There's a reason they stopped using the Dream Team
Two decades ago, the moniker was a perfect fit - simply sit back and imagine which NBA stars you'd put in your fantasy line-up, then pick up the phone.
It was time.
The NBA was just emerging from a period defined by the Magic/Bird rivalry and entering the Jordan era. From a marketing perspective, the professional game had never been healthier.
The United States had traditionally dominated Olympic basketball, except for that glitch at Munich 1972, when the Russians stunned them in a finish so contrived, the Americans didn't even show up to receive their silver medals.
But the rest of the world was catching up and, in 1988, a team of college stars couldn't even make the final at Seoul, having to stave off Australia for the bronze medals. When FIBA opened the Olympics up to professionals the following year, USA Basketball got serious and began plotting revenge.
The Dream Team would be that payback.
Coached by Detroit Pistons legend Chuck Daly, they simply dominated all challengers at Barcelona, beating their opponents by an average of 44 points on their way to the gold medal. In their closest contest, they accounted for Croatia 117-85 in the final, after trailing briefly in the first quarter.
Two years later, USA Basketball put together Dream Team 2, which featured none of the original cast, but several who had unluckily missed out the first time - Joe Dumars, Reggie Miller, Shaquille O'Neal and Dominique Wilkins. They duly walked away with the FIBA World Championship title.
But as the years went by, the "Dream Team" brand began to look more like Michael Keaton (remember his 1989 movie of the same name?) than Michael Jordan, until it eventually reverted back to simply "Team USA".
Now, on the 20th anniversary of what many still consider the greatest team of all-time in any sport, LA Lakers star Kobe Bryant has had the temerity to suggest his 2012 outfit could beat the legends of the past.
If you've seen the video footage of him making that claim, you sense he's not really convinced. In fact, it seems more like a tongue-in-cheek comment that others have picked up and run with.
But run with it, they have, sparking vigorous debate among hard-core fans around the globe.
There's no way of ever knowing how such a confrontation might end. As original Dream Teamer Larry Bird quipped, "they probably could beat us - I haven't picked up a basketball in 20 years".
But, based on career stats at the time, here's how the two rosters might stack up against each other.
Magic Johnson (LA Lakers) v Chris Paul (LA Clippers)
Johnson - 12 seasons, 1060 games, 19.7 points, 51.6% FG, 28.8% 3pt, 11.5 assists, 7.4 rebounds, 1.94 steals, 0.39 blocks, 3.9 turnovers
Paul - seven season, 519 games, 18.9 points, 47.2% FG, 36.0% 3pt, 9.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 2.39 steals, 0.08 blocks, 2.5 turnovers
Magic was a freakish talent, but he'd already retired after his positive HIV result, so wasn't really at the peak of his powers. His role in the Dream Team was as much goodwill ambassador as player, but he probably played a massive part in bringing this disparate band of egos together as a team. Paul is generally regarded as the best pure point guard in the game today, but just not in the same class as a player or a leader.
Advantage Johnson (1-0)
John Stockton (Utah Jazz) v Deron Williams (Brooklyn Nets)
Stockton - eight seasons, 699 games, 13.3 points, 51.1% FG, 34.9% 3pt, 11.6 assists, 2.6 rebounds, 2.53 steals, 0.2 blocks, 3.0 turnovers
Williams - eight seasons, 550 games, 17.9 points, 45.6% FG, 35.6% 3pt, 9.2 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1.08 steals, 0.25 blocks, 3.2 turnovers
Williams started his career with the Jazz, so he's used to the Stockton comparisons and his failure to measure up probably drove him out of town last year. He's more of a scorer and had two 50-point games last season - one in Turkey and the second against the Charlotte Bobcats. Although Magic got most of the PG minutes with the Dream Team, Stockton is simply the best pure point guard in NBA history and exactly what the Dream Team needed - someone who'd rather pass than shoot.
Advantage Stockton (2-0)
Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls) v Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Jordan - eight seasons, 681 games, 32.6 points, 51.8% FG, 29.4% 3pt, 6.1 assists, 6.3 rebounds, 2.66 steals, 0.95 blocks, 3.1 turnovers
Westbrook - four seasons, 355 games, 19.5 points, 42.9% FG, 29.1% 3pt, 6.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.55 steals, 0.33 blocks, 3.5 turnovers
OK, I know what you're thinking - this isn't a fair match-up - and you're right. It comes about partly because the 2012 Team USA have three point guards on their roster, although many would argue that Westbrook has been played out of position during his short NBA career. But I'm also using Ryder Cup rules here, which means I'm throwing Westbrook in as the sacrificial bunny against the best player ever and saving my ace for a match-up he can win.
Advantage Jordan (3-0)
Clyde Drexler (Portland Trail Blazers) v Kobe Bryant (LA Lakers)
Drexler - nine seasons, 796 games, 21.0 points, 48.4% FG, 28.5% 3pt, 5.9 assists, 6.2 rebounds, 2.14 steals, 0.72 blocks, 2.9 turnovers
Bryant - 16 seasons, 1381 games, 25.4 points, 45.2% FG, 33.6% 3pt, 4.7 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 1.47 steals, 0.53 blocks, 3.0 turnovers
Clyde "the Glide" had the misfortune to play his career in Jordan's shadow and actually has better stats than Kobe in most categories - with three big exceptions. Bryant is a better scorer and in a close game, you absolutely want him to take the last shot. He's a slightly better outside threat on a team short of true shooters and he's won five NBA rings - he's a proven winner. When refuting Bryant's claim that the 2012 US team could beat the Dream Team, Charles Barkley claimed only three of the current line-up could've made the cut 20 years ago. Safe to say Bryant is one of those three.
Advantage Bryant (3-1)
Larry Bird (Boston Celtics) v LeBron James (Miami Heat)
Bird - 12 seasons, 1064 games, 24.1 points, 49.2% FG, 36.9% 3pt, 6.4 assists, 10.1 rebounds, 1.74 steals, 0.85 blocks, 3.1 turnovers
James - nine seasons, 804 games, 27.8 points, 48.1% FG, 32.8% 3pt, 6.9 assists, 7.4 rebounds, 1.73 steals, 0.86 blocks, 3.4 turnovers
You forget how good Bird was until you check his stats and realise that, as a small forward, he averaged double-figure rebounds over his career. Then think about all those deft, slightly awkward-looking highlight plays and consider his outside shooting touch. But he never returned to the NBA after the Barcelona Olympics and his body was disintegrating badly at the end, while LeBron may be at the peak of his powers. The heart says Bird, but the head says LeBron.
Advantage James (3-2)
Scottie Pippen (Chicago Bulls) v Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Pippen - five seasons, 479 games, 15.9 points, 49.3% FG, 27.3% 3pt, 5.0 assists, 6.6 rebounds, 1.95 steals, 1.01 blocks, 2.8 turnovers
Durant - five seasons, 423 games, 26.4 points, 46.8% FG, 36.2% 3pt, 2.9 assists, 6.7 rebounds, 1.21 steals, 0.98 blocks, 3.1 turnovers
I know fans who love Pippen, but he totally lost me when he refused to go in for that last play drawn up for Toni Kukoc a few years later. He also lived in Jordan's shadow and didn't need to be a scorer, just a great complement. His defensive stats were top notch and he actually led the Dream Team in assists at Barcelona. But pound for pound, Durant is and will be a better player (and not a sulker).
Advantage Durant (3-3)
Chris Mullin (Golden State Warriors) v Andre Iguodala (Philadelphia 76ers)
Mullin - seven seasons, 550 games, 18.3 points, 51.7% FG, 33.4% 3pt, 3.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1.76 steals, 0.59 blocks, 2.6 turnovers
Iguodala- eight seasons, 650 games, 15.2 points, 45.8 % FG, 33.1% 3pt, 4.9 assists, 5.8 rebounds, 1.75 steals, 0.50 blocks, 2.4 turnovers
This loomed as an intriguing contest of contrasting styles, with Mullins recognised primarily as a scorer and Iguodala as a long, athletic defender. In truth, Mullins was hard working and versatile within a high-octane Golden State offence, and his defensive stats actually stack up surprisingly well against his rival's. Given his offensive edge, Mullin - the Dream Team's best shooter - gets the nod.
Advantage Mullin (4-3)
Power Forward/Shooting Guard
Christian Laettner (Minnesota Timberwolvesy) v James Harden (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Laettner - no stats (NBA rookie)
Harden - three seasons, 263 games, 12.9 points, 44.4% FG, 36.8% 3pt, 2.6 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 1.11 steals, 0.29 blocks, 1.6 turnovers
A cruel and unusual match-up that perfectly illustrates the different balance of these two teams - the Dream Team was more conventional in its make-up, while the team for London is smaller, and more reliant on versatility and athleticism. Laettner had an outstanding college career with Duke University and is still the only player to start in four consecutive NCAA Final Fours. He went on to have an OK pro career without ever winning a title. Harden's pro career has barely begun, and he's already the NBA's best sixth man and appeared in a final series. He's also the best pure shooter on a team without one.
Advantage Harden (4-4)
Karl Malone (Utah Jazz) v Kevin Love (Minnesota Timberwolves)
Malone - seven seasons, 623 games, 26.1 points, 52.1% FG, 23.3% 3pt, 2.7 assists, 10.9 rebounds, 1.39 steals, 0.72 blocks, 3.3 turnovers
Love - four seasons, 269 games, 17.3 points, 45.7% FG, 37.2% 3pt, 1.9 assists, 12.0 rebounds, 0.63 steals, 0.48 bocks, 1.9 turnovers
Confession time - Malone is my favourite player of all-time and Love is my favourite player in the NBA today. He's the cornerstone of my fantasy teams, rebounds like a man possessed and is the All-Star three-point shooting champion. Love's going to be a great one, maybe even better than "The Mailman" one day, but I just can't do it yet.
Advantage Malone (5-4)
Charles Barkley (Phoenix Suns) v Carmelo Anthony (New York Knicks)
Barkley - eight seasons, 685 games, 23.3 points, 57.1% FG, 23,8% 3pt, 3.8 assists, 11.8 rebounds, 1.65 steals, 0.99 blocks, 3.5 turnovers
Anthony - nine seasons, 700 games, 24.7 points, 45.3% FG, 32.3% 3pt, 3.1 assists, 6.4 rebounds, 1.13 steals, 0.46 blocks, 3.0 turnovers
Another mismatch, but one brought on by the US selectors, who expect small forwards like Anthony, LeBron and Durant to body up against specialist international "bigs". If Melo's motivated, he's one of the better small forwards in the game, but he's also a coach killer. Barkley has a big mouth, but he still has more class than Anthony and was also the Dream Team's leading scorer.
Advantage Barkley (6-4)
David Robinson (San Antonio Spurs) v Tyson Chandler (New York Knicks)
Robinson - three seasons, 256 games, 24.4 points, 54.2% FG, 10.5% 3pt, 2.4 assists, 12.4 rebounds, 1.76 steals, 4.04 blocks, 3.0 turnovers
Chandler - 11 seasons, 782 games, 8.4 points, 57.7% FG, 0.0% 3pt, 0.8 assists, 8.9 rebounds, 0.55 steals, 1.34 blocks, 2.0 turnovers
Believe me, Team USA badly needs Chandler. Truth is they need more like him, because he's their most experienced specialist centre and he'll have his hands full with other quality centres at London. He's there for his defence, but he's nowhere near the same league as "The Admiral", the only surviving member of the losing 1988 team that spawned the Dreamers.
Advantage Robinson (7-4)
Patrick Ewing (New York Knicks) v Anthony Davis (New Orleans Hornets)
Ewing - seven seasons, 558 games, 23.6 points, 52.6% FG, 7.3% 3pt, 2.1 assists, 9.9 rebounds, 1.16 steals, 3.03 blocks, 3.3 turnovers
Davis - no stats (NBA rookie)
Davis (19) is a late replacement for Blake Griffin in Team USA and although there's an obvious fall-off in experience, the presence of a specialist rebounder and shot blocker to back up Chandler is somewhat reassuring. Whether he gets a chance to show the ability that helped University of Kentucky to a national championship and made him the NBA top draft pick is another matter, but I hope he does.
Advantage Ewing (8-4)
So, man for man, the Dream Team prevails, but it's worth
acknowledging that neither team was/is as strong as they could be.
The 2012 line-up is missing injured superstars like Derek Rose,
Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade, and lost a host of other candidates
before the team departed for London.
Twenty years ago, Laettner was selected ahead of O'Neal and while that makes some sense in terms of balance - three specialist centres would have been an unnecessary luxury - Shaq clearly went on to have the more successful NBA career.
Apparently, Jordan only agreed to participate at the Barcelona Olympics if Pistons rival Isiah Thomas was excluded, although his addition would presumably have been at the cost of Stockton, the NBA's future all-time assist leader.
And perhaps the Dreamers might have been better equipped for international basketball if they had a zone-busting outside shooter like Miller, who would go on to become the league's most prolific long-range marksman. History will show they didn't need him.
How will the modern-day version fare against the world's best?
No doubt, Team USA contains fine athletes and very skilful players, but they'll be up against some very experienced teams that have played many years together. They'll be more physical than the NBA, which is still essentially an isolation league where athleticism reigns, and they'll play more zone defence to minimise inside scoring.
If the Americans can turn defence into transition points, they'll be unstoppable, but if it comes down to a half-court grind, they may struggle for lack of true height and bulk.
Expect the United States to take the gold medal, but Spain and Argentina will provide them with stern challenges along the way.