The ultimate dream: Picking the best team from 25 years of Dream Teams

Our starting five: KD, LeBron, MJ, Magic and the Admiral. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports graphic)

It used to be that every nation competing in the men’s basketball tournament at the Summer Olympics could employ professional players … except the United States. This was mostly fine. U.S. teams staffed by college stars had dominated international play since its inception, winning gold in nine of the first 11 Olympic competitions. (In 1972, Team USA lost a one-point decision to the Soviet Union that remains steeped in controversy; in 1980, the U.S. boycotted the Summer Games.)

In the summer of 1988, though, a team of U.S. college stars fell in the Olympic semifinals to a Soviet squad featuring multiple players — including a couple, Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, who’d later come to the States — who played professionally in Europe. And in April of 1989, the decision-makers at FIBA, the governing body in charge of international basketball, voted to allow NBA players to compete at the Olympics. That meant the United States could deploy its best talent at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, on a team that would change everything.

The “Dream Team” of Magic, Michael and Larry made history and headlines wherever they went, finally winning gold on Aug. 8, 1992. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the greatest team in basketball history,  I decided to engage in some fantasy basketball fun. The task? Cull through every Olympic edition of Team USA going back to 1992 and make the best 12-man roster we could.

The ultimate USA Basketball squad.

A Dream Team of Dream Teams, if you will.

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First, some parameters:

• I only considered the teams that have represented the United States since 1992, the first Summer Games to feature NBA players. Apologies to all pre-Barcelona iterations of Team USA, including the legendary 1960 squad that featured future Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas and Walt Bellamy, which annihilated its opposition by 42.4 points per game en route to gold and was often held up as the greatest basketball team ever assembled … until the Dream Team came along.

(Not that the idea of suiting up against the ’92 squad would’ve had the 1960 team shook. At the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame’s 2010 induction ceremony, West responded to an inquiry about a matchup between the two teams — and to Karl Malone’s insistence that the Dream Team would’ve beaten the old-timers by 20 points, “easy” — by telling me, “Listen, I’ve seen these guys play, and some of ’em don’t scare me, I can tell you that.”)

• For the purposes of this exercise, I only considered the seven U.S. squads that have competed in the Summer Olympics since ’92, and excluding the rosters that played in the FIBA World Championships in 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010, and in the rebranded FIBA Basketball World Cup in 2014. Further apologies to off-year monsters like 1994 Shaq, 2010 KD, 2014 Kyrie and — of course — Brad Miller, who went from undrafted college free agent to Team USA center when the NBA’s labor stoppage kept pro players out of the ’98 World Championship, parlayed a strong showing into an NBA gig, and spent the next 14 years delighting NBA fans. (Most notably my dude Trey Kerby.)

• Players who have made multiple appearances in the red, white and blue can only get one slot. As much fun as it would be to watch 19-, 23- and 27-year-old editions of LeBron occupy the wing, I limited myself to just one version of each player.

• As what was once the stuff of positional revolution has become standard operating procedure in the NBA and global games, the barriers between ones, twos, threes, fours and fives now seem nearly invisible. I’m hewing to tradition for the starting lineup — one center, one power forward, one small forward, one shooting guard, one point guard — but getting a little looser on the bench, with two “bigs,” three “wings” and two more backup ball-handlers.

Without further delay: here is one man’s crack at the greatest team ever assembled.

STARTING FIVE

1992 Magic Johnson, 2016 Kevin Durant, 1996 David Robinson, 2012 LeBron James, 1992 Michael Jordan (Getty Images)

Point guard: 1992 Magic Johnson
Shooting guard: 1992 Michael Jordan
Small forward: 2012 LeBron James
Power forward: 2016 Kevin Durant
Center: 1996 David Robinson

Two-guard, obviously, is as easy as it gets. In the summer of ’92, Jordan had just turned 28, had just led the NBA in scoring for the sixth straight season, had just made the All-NBA and All-Defensive First Teams for the fifth consecutive year, and had just finished off back-to-back regular-season MVP, NBA Finals MVP and NBA championship seasons.

In Barcelona, he was a defensive tone-setter who logged eight steals in each of Team USA’s first two games, including seven in the first half against Croatia as he and Scottie Pippen sliced future teammate Toni Kukoc to ribbons. Late in the tournament, he took the reins of the U.S. offense, leading the scoring in both a semifinal blowout of Lithuania and the gold-medal pasting of Croatia. Reasonable people can debate which year’s M.J. was best of all, but 1992’s model was the best off-guard who’s ever worn a U.S. uniform.

