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June 14, 2012
Quantifying a Dream
The Dream Team in Context

by Kevin Pelton


Consider this the summer of Dream Team nostalgia. Some two decades after FIBA first cleared the way for NBA players to participate in the Olympics, and leading up to the USA Basketball National Team going for its fifth gold medal in the last six Olympics starting next month in London, its time to reminisce about the group of Hall of Famers that united to vanquish opponents at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The process began in earnest with Lang Whitaker's oral history for GQ earlier this week, continued with Wednesday night's premier of the Dream Team documentary on NBA TV and will also be highlighted by Jack McCallum's forthcoming book, Dream Team.

The consensus of the various Dream Team histories is simple: there has never been and will never be as much talent assembled on a single team. Let's try to quantify that statement, using Basketball Prospectus' WARP rating system. Here's what the Dream Team looks like statistically, in terms of performance in the 1991-92 NBA season leading up to the Olympics and career WARP:

Player               Win%    WARP  Career
Magic Johnson*       .792    22.1    228
John Stockton        .770    21.9    302
Michael Jordan       .752    21.4    264
Clyde Drexler        .744    18.5    196
Chris Mullin         .590    11.8    108
Larry Bird           .666     8.5    209
Karl Malone          .698    17.7    285
Charles Barkley      .733    18.8    261
Patrick Ewing        .677    16.9    169
David Robinson       .793    19.9    247
Scottie Pippen       .681    17.2    174
Christian Laettner^  .541     6.9     59
Total                .702   201.6   2503

* 1990-91 statistics
^ 1992-93 statistics

Within the WARP era, which begins with Bird and Johnson in 1979-80, the Dream Team included the No. 1 (Stockton), No. 2 (Malone), No. 5 (Jordan), No. 6 (Barkley), No. 9 (Robinson), No. 11 (Johnson), No. 12 (Bird) and No. 14 (Drexler) players. That's eight of the top 15, plus another top 25 player in Pippen. Outside of Laettner, the lone collegian and only member of the Dream Team not to make the Hall of Fame on his own (he was inducted with the entire team in 2010), the low man in the group is Mullin, who rates merely as the 58th-best player of the last three decades.

Remarkably, this actually understates the case to some extent. Stockton and Malone racked up their impressive WARP totals largely by dint of longevity, which many of their Dream Team peers were unable to match due to injury or outside circumstances. When I used SCHOENE to fill in the gaps in Jordan's career, he easily outdistanced them to become the all-time leader; a similar analysis showed that Johnson could have surpassed 300 career WARP if not for his forced retirement after contracting HIV. Consider Bird's back woes and the two years Robinson spent serving in the Navy after his graduation from college and we're looking at another couple hundred wins among the group.

The most natural point of comparison for the Dream Team is their USA National Team successors. I've compiled the rosters for every U.S. team featuring NBA players since 1992, expanding the table I put together in advance of the 2008 Olympics, and the numbers tell a fascinating story of the evolution of the USA Basketball program.

Year    Win%     WARP   Career    Adj
1992    .702    201.6    2503    45104
1994    .622    130.6    1361    17626
1996    .683    188.7    2419    39082
1999    .577    110.7    1425    21081
2000    .595    126.8    1503    20021
2002    .594    127.9    1135    14708
2003    .638    136.8    1428    21889
2004    .578    109.9    1336    14040
2006    .615    148.1    1151    16538
2007    .614    135.3    1295    18140
2008    .641    157.2    1378    21208
2010    .561     92.2     633     5692

To the statistics from the previous season and career numbers, I've added an adjusted figure that multiplies career WARP by WARP the previous season to give a balanced perspective on the biggest stars possible--players with terrific careers who also happened to be near their peak.

The Dream Team's closest competitor would have to be Dream Team III, the group that won gold on home soil at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. While it lacked the historical significance of the first Dream Team, and players like Bird, Jordan and Johnson, 1996 featured five Hall of Fame holdovers from 1992 plus Reggie Miller, Hakeem Olajuwon and two more players likely to be inducted when eligible (Shaquille O'Neal and Gary Payton).

