We had a look at the ’92 vs ‘07 duel at the guard positions in Part I. Time to move on to the forwards…
If I’m being lenient I’m putting Bird, Pippen, Mullin, Laettner, Melo, Lebron and Tayshaun all in this category. But Melo starts at the 4 for the Dream Team so he’s out, Mullin has already been nullified by Mike Miller, and I’m not seriously going to talk about Laettner in this article. So it’s Bird and Pippen vs Lebron and Tayshaun. Now here’s the thing. If we’re talking about Bird and Pippen in their prime, then as phenomenal as Mr. James is, the ’07 USA Team gets absolutely spanked in this category. But we’re talking about the ’92 Dream Team here, and in 1992 everyone could plainly see that Larry Bird was not in his prime (you could also argue Scottie hadn’t yet reached his peak yet). The 1992 Larry Bird was an aging man with severe back pain, who played very little minutes in the Olympics and had to spend most of his time lying down. This was not the mid-eighties triple-MVP winning Larry Bird who was one of the most complete players the league had ever seen. This was a guy whose basketball brain was still as sharp as anyone’s, yet whose ability to dominate had dwindled over the previous few seasons (he retired after the ’92 Olympics). And this is a good thing for the ’07 team, because it evens out the small forward duel and gives Lebron and Tayshaun a chance. How much of a chance?
A very good chance. With Bird reduced to an immobile, spot-up shooting role, Lebron and Tayshaun’s athleticism and versatility is their big edge. They are both players who can put the ball on the floor, shoot from the outside, explode to the hoop, or score from the post (more so for Prince than James). It would be a nightmare match up for any team, but of course the 1992 Dream Team has the best perimeter defender of all-time in Scottie Pippen. I love Scottie Pippen. I don’t know if it’s possible for a player to win six championships, be named to ten All-Defensive Teams, and still be underrated, but Scottie Pippen somehow is. He’ll never get put in the same echelon as Michael Jordan, despite Michael himself saying “there were a lot of times on the court I felt like I was playing with my twin”. A basketball twin of Michael Jordan is a scary thought, let alone one who played along side him – no wonder the Bulls were a dynasty
So here’s the situation. Pippen is lined up against Lebron in one of those mouth-watering fantasy match ups NBA historians can only dream about. Lebron is too strong, too powerful once he gets moving, but Pippen is too long, too quick laterally and Lebron struggles to find space. He can’t get any momentum up in the same way he couldn’t against the Spurs in the ’07 Finals, so he’s forced to rely on his jump shot. Question: Has Lebron’s jump shot really improved in the last three months since the Spurs swept the Cavs in the Worst Finals Ever? Some would have you believe it has, while others (me) are more skeptical until he lines up against quality NBA defenders. Either way, Scottie will still be wearing him tighter than a Paris Hilton mini-skirt and I guarantee you wouldn’t see Lebron lighting up for 30-35 points.
Call it a draw at this point, and bring on the subs. The ‘92 Dream Team has brought on a guy (old man Bird) who is slower, less athletic, and more of a defensive liability than they guy he replaced. The ’07 Dream Team has brought on a guy (Prince) who is just as athletic (sorry, a Detroit fan couldn’t resist – check the dunkage) just as versatile, and actually an upgrade on the defensive end. The 1992 Larry Bird would have real problems scoring on Prince, and just as many problems trying to stop him at the other end. Pretty soon Coach Daly is forced to bring back Scottie, Prince goes quiet, but the message is clear: Bird is a liability against the young gun small forwards on this ’07 Team.
Before you Lebron fans go claiming an ’07 victory at the SF spot, there’s a catch. You didn’t seriously think I was going to ignore Chris Mullin did you? You didn’t seriously think Mike Miller is the 2007 Bizarro World version of Chris freakin Mullin did you? I know that’s what I may have hinted earlier, but I was just playin. Chris Mullin is one of the greatest shooters in NBA history. Don’t take it from me though, take it from Magic Johnson who once said “When God made a basketball player, he just carved Chris Mullin out and said this is a player”. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but Magic said it. In 1992 Mullin was at the peak of his career and approximately two-hundred times the player Mike Miller is now. Has Mike Miller made an All-NBA First team (Mullin has), let alone a 2nd or 3rd team? Has Mike Miller played in one All-Star game, let alone five? Did Mike Miller ever average 25 points per game for five seasons straight? Mullin did. You know how many players in the league have averaged 25 for the past five seasons? One – Allen Iverson, and we all know how much junk AI had to throw up to squeeze out those 25+ points. Mullin did it while shooting above 50% from the field in each season which is freakish. He also happened to play on one of the most entertaining teams of all time (who can forget Run TMC?) and demonstrated a court-sense that was almost on the Magic-Bird level. He didn’t get selected for the Dream Team on a whim. He was one of the best in the league.
