Is the Dream Team about to Become a Nightmare Again?

What if the rest of the world of isn’t actually catching up? What if USA Basketball is just slowly getting worse?

The 1988 Olympics in Seoul ended in disappointment for Team USA. Despite being led by college stars Danny Manning and David Robinson and legendary coach John Thompson, Team USA failed in its quest for gold, losing by 6 to USSR in the semifinal and taking home a disappointing bronze.

How could a loaded team like that lose to other Olympic amateurs? By not playing against them, as it turns out. Professionals were not allowed to compete in the Olympics, but teams like the Soviet Union listed their guys as policemen and soldiers even though stars like Arvydas Sabonis had been drafted by the NBA and playing professional international ball for years.

Outraged by its first non-gold basketball finish since the 1972 disaster, U.S. officials struck back quickly and led the charge to allow professionals to play at the Olympics. They pushed the vote through that would allow for the creation of the Dream Team four years later and a return to gold and glory.

… Except that wasn’t the case at all.

Actually the U.S. was very hesitant to consider the idea of sending its professional basketball players to the Olympics. It was complicated.

NBA teams surely wouldn’t want to risk sending their high-priced superstars to another country and risking injured or devalued assets. And why would the players themselves want to go play with everything to lose and nothing but a gold medal to gain? There would never be appropriate financial compensation for the players or coaches. Surely the top stars would choose rest or other things and the U.S. would end up sending amateurs anyhow.

The U.S. ultimately voted against allowing pros to play Olympic basketball, but the vote went through anyway. Officials never would have believed that something like the Dream Team would come together with superstars Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird dominating on the world stage and taking the sport to another level internationally.

The success of the ‘92 Dream Team reestablished the prominence of Olympic basketball once again. Every star wanted to play on the Dream Team and most would jump at the opportunity. The ‘96 U.S. team was almost as dominant, maybe even deeper all around. Team USA won gold again in ‘96 and again in 2000, but slowly the luster was beginning to wear off.

By the turn of the century, professional Olympic basketball was no longer new and exciting. It was an expectation now, something the country demanded of its top stars even after a grueling 82-game season and long playoff runs deep into June. And no matter what, the pros knew they’d never live up to the glory of the initial Dream Team.

By 2000, some of the stars began turning down the chance to compete at the Olympics. Kobe Bryant was one of the first big names to decline. Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone had already won gold and chose to stay home too. The U.S. had to reach further into the talent pool but never feared. After all, basketball has always been an American sport and a gold medal at the Olympics was practically a natural born right.

Yes the U.S. had survived a missed Šarūnas Jasikevičius buzzer beater against Lithuania in those ‘00 Olympics that would’ve led to an embarrassing defeat, and sure France kept it to just 10 points in the final, but no worries. A win is a win, and Team USA were winners again.

A win is a win, and Team USA were winners again.

That all changed at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Never has the U.S. basketball team been more disappointing. It started with a loss in the opener against Puerto Rico. And not just a loss — an embarrassing 19-point defeat. And not one of those losses inflated by a bunch of free throws in an otherwise close game. The U.S. was outscored 28–7 in the second quarter and had almost as many turnovers (22) as field goals (26), shooting an atrocious 3/24 from behind the arc. It was the first Olympic loss ever by a pro U.S. team.

The U.S. entered the ‘04 Olympics with a sterling record of 109 wins and just 2 losses. They would leave with 3 losses at these games alone.

The Americans lost another group game to Lithuania and then lost to Argentina in the semifinals before winning a bronze metal game. In 8 games that Olympics, Team USA won by more than 10 points just one time. It was a team of individuals, with Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson leading a poor charge. The team lacked shooting and it lacked leadership, both on the court and off with Larry Brown struggling to connect as head coach. The U.S. had gotten overconfident and the rest of the world had finally caught up.

Outraged — but actually, this time — U.S. officials reacted strongly to make sure we would never again suffer such an embarrassment on the world stage. With Jerry Colangelo in charge of putting together a team effort and Mike Krzyzewski leading a team of top coaches, the U.S. reloaded.

The Redeem Team led by Kobe Bryant and LeBron James cruised to gold in 2008, winning by almost 28 points a game. In 2012, the U.S. dominated again en route to yet another gold.

Since the ‘04 disaster, Team USA has not lost again at the Olympics. The feeling of overwhelming pride and inevitability is back. The U.S. has righted its ship and has not lost again. The Americans are overwhelming favorites for gold in Brazil, and Team USA has solved its woes for good.

… But what if we haven’t?

The ‘92 Dream Team was loaded. All 5 First Team NBA players made the trip, along with 4 of the 5 on the Second Team. The three others? Magic and Bird, actually — and of course Christian Laettner, who was the college player of the year and one of the greatest collegiate basketball players ever. Stars like Isiah Thomas and Dominique Wilkins couldn’t get the call-up. It was the best team the U.S. could put together.

