Tuesday, July 17, 2012

dream on

"It'd be a tough one, but I think we'd pull it out."

and so kobe bryant inflamed an entire generation (or two) of NBA fans when he told reporters that the 2012 US men's olympic team could defeat the '92 squad.  yeah, that 1992 squad.  the dream team.  the team some people refer to as "the greatest team ever assembled, in any sport."

a lot of discussion has ensued, peaking (for me, anyway) with a very interesting story passed around twitter this morning by ESPN blogger's henry abbott.  CNN's shayne lee argues, in effect, that the nature of competitive sports (or even scientists) lends to ever-increasing performance.  lee points to historical moments in figure skating, baseball, and dance to support his point, cementing his argument with the intimation that were joe namath in today's NFL draft, he'd sink right to the bottom of round 5.

lee ignores, of course, that yesterday's players grew up with yesterday's technology, nutrition, and historical knowledge.  it's one thing to say that joltin' joe doesn't get on base today because the quality of players worldwide has increased tremendously, but it's another to suggest that dimaggio would never had been able to hit 100 mph fastballs even had he grown up with them along with everyone else.  in other words, who is to say that steffi graf wouldn't be crushing the williams sisters' asses all over the globe had she risen through the ranks with all of the perks of modern training?

kobe stated himself that his team is at something of a physical disadvantage in the paint, what with the dream team featuring the likes of the admiral (7'1"), the mailman (6'9"), and the beast of the east (7'0").  these three guys are the very best, or at least in the top 4 players, to ever play their positions.  none of the league's prominent big men are on Team USA.  today's team's elite players are all guards and small forwards.  well, i don't know if kobe checked, but the guards and small forwards in barca included, among others, these guys named jordan, magic, stockton, and pippen.

and further, the numbers just don't play out in favor of bryant's brash prediction.  compare the dream team members' 1991-1992 NBA season performance to that of the 2012 crew.

(you'll note i didn't include anthony davis with the current squad.  this was for two reasons: (1) the barcelona team only had 12 players while the london squad has 13; and (2) davis' college numbers probably wouldn't provide a valid comparison against a bunch of NBA vets.  either way you slice it, davis isn't likely to be a major player at the games this summer, a theory supported by his DNP-CD in last night's game against brazil--a game which, in my humble opinion, showcased how wrong kobe really is.)

because the length of the two seasons was different, it's hard to compare some of the stats straight up.  but in terms of the most basic per-game averages, the Dream Team spanks today's clowns all over the court.  each 1992 player averaged 1.6 more rebounds, 1.3 more assists, 0.4 more steals, 0.6 blocks, and (most importantly?) 1.6 more points per game than today's guys did this season.  the average dream teamer also made it to the line almost half a trip more often than 2012ers did.  chuck & friends had higher field goal percentages and took more shots.

the only advantages this year's USA basketball team can claim are at the three-point line, where the average modern player takes more than twice as many shots at a nearly 5% improved efficiency level.  but, as the points per game numbers suggest, this lonely area of superiority doesn't make up for shooting less and poorer overall and from the stripe.

i'd like to postulate as well that lee missed something else that has changed in 20 years that kobe didn't take into account.  the dream teamers wanted to win with whatever team, market or coach they had been given.  in contrast, today's silver-spooned all-stars twist the proverbial nipples of ownership to land bigger and bigger contracts in huge markets along with other elite players.  modern superstars are amazing athletes, but they're too busy trying to buy their way into chemistry instead of making it happen on the court.  disagree?  see the miami heat in the 2011 NBA championships.

i'm not a stats genius (haven't taken it since high school, where i don't remember excelling at it), and these simple numbers obviously don't begin to tell the whole story.  for the record, i'm not sure that kobe was 100% serious when he made his comment.  be that as it may, i take solace in knowing that chuck was likely 100% correct when he responded: "[they] weren't going to beat us.  that's a no-brainer."