Like ’92 Jordan, 2012 LeBron might not have been quite as breathtaking an athletic marvel as some of his earlier editions. (Remember, the LeBron who suited up for the 2008 Redeem Team in Beijing had just led the NBA in scoring and carried a Cleveland Cavaliers rotation that relied heavily on Boobie Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic to Game 7 against the new Big Three Celtics.) But by the time LeBron got to London in 2012, he was at the peak of his powers — fresh off his third MVP trophy and first championship, the one that justified the move to South Beach — and he played like a man in full possession of his gifts.

Against Australia in the quarterfinals, he logged the first triple-double in U.S. Olympic basketball history. In the nervy final minutes of the gold-medal rematch against Spain, it was his driving dunk and pull-up 3-pointer that pushed the U.S. over the finish line. Throughout the tournament, he acted as a sort of force multiplier, emboldening his teammates to play full tilt without worrying about falling short. What is there to be afraid of when you’ve got the world’s best, most complete safety net to catch you?

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Things were a little different for Durant last summer in Rio. He entered the Olympic fortnight not as the conquering hero, but as a newly minted villain who’d just jumped ship in pursuit of greener pastures and a renewed sense of joy. He’d get there soon enough, but before he took the court in the Bay, he set fire to the floor in Rio, shooting a blistering 58.1 percent from beyond the shortened FIBA 3-point arc in a therapeutic turn at the head of America’s attack.

Durant fell one point shy of the record he set in 2012 for the most points ever scored by an American in an Olympic tournament while taking 11 fewer shots than he had in London, saving his powder for dominant performances in the quarterfinals against Australia and the gold-medal drubbing of Serbia. By the end of his time in Brazil, there was no question which player had become the face of Team USA. By the end of the ensuing season, Durant had added an NBA championship and NBA Finals MVP to the two gold medals in his trophy case.

Center, to be honest, was probably the hardest pick, if only because even the most dominant fives the NBA has ever seen have mostly been complementary pieces on the U.S. national team. Ultimately, I went with Robinson partly in recognition of his superior overall Team USA résumé — the San Antonio Spurs legend still ranks fourth on the all-time U.S. Olympic scoring list, second in rebounds and tops in blocked shots — and partly because he was at his best in the tournament’s biggest moment, scoring 28 points with seven rebounds in leading the U.S. to gold over Serbia & Montenegro.

To me, this particular Robinson was closer to his individual peak as a performer in Atlanta in ’96 than Dream Teammate Patrick Ewing was in 1992, than Hakeem Olajuwon (just past it) and Shaquille O’Neal (not quite there yet) were in 1996, and than Alonzo Mourning in 2000 (plus, I think Peak Admiral was better than Peak Zo). I flirted with 2004 Tim Duncan here, but A) no celebration of U.S. Olympic basketball greatness can or should include the haunted 2004 team and B) Big Fun was technically listed as a power forward back then. Don’t blame me. Blame Larry Brown.

And at point … there’s not especially complicated reasoning here. At age 32 after an HIV diagnosis, Magic Johnson wasn’t what he once was; other point guards at other junctures in their respective careers could lay claim to having been better players when they put on a U.S. uniform than Magic in 1992.

I don’t really care.

When they were allowed to start extending invitations to NBA players, the first official call the USA Basketball’s Olympic selection committee made went to Magic Johnson. As it should have. That team wouldn’t have been the Dream Team without him. Neither would this one.

BENCH

Imagine having this bench at your disposal. (Getty Images)

Bigs: 1992 Charles Barkley, 1996 Shaquille O’Neal
Wings: 1992 Scottie Pippen, 2008 Dwyane Wade, 2012 Carmelo Anthony
Ball-handlers: 1996 Gary Payton, 2008 Chris Paul

It’s an easy trivia question to miss, because His Airness tends to overshadow everything, but Barkley actually led the 1992 Dream Team in scoring, averaging 18 points per game on absurd 71.1 percent shooting. Still at the edge of his athletic prime at 29 years old, Barkley was a rampaging bull in Barcelona, helping ignite Team USA’s transition attack by cleaning the glass (only Ewing and Malone grabbed more rebounds than Chuck’s 33), creating turnovers (21 steals and six blocks in eight games) and filling the lane with authority on the break. Chuck was very nearly my starting power forward, but I decided to go with Durant’s greater defensive versatility and zone-breaking ability to turn FIBA threes into layups.

The only dudes alive who could stop the ’92 version of Sir Charles were on his team, and the rest of the world felt the pain. The same could be said for the ’96 edition of Shaq, who split time at center in Atlanta with Robinson and Olajuwon, and whose unrivaled physicality and unbelievable agility for a 7-foot-1 colossus made him an impossible cover for opposing frontcourts. Consider our rebounding, rim protection, finishing and menacing bases covered.