The ‘96 team couldn’t match the star power of the Dream Team with Magic and Bird retired and MJ opting out after his first year back off retirement, but the team represented an even better slice of the NBA. The team was made of 4 of the 5 First Team NBA players that year, 4 Second Team, and 4 Third Team — every Olympian rated among the top 15 NBA players that year. Only the inclusion of Jordan or maybe Shawn Kemp could have improved the team.

Though the losses wouldn’t come until 2004, the cracks began to appear in the team makeup of the 2000 squad. For the first time ever 2 First Teamers sat out the Olympics, and just 1 Second Team and 1 Third Team player joined. For a number of reasons, the U.S. was missing 10 of its top 15 NBA players from that year.

No Shaq or Duncan, no Kobe or Iverson or Malone, no Grant Hill or CWebb or Admiral. Instead the team was filled with back-end of the All Star roster guys like Steve Smith and Allan Houston, like Vin Baker and Shareef Abdur-Rahim — some of the worst professionals ever to don the red, white, and blue.

That 2000 U.S. team did still win gold behind an epic Vince Carter dunk, but the cracks were starting to show. What seemed like a fluke near loss to Lithuania and a close call to France in the final perhaps should have been taken more seriously. The U.S. had sent its B team to the Olympics and had nearly paid the ultimate price.

The 2004 Olympic roster was the biggest talent dearth yet. Just one player from the First Team suited up that summer while Kobe, KG, Shaq, and Kidd stayed home. As for the Second and Third Teams? Not a single player from either. Tim Duncan was the only top 15 NBA player that season to play for the U.S. at the Olympics.

Twelve players turned down the opportunity to play for the Olympic team that year. On top of that, 3 of the top 15 players that season were Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, and Peja Stojakovic — guys playing for other countries as the game expanded internationally.

Instead the U.S. surrounded Duncan with a couple past-their-prime guards and a flock of youth. Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson were the me-first guards, despite both having a history of problems with head coach Larry Brown, and 6 of the 12 players chosen had played two or fewer years of pro ball. LeBron, Wade, and Melo are great now but had just finished long rookie years, and Emeka Okafor had just graduated from UConn.

Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising then that Team USA fell apart at those 2004 Olympics. Were there Larry Brown problems and leadership issues? Sure. Were other countries getting better? Of course — but those same other countries had been dominated by the U.S. in qualifying just a year prior.

The truth is much less complicated. The truth is that the 2004 U.S. team just wasn’t good enough.

The truth is much less complicated. The truth is that the 2004 U.S. team just wasn’t good enough.

This wasn’t our A team, and it wasn’t our B or C team either. It was more like our F team as it turned out — both by performance and by virtue of being about the 6th set of candidates for the job.

To get a sense of the level of talent sent to the Olympics that summer, let’s translate the ‘04 squad to 2016.

  • First we start with the MVP runner-up that year, the quiet but dominating Spurs defensive star — Kawhi Leonard will play the part just fine.
  • LeBron, Wade, and Melo were 3 highly regarded rookies from that season, top five picks from a loaded draft the year before. We’ll put Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, and Jahlil Okafor on this team. They’re not all eligible to play for Team USA of course, but just go with it.
  • Ah but at least we get Ben Simmons in the Emeka Okafor spot, right? Nope. Okafor wasn’t the stud #1 draft talent that year — that was Dwight Howard, a much younger player. We get the best college senior, the guy that led his team to a big Final Four run. We get Buddy Hield.
  • Two others were sophomores. Amar’e was the previous Rookie of the Year and Boozer had received a solitary vote the year before. We’ll replace them with Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Clarkson. We’ll also replace #6 most improved player Lamar Odom with a similarly versatile and recently improved sixth man, Will Barton.
  • Richard Jefferson was an athletic wing in the top 20 of most counting stats that year — we’ll call him DeMar DeRozan. Shawn Marion was an underappreciated defender and top rebounder. We’ll go with Paul Millsap.
  • Ah, but we still have Iverson and Marbury, they were great right? Iverson won MVP 3 years before but hadn’t been in the top 5 since, an inefficient veteran that shot too much. He’s Derrick Rose. And Marbury led the league in assists but was not a good team leader and had just switched to a more public team before those Olympics. He’s Rajon Rondo.

So that’s our new 2004-ized version of an Olympics team, with Rose and Rondo starting in the back court along with Kawhi, Millsap, and Okafor. Off the bench we’ve got DDR, KAT, Porzingis, Wiggins, Buddy, Barton, and Clarkson. And remember, our coach doesn’t get along with Rose or Rondo and isn’t exactly known for playing nice with young guys.

So you tell me — is that team winning gold in Brazil this summer?

Are you sure?

The popular narrative is that the U.S. made a litany of changes to fix the 2004 problems and get things right again in ‘08 and beyond. Coach K solved the coaching issues, and instead of a committee that just selected lots of good players, Colangelo was carefully selecting guys that fit the team.

