down legends you realize just how small a 12 man team is. I also really wanted to put Iverson on the team, but when I looked at the positional breakdown he just didn’t fit. And with the MJ/LeBron/Kobe bloc, it gets really tough to bring in another ball dominant, shoot-first guard. And finally, it broke my heart not to put Larry Bird on the team. I came up with the concept of this piece by toying with the idea of how I’d validate his place on my team. But when it came down to keeping him and cutting Durant or Hill, I couldn’t do it. Running a team is hard, man.
Anyway, let me know what you think. Does this roster look like yours? Will you, like me, briefly thinking about putting 1956 Bill Russell on the squad? Is Doug Collins your player coach? Does Sue Bird run the point? Somebody tweet at Steve Kornacki (@stevekornacki) and Touré (@Toure) to see if they can do any better.