by Tyler Collison

In the honeymoon period of what was unarguably the greatest single-game performance in Olympics history, the engine driving the debate of who would win a head-to-head matchup between the United States’ two “Dream Teams” — those of 1992 and 2012 — has received an oil change.

But before I get too far into things, it’s important to note a few key factors in the irrelevance of this hypothetical showdown:

  1. It will never happen. Even if somehow all scientific minds found a way to do a clean hand-to-hand from their God particle research to an unfeasibly-hastened time travel machine, there’s no way you could get the whole ’92 squad to make the jump. I’m sure John Stockton misses those thigh-high shorts (I know I do), but when he retired, he retired, and he’s been invisible to the media ever since. I don’t see a guy like him becoming his thirty-year-old self again just so he can prove a pretty moot point.
  2. … Which reminds me: high school debate teams the world over must have scoffed when they caught wind of this. They could tell you that the skeleton of any debate is comprised of the facts and all their marrow. There are no concrete facts in a speculative debate of this nature; it’s just a gaggle of gooey muscles. But don’t tell that to the burnout who’s on the team because it was either that or detention; this is the only assignment he’s psyched on.
  3. These days, we only call the United States’ men’s basketball Olympic representatives “Dream Teams” because it was made popular by the 1992 team — and it still seems like a dream that they even came together. It was the single most unimaginable collection of basketball talent the world has ever seen. All of them either are in or will be in the Basketball Hall of Fame (Christian Laettner is questionable, but he’s in the College HOF). This 2012 team, on the other hand, has several players who were second or third options and only made their way on the team due to injuries suffered by those better than them. Were Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, and Magic Johnson backups? Only if you’re somehow allergic to talent. No, on paper, the 2012 team is more like one of those dreams you struggle to recollect the next morning.

But above all those factors, what makes this debate (which, by the way, was fueled by the egos that be) so irrelevant is the significantly shifted landscape of the league. Talent has evolved, and with it the landscape of basketball the world over.

Quite simply, the game done changed.

In 1992, basketball was a game of parts. There were five positions on the court, and each spot was filled by a player whose resume noted that position as their specialty. David Robinson was a center, so he would play center. And in the case of fatigue or foul trouble, teams filled their benches evenly with backups for each position. The 1992 Dream Team had two point guards, two shooting guards, three small forwards, three power forwards, and two centers. Sounds simple, right?

Well, fast-forward twenty years, and take a look at the roster for these London Olympics. It contains five guards, one guard/forward, three forwards, two forward/centers, and one center.

Whoa, wait a minute. So what happened?

Natural selection. If you want to survive in today’s NBA, the key is versatility1: the skills and physique to man multiple positions. If you’re a 6’6” shooting guard and you want some extra playing time, you’d better be able to rebound like a forward. If you’re a point guard, you’ll find it tough to earn consideration among the league’s best if you can’t shoot like a shooting guard. And so on.

This all adds to the lack of feasibility in a hypothetical 1992 vs. 2012 matchup because, with the way the game has evolved, the only real way to compare the two teams is on a position-by-position basis. But how do you truly do that if there’s no sub-positions in 2012?

For instance, considering their NBA backgrounds, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Russell Westbrook are regarded as point guards. However, in the United States’ Olympic group-stage match against Lithuania, one lineup contained those three players at the same time. Likewise, in the exhibitions leading up to the Games, Kevin Durant (known as a “small forward”) saw time as the team’s center. In 1992, could Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, or Chris Mullin ever be the rim’s primary defender? Highly, highly doubtful.

So, if you can’t hold the rosters up side by side, it would seem the only point of comparison is how they fared, right?

Well, that whole “natural selection” thing didn’t just happen in the United States. In 1992, if you were a non-U.S. country and had any amount of NBA representation, you were nearly guaranteed to be in medal contention. Croatia, that year’s silver-medal team, had three such players, while the bronze-medal squad, Lithuania, had two. Beyond those teams, you’d be hard-pressed to find many ballers with the confidence to come face to face with Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan2.

Expectedly, the United States won every game they played together by at least thirty points.

The NBA has long since scattered its superstar dust all over the globe. Excepting Tunisia, four of the five teams in Team USA’s 2012 group in the London Olympics contained at least three players who have at some point graced the world’s preeminent hardwood. Spain, who the U.S. played in this year’s final, boasted six NBA players.

Like the 1992 team, 2012’s crew did not lose, yet with each game’s close (five-point win over Lithuania) or distant (83-point shellacking of the Nigerians) outcome, the most recent undebatable debate found a few new flickering embers.

And why is that, exactly? The answer’s as invisible as any hard evidence, but good things have undoubtedly resulted from all the banter: NBA fandom has extended to fanaticism, and though the media beat something like this to death, it is all but guaranteed to do wonders for the ever-changing landscape of the league.

That media deserve credit for catalyzing the aforementioned globalization of the game of basketball. Practically anyone in the world can turn on an NBA game and marvel at the league’s superior talents, and there’s no doubt that in these Olympics, boys watching in Asia and America alike are brimming with inspiration as Team USA rips through team after team. Some of them, as Nike emphasized, may even strive for success because of it.

So these foolish debates may be bled dry, their every angle explored and quotes from all parties doctored, but it ultimately makes it more appealing, for fans both American and otherwise. The pressure in the United States forces these men to be their best, while reading about it in other countries brings parity: Teams have steadily increased their superstar cores (which have grown due to such parity in their development) over the years, if for nothing else but to counter the comprehensive resume Team USA will put on the floor.

After all, if these debates have proven anything, it’s that a bull’s-eye comes complimentary with being the best.

1 An important caveat here is that the ’92 squad had Magic Johnson, one of the most versatile players in league history. In one playoff game, he played all five positions. But as one player casts less of a shadow than the majority of the 2012 team, Magic’s merely an outlier here.

2 Longest anyone’s ever spoken about the Dream Team before mentioning “His Airness”?

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