Podcast: Yahoo’s Dan Devine breaks down his Dream Team of Dream Teamers article

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It’s no great secret that, even in his prime, the 6-foot-9 Magic struggled to defend smaller, quicker point guards. This wouldn’t be too significant of an issue on a team featuring near-prime M.J., Pippen and LeBron, but just in case, let’s add the 1996 version of “The Glove,” who is still the most recent guard to win Defensive Player of the Year honors, and who at that time was coming into his own as a legit 20-point-per-game scorer who also led the ’96 squad in assists. And, for good measure, let’s sprinkle in a 23-year-old, pre-injuries CP3, who had just come off a monster third NBA campaign that saw him lead the league in assists and steals on the way to finishing second in MVP voting, and who would take the reins from graybeard Jason Kidd in Beijing as America’s top point guard. Clamps, buckets, ball-handling wizardry and one of the loudest mouths the game’s ever seen. Sounds like fun.

Picking just three reserve perimeter players from the unbelievable array of talent that’s passed through USA Basketball over the last 25 years was downright brutal. In the end, I chose prime Pippen for his ability to completely defang an opponent’s top gun — again: pray for your man Toni Kukoc — while also serving as a de facto point guard. (More trivia: Scottie led the Dream Team in assists with 47, still a single-Olympics high for any U.S. player in the pro era.) I chose 2008 Wade because he was freaking bionic in China, spending two straight weeks looking like he was shot out of a cannon directly down the throats of overwhelmed opponents.

And, with my last spot, I chose Anthony because I could not in good conscience leave off the most decorated man in USA Basketball history, and because the London version of ‘Melo was responsible for the most impressive individual scoring performance the program has ever seen. There have been better marksmen to suit up for the U.S., but if I have to have one designated catch-and-shoot target, I’m going with 2012 ‘Melo.

HEAD COACH

Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly was the leader of the first Dream Team. (AP)

1992 bench boss and Detroit Pistons legend Chuck Daly

Yes, Mike Krzyzewski has been the most decorated head coach of the Dream Team era, leading Team USA to gold in every international tournament in which it’s competed since 2007, including Olympic gold in Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro. But call me sentimental: I’m going with the guy who did it first, the smooth yet somehow unassuming architect of the Jordan Rules and back-to-back NBA championships, and the one who solved what the great Jack McCallum called in his definitive book on the ’92 squad the “chemical mystery” of how to get the greatest collection of superstar talent the sport had ever seen pulling in the same direction.

“The feeling now is, anyone could’ve coached that team to the gold medal,” P.J. Carlesimo, an assistant on the ’92 team, told McCallum. “In fact, I’m not sure anyone but Chuck could’ve done it.”

TOUGHEST OMISSIONS

As it turns out, when you pick 12 players from a list of 84 who have combined for 364 NBA All-Star appearances, 56 championships and 19 Most Valuable Player awards, you’re going to leave some pretty good dudes on the cutting room floor. The ones that hurt me the most:

Ewing. My favorite player growing up as a New York Knicks fan in Brooklyn and Staten Island. (My brother John is going to kill me.) I just think ’96 Robinson was a little better, and ’96 Shaq was a force of nature. May the angry and vengeful God that made me a Knicks fan forgive me. (Or, y’know, just keep punishing me. Like I’d be able to tell the difference.)

Malone. “The Mailman” was an absolute monster in both 1992 and 1996, but Barkley performed better on the actual Dream Team and with plenty of rebounders and no shortage of creators, I’d rather have Durant’s shooting.

2000 Vince Carter. I am waiting to hear back from my attorney, because I fear that not including the author of the greatest in-game dunk of all time might be treason. But Pippen was more versatile, Wade more overwhelming over the full fortnight, and Anthony ultimately more decorated while slotting in at three and four.

Kidd. On the short list of the greatest point guards of all time, but he wasn’t quite at his peak when he won gold in Sydney in 2000 and he was past it and in more of a veteran mentor role in Beijing. (If he’d played in 2004, things might’ve gone a little differently in Athens.)

2008 Kobe Bryant. I believe Wade was better top to bottom in Beijing, but when the U.S. finally faced a challenge in the gold medal game against Spain and found its redemption in doubt, there was no question who the Americans looked toward for salvation, and he delivered. Those practice sessions with ’92 M.J. would’ve been pretty fun to watch. Alas.

Anyway, that’s my 12. What’s yours? Let me know via Twitter or email.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!