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1992 Dream Team vs. 2012 Olympic Team: Who Wins?

Today we have a guest post from my colleague and research collaborator Jason Carter, Ph.D.  Dr. Carter is the Chair and Associate Professor of the Department of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology at the Michigan Technological University.  We share a passion for our research, but also for sports!


1992 Dream Team vs 2012 Olympic Team:  Who Wins?

In early July, Kobe Bryant created a firestorm with his comments that the 2012 Olympic Team could “pull it out” against the 1992 Dream Team. While Kobe backed away from the comment in subsequent weeks, it led to a variety of comparisons.  Kobe vs. Michael? Magic vs. Paul? People love those direct comparisons, and everyone was willing to give their opinions prior to the actual games being played. Now that the games are done, and Team USA has won the gold, let’s break this down a little more with actual numbers. Basketball is a team sport, and hypothetical player to player comparisons only get you so far.

Let me preface my comparisons with a brief background. I played basketball my whole life, and was fortunate enough to play college basketball at a small DII school. I followed that experience up with 7 years as a high school varsity basketball coach. I love the game, and appreciate the complexity of the game. That said, my playing and coaching experiences have led to a simple philosophy that while hot shooting can throw a wrench in any game, winning and losing consistently boils down to number of scoring opportunities and quality of those scoring opportunities.  When I coached, we focused on creating extra scoring opportunities by three simple goals: 1) limit turnovers and always have fewer than opponent, 2) force the opponents into poor shot selection and maximize our shot selection, and 3) control the boards by maximizing our offensive rebounds and limiting the opponents.

So how does the 1992 team stack up against the 2012 team in extra scoring opportunities?  One might assume that the 1992 team would get more shots given the scoring and average margin of victory, and that this would bury the 2012 team. However, let’s break the numbers down a little more and see what they tell us. In 1992, Team USA shot 52.1% (638) of 1,224 total shots taken in the 8 games played. In 2012, Team USA shot 53.9% (629) of the 1,166 total shots taken in the 8 games played. So a case could be made that the 2012 team was slightly “better with the ball” by a margin of ~1.8%, and that this would translate to a few extra possessions for the 2012 team in a direct match-up with the 1992 team.  Let’s assume a contest between 1992 and 2012 teams would result in a total of 155 total shots taken in the game (reasonable given the number of game shots for the 16 USA Olympic games played by these two teams); if the 2012 team was “better with the ball” by ~1.8%, this would result in ~3 extra possessions (155 × 0.018).


Prediction – The 2012 team is slightly ‘better with the ball’, resulting in 79 shots compared to 76 shots by the 1992 team.

Ok, so let’s agree that the 2012 team gets a few extra key possessions due to turnovers, steals, blocks, and rebounding; how do those extra key possessions translate to points?  Let’s assume free throws (FT’s) are a wash — each team shot a similar number of FT’s (201 vs. 191) and similar FT% (73% vs. 72%). Where differences exist is in overall field goals (FG) attempted and made, as well as 3-point FG’s attempted and made. The 1992 team pounded the ball inside way more; 79% of their shots were 2-pointers (often times transition layups). The 2012 team was much more perimeter oriented, with only 53% of their shots coming inside the arc.


Prediction – Of the 76 shots taken by the 1992 team, 16 are outside the arc. Of the 79 shots taken by the 2012 team, 37 are outside the arc.

Now here comes the hard part– how will these two teams shoot against one another?  Presumably both teams would likely shoot lower %’s than they did against their international counterparts. The 1992 team’s overall FG% was 21.3% higher than their opponents (57.8% vs. 36.5%), while the 2012 team’s was 6.9% higher than their opponents.  So a case could be made the 1992 team was more efficient on both offense and defense by ~14%. Let’s play it safe and say the difference is only ~10% in this match-up; reasonable given the higher % of shots within the arc and lower opponent FG% for the 1992 team. For 3-pointers, the 2012 team was ~11% better than their opponents while the 1992 team was ~10%, so let’s call it a wash and conservatively estimate that both teams shoot ~38% against each other’s more athletic matchup.

So here’s the breakdown–

Team FG FGA Pct 3FG 3FGA % FT Total PTs
1992 42 76 .552 6 16 .375 18 108
2012 36 79 .456 14 37 .378 18 104


My Conclusion – The 1992 Dream Team wins 108-104.

I attempted to analyze this matchup using objective team statistics and what I consider ‘reasonable’ assumptions. I avoided the player-by-player matchups because that’s 80% of what is out there already, and it is incredibly difficult to quantify such comparisons.  We could debate all day the MJ vs. Kobe matchup, and who would finish better down the stretch (let the record show my money is on MJ)… but those are subjective comparisons with obvious biases (I grew up wanting to “be like mike”).  That isn’t to say my ‘reasonable’ assumptions above don’t have flaws, and I’m certain others will be happy to point them out.  One could make the case that there’s no way a 10% total FG spread will exist in this game. On the other hand, one could counter that argument by saying that there is no way the 2012 team will be able to get up as many 3-pointers against the lock-down defenders like MJ and Pippen.  That is the beauty of this debate!

All in all, I really can’t blame Kobe for saying they would have a chance; I think they would.  But in a 7 game series, my money is with the 1992 Dream Team.



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2 Responses to “1992 Dream Team vs. 2012 Olympic Team: Who Wins?”

  1. August 21st, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    Darren says:

    Jason….Great post and a never ending debate. A couple of things to consider aside from the type and number of shots by each team that you have analyzed in your post.

    1. Breaking 2 and 3-point field goals down for each team doesn’t tell the entire story. The type of 2-point shots that each team got needs to be considered. For example how many of the 2-point field goals were created off of turnovers and led to easy transition baskets. Both teams thrived on creating turnovers and getting out into transition and getting easy baskets. If pitted against each other (the purpose of this debate) would the 2012 team be able to turnover the 1992 team (i.e. Magic and Stockton) like they did against the inferior guard play they faced in this year’s Olympics? The simple answer is probably not. When the 2012 team wasn’t creating turnovers their half-court offense struggled at times. A perfect example of this was the gold medal game against Spain. They were unable to create turnovers and did not get out into transition, which helps explain the close game. An inability to create turnovers against the 1992 Dream Team would force them into a half-court offense against a much bigger team (Ewing, Olajuwon, Malone, etc.) and likely wouldn’t have as many open 3-point field goals.

    2. Another point to consider when comparing these two teams that can’t be explained by stats is the level of competition that each team faced. The globalization of basketball since the 1992 Dream Team has elevated international basketball to levels way above those that the Dream Team faced. Aside from Croatia most of the rosters that qualified for the 1992 Olympics would have a very difficult time qualifying these days. Therefore some of the 1992 team’s stats are likely inflated by poor competition, which makes comparing the two teams nearly impossible.

    I personally feel the 1992 team would win a single game as well as a best of 7 series (too much size inside). However, I think it would be closer than many people think. Everyone thought Kobe was out of his mind for saying the current team could beat the Dream Team. What was he supposed to say? Any great competitor should feel his team should win. If not they shouldn’t be in the game.

  2. March 19th, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    March Madness Strikes Human Limits | Human Limits: Michael J. Joyner, M.D. says:

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