“Would” the current version of the U.S. Men’s Olympic basketball team defeat the original Dream Team from 1992? Or “could” the current team win? It is not clear what word LeBron and Kobe prefer. But it is this issue that I discuss first in my latest for Freakonomics.
An answer can be found in a Wired.com article by Jason Turbow. The approach taken in formulating this answer can also be used to discuss how the Redeem Team managed to re-take the gold medal in 2008.
Wins Produced is great at explaining Olympic Basketball
The model I present in the Freakonomics article is amazingly simple. I think we can explain outcomes in the Olympics by simply looking at the average productivity – in terms of Wins Produced per 48 minutes – of the players in the season before the Olympics. As noted at Freakonomics, the correlation between average WP48 and average margin of victory in the Olympics is 0.96 — Not too shabby for a simple model.
What about other factors people have noted? Coach K has focused on the system Team USA has developed to put the team together. To the extent this is used to find better players, then that works. To the extent this has changed “team chemistry”… I’m not sