In the run-up to the U.S. men's national team's first pre-Olympic warmup last Thursday, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley spent a great deal of time sniping back and forth about whose Dream Team would win head-to-head.
"It'd be a tough one, but I think we'd pull it out," Bryant said when pressed for a 2012 vs. 1992 prediction.
Jordan countered by scoffing at Bryan'ts assessment. "For him to compare those two teams is not one of the smarter things he ever could have done," he retorted.
Barkley upped the ante ("Other than Kobe, LeBron and Kevin Durant, I don't think anybody else on [the 2012] team makes our team."), and Pippen delivered the biggest boast of all: "I think we could probably beat [the 2012] team by 25."
Who's right? Sadly, we'll never know for sure, but with the help of some advanced stats, we can at least develop an estimate of the talent level with which each U.S. Olympic team was working.
The metric of choice for this exercise is Daniel Myers' Advanced Statistical Plus/Minus (ASPM), which uses box-score data to estimate on-court adjusted plus/minus impact for years in which play-by-play logs aren't available. Based on a weighted three-year average of their ASPM scores (plus a dash of regression to the mean), I created a "true talent" estimate for each NBA player in each historical season.
I then combined that number with each Olympic team's distribution of minutes, coming up with the expected margin of victory every Team USA roster would put up against a team of average NBA players from that season.
The best U.S. team since 1992? The original Dream Team, which would be expected to rout a team of average NBA players from 1992-93 by 23.1 points per 100 possessions. The key ingredient was Jordan, their top minutes-earner and, not coincidentally, owner of the best true talent rating of any Team USA player in the sample -- an expected impact of plus-8.9 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court. Even on the greatest team ever assembled, the best player of all time stood out.
But as great as the 1992 squad was, the Olympic teams from 1996 (plus-22.5 per 100 possessions) and 2008 (plus-22.4) aren't far behind.