The Score: 2-2 to the Dream Team. Things were looking good for Tayshaun and Lebron until Chris Mullin arrived. Mike Miller is no match for him, and the ’07 boys should feel lucky about getting 2 points.
’92 Dream Team: 8
’07 Dream Team: 4
Pop quiz: who was the leading scorer for the 1992 Dream Team? It wasn’t MJ, it wasn’t Drexler, and it wasn’t Robinson, Ewing, or Malone… it was none other than Sir Charles. The rampaging 6’4” power forward brought his explosive, inside-outside game to Barcelona and simply overpowered his international opponents. I guess it ain’t so hard when you’re used to overpowering 7-footers in the NBA. And on the subject of “power”, has there been a more physically imposing power forward in the history of the league than Karl Malone? Not really. Paring those two guys together is like going on a road trip with two semi-trailers – not a lot is going to get in their way. Can Amare and Melo provide the roadblock?
Pop quiz: who is the one power forward in the league today who could leap-frog Barkley and Malone in the ‘Greatest PF of All-Time’ stakes? My answer: Amare Stoudemire. I said it three years ago, I held my breath for a year while he recovered from injury, but now I’m saying it again. Amare has the raw physical ability and seemingly the work ethic, to be an all-time great. Since watching him destroy Duncan and the Spurs (how often do you say that?) in the ’05 Conference Finals I quickly realised no one could stop this kid. After developing that reliable midrange jump shot (seemingly overnight) he instantly became a 30-point threat every night. As athletically gifted as Malone and Barkley were, they have nothing on Amare. He is a new breed of athletic big-man freak that probably only Dwight Howard belongs to right now. If there’s one weakness in Amare’s game it’s his defense. For a guy of his size and athletic ability he gets nowhere near enough rebounds or blocked shots (how can Darko average more blocks than Stoudemire?), and this is where Barkley and Malone will take him to town.
But Amare is the #2 PF on this ’07 team. The #1 guy is Carmelo Anthony who we all know as a small forward in the NBA, but is strong enough and versatile enough to start the 4 in the international game. Out of these four guys, Melo has by far the most complete offensive game – you could argue he already did as a rookie (scary). He shoots the three-ball better than Barkley, runs the floor better than all of them, plays above the rim like a 2-guard, has enough post moves to keep you guessing, and can flat out break your ankles (can you imagine Barkley or Malone doing this?). Like I said, he’s really a 3-man so it’s no surprise he can do all that, but it gives him a definite edge over the Dream Team power forwards. (The one thing I have to admit is that Malone is a far better passer than Melo or Amare – people didn’t seem to realise this until later in his career when he became more immobile, but Karl Malone was always a great reader of the play).
So in the athleticism, youth, and versatility stakes the ’07 team wins hands down – the problem, as I alluded to earlier, lies on the defensive end. In 1992 Barkley and Malone were pulling down a combined 23.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. For the 2006-07 season Melo and Amare combined for a measly 15.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game (for the record Big Ben averaged 15.4 rebounds and 3.2 blocks himself in 02-03). That is a huge difference. You could argue that the ’07 team relies on their centers for rebounding and shot blocking ability (which is true), but the ’92 Dream Team had Robinson and Ewing anchoring the middle and they’re no spuds.
So let me put it this way. If you’re running the floor and playing the fast-break game then I’d go with Melo and Amare every time (especially with Kidd at the point). But if you’re going to a half-court game, running pick and rolls and playing inside-out, then Barkley and Malone would feast on them (especially with Stockton at the point). In a ’92 vs ’07 match up, I think the effectiveness of the power forwards would really come down to which team controls the tempo and dictates the play.
But that’s a cop out and I’m not going to sit on the fence. The fact of the matter is that if Barkley or Malone aren’t scoring they still have a massive presence and impact on the game. If Melo and Amare aren’t scoring they’re nowhere near as dangerous. I can just see it now; Melo is taking Barkley to school with an array of pull up jumpers and flashy moves, and Barkley can’t get it going at the other end. What does he do? He goes out and grabs 25 rebounds and completely owns the paint. Flip that around and you have Barkley overpowering Melo in the post, while down the other end Melo’s shot just won’t fall. What does Melo do? He just keeps jacking up shots of course. That is the difference, and the same argument goes for Malone and Stoudemire. Until Amare and Carmelo can develop that defensive, physical presence the two ’92 semi-trailers won’t be slowing down any time soon.
The Score: 3-1 to the Dream Team. Malone and Barkley would simply bully Amare and Melo on both ends of the floor unless the game turns into a Phoenix-style offensive romp (and even then they’ll keep up). Seems a bit unfair since Melo isn’t really a PF, but the word “fair” doesn’t apply when you’re matching up against the ’92 Dream Team.
’92 Dream Team: 11
’07 Dream Team: 5
Stay tuned for Part III: the centers and the ‘92 vs ‘07 scrimmage match