Dream Team III had two advantages over the original squad. First, it was slightly deeper. The weakest member of the group was either Penny Hardaway, a star at the time whose career was cut short by injury, or Mitch Richmond, a solid but not Hall of Fame-caliber player who was considered the third-best shooting guard in the NBA in the 1990s. There's not a Laettner in the group. Second, Dream Team III featured the best group of centers ever assembled, with Olajuwon and O'Neal joining Robinson. Olajuwon was ineligible for the original Dream Team because he had yet to gain his American citizenship, while O'Neal was famously passed over for the collegian spot in 1992 in favor of Laettner, a decision that has not aged well.

Historically, the USA has sent weaker groups to non-Olympic tournaments, including the World Championships. The exception was the 2004 Olympics, at the time the weakest group of talent assembled in terms of performance the previous season. After the U.S. dominated the 2003 FIBA Americas Championship, several key players pulled their names out of consideration for the Olympics, leaving the USA with an inferior roster. As much as USA Basketball's commitment to continuity under Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski has helped, as evidenced by a relatively poor-performing 2010 team winning the World Championship, the biggest difference from 2004 to 2008 was the quality of the talent on the roster--the best since 1996. As the players on the 2008 team continue to build their resumes, it will only look better historically.

Here's one stab at a possible 12-player roster for London and statistics:

Player               Win%    WARP  Career
Chris Paul           .740    18.2    123
Kobe Bryant          .576     9.2    203
LeBron James         .808    23.5    191
Kevin Durant         .706    19.0     60
Tyson Chandler       .595     9.5     51
Russell Westbrook    .631    12.9     39
Dwyane Wade          .720    12.7    133
Carmelo Anthony      .591     8.4     64
Chris Bosh           .536     6.1     81
Kevin Love           .718    16.7     47
Deron Williams       .604     9.6     68
Anthony Davis          -      -        0
Total                .659   145.7   1059

In terms of WARP the previous season, this group is closer to 2006 than 2008, but the collective winning percentage would actually be the best since 1996. In Bryant, Durant, James, Love and Paul, the USA will have five of the top six finishers in MVP voting. And this group could have been even stronger with Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose healthy.

Nonetheless, any suggestion that the 2012 group could best the 1992 group is hyperbole at best. The numbers do indicate a team that might have been slightly stronger. Using the previous adjusted WARP score shows that the league's golden generation actually peaked a little earlier than 1992--1990, to be exact. If we imagine that FIBA had pushed the rule change slightly earlier, and that USA Basketball had ignored the marketing potential of the Olympics, the original Dream Team could have debuted at the FIBA World Championship in Argentina, won by Yugoslavia with U.S. collegians finishing third.

In my hypothetical scenario, Isiah Thomas--fresh off his second championship with the Detroit Pistons--was too good to leave off the roster, regardless of his issues with the rest of the Dream Team. He bumps Scottie Pippen, who had only just started to establish himself as an All-Star. Given that none of the top collegians would have slid happily into a 12th man role, my imaginary committee took Kevin McHale for the last spot on this roster:

Player               Win%    WARP  Career
Magic Johnson        .811    23.8    228
John Stockton        .777    21.5    302
Michael Jordan       .813    25.9    264
Clyde Drexler        .691    15.0    196
Chris Mullin         .680    15.2    108
Larry Bird           .665    14.9    209
Karl Malone          .733    20.2    285
Charles Barkley      .773    22.5    261
Patrick Ewing        .716    19.3    169
David Robinson       .787    22.8    247
Isiah Thomas         .603    11.2    129
Kevin McHale         .628    11.6    108
Total                .725   223.8   2506

While this group adds little in terms of career WARP, it puts many of the stars closer to their primes. Led by Jordan, an incredible six of the 12 players surpassed the 20-WARP mark in 1989-90, as compared to just two Dream Teamers during the 1991-92 campaign. Might this team, with a healthier Bird, have surpassed the 1992 group? We can only daydream about the result.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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