In 2008 he chose three non-stars to fit specific roles — 35-year-old Jason Kidd the veteran, Michael Redd the shooter, and Tayshaun Prince the defensive glue guy. In 2012 Tyson Chandler was the defensive stopper and Andre Iguodala was the veteran who did a bit of everything. As narrative would have it, the team-oriented U.S. squads rolled to two more gold medals.

But what if it wasn’t magical team chemistry and a new coach that propelled the U.S. back to gold? What if it was just better players?

In ‘08 the U.S. took 4 of the 5 First Team players to Beijing, with only KG sitting out. Six of 11 eligible All NBA players (Dirk, Yao, Manu, and Parker committed to other countries) competed, guys like LeBron and CP3 and, at last, Kobe Bryant. Those players were joined by the matured 2003 draft stars Melo, Wade, and Bosh. Veterans and glue guys weren’t needed anymore — the superstars dominated.

2012 again saw 4 of the 5 First Teamers head to the Olympics, with 4 more from the Second and Third Team in London too. Again the U.S. was loaded with talent like it had been in the ‘90s, and the Americans rolled.

And again, the pressure has begun to mount. Only a gold medal is good enough again, and much like Brazilian soccer, the U.S. players know they have to win pretty and win big. Anything less than highlights and domination is not acceptable.

Suddenly Olympic basketball has again shifted from a privilege and an honor to more of an obligation and a worry.

And so here we are in 2016. Team USA is a heavy Olympic favorite — just like it was in 1988 and 2004 — and has steamrolled opponents in its pre-Olympic tour. But some of the old problems have begun to rear their heads. The shooting has been hit or miss, including an abysmal 26% field goal half against Venezuela a week ago, and a handful of the players don’t seem to fit the international style.

And most importantly — as always — the talent pool has started to dip again.

The 2016 team will feature just one player from this year’s First Team All NBA and that player is DeAndre Jordan, First Team only because of an archaic rule that enforces a center selection. LeBron, Steph, Kawhi, and Russ all chose to stay home — so too did CP3 and Dame from the Second Team. The U.S. is missing its top 4 guards and its best two all-around players.

The team is still good of course. Though only one First Team guy is in Rio, six All NBA players will join him. Like 2000, the team should be talented enough to get by, but the cracks are starting to show. Guys like Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan, and Kyle Lowry are those very-good-but-not-great stars that started to populate the early 2000s Olympic rosters, and that’s not even mentioning the bizarre inclusion of Harrison Barnes.

The U.S. could struggle to put away a top opponent like France or Spain, and don’t be surprised if a cagey veteran team like Serbia, Lithuania, or Argentina puts a real scare into the team. If Team USA stays healthy, it should still win with relative ease. But injuries especially to Kyrie Irving or Draymond Green, both of whom have no strong-fitting replacement, could cause trouble.

The bigger problem may be four years down the line in Tokyo. Only 3 players on this current squad will still be under 30 then — and two of them are Boogie and Barnes, hardly locks to repeat. It’s entirely possible that Kyrie Irving could be the only repeat Olympian. Veterans like LeBron, Melo, and CP3 will surely be out, and even the next generation of Steph, Durant, and Russ will all be in their 30s and may choose to rest. The superstars have gotten bored with the Olympics again, and the problems run even deeper.

Like the early 2000s, there are other reasons NBA superstars may choose to skip the Olympics besides just R&R. You’ve heard about Zika and all of the other concerns this summer, and politics are beginning to play a bigger role on the international stage again. As in the post 9/11 world, world security concerns are mounting and it no longer feels as safe for stars to go abroad.

And like in the early 2000s, the game is moving in an international direction. This year’s top pick Ben Simmons is Australian, and last year’s #1 Towns is committed to the Dominican Republic. Young superstar candidates like Andrew Wiggins, Kristaps Porzingis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo will all suit up for other countries. Three of the top four players from the last three drafts are international, and as many as 10 of the top 20 when you include talents like Mudiay, Murray, Jokic, Thon, Dragan, Saric, and Embiid.

The top end of the U.S. talent pool is no longer quite as deep. The superstars are still just as super, but if they turn down the invite, there are not quite as many star options to fall back on.

Soon we may be stuck again choosing the Vin Bakers and Steve Smiths of the world. We may find international opponents edging closer as the gap narrows further and further, and we may again cede our ability to dominate world competition with our third- and fourth-string choices.

If the U.S. isn’t careful, we may soon find ourselves digging the same competitive Olympic hole we once dug in 2000 and 2004.

We might already have.

If you enjoyed this, please recommend it by clicking the so others can enjoy it too. Follow Brandon on Medium or @wheatonbrando for more sports, humor, pop culture, and life musings. Visit the rest of Brandon’s writing archives here.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Brandon Anderson’s story.