Settling the Dream Team debate

Evidence says NBA players haven't gotten much better in 20 years

Originally Published: July 23, 2012
By Neil Paine | Basketball-Reference.com
Michael Jordan and Kobe BryantGetty ImagesHow does the 1992 Dream Team compare to Kobe Bryant's 2012 Olympic team?

A week ago in this space, I used a metric called Advanced Statistical Plus/Minus (ASPM) to rank the talent on every Olympic team the United States has fielded since 1992, the first year that professionals were allowed to participate in the Games under FIBA's bylaws. The team on top of that list wasn't altogether shocking -- the original 1992 Dream Team, probably the greatest basketball team ever assembled, took the crown in the end -- but that's not to say the results had no intriguing aspects.

For starters, the difference in talent between that fabled '92 team and some of Team USA's later incarnations wasn't as huge as you might think. Against an average team of their NBA peers in 1992-93, the Dream Team would be expected to rack up a margin of plus-23.1 points per 100 possessions. That is a huge number (by comparison, the 1996 Bulls' best-ever single-season mark was merely plus-13.4), but not one very far removed from the U.S.'s expected plus-20.5 margin in these 2012 Olympics -- to say nothing of America's plus-22.5 and plus-22.4 talent levels in 1996 and 2008, respectively.

Hypothetically, this means that Kobe Bryant's best squad, 2008's Redeem Team, would have about a 44 percent chance of toppling Michael Jordan and the legends of 1992 in a best-of-seven series on a neutral court. And, as I wrote last week, that number could actually be given a boost by the supposition that the average player in 2012 is better than his 1992-93 counterpart. After all, today's players are certainly stronger, faster and more athletic than players were 20 years ago.

But as it turns out, that assumption is faulty. From a pure basketball production standpoint, it appears the typical NBA player is actually no better in 2012, in an absolute sense, than he was in 1992.


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Neil Paine writes for FiveThirtyEight, the data-supported sports, politics and culture site coming soon from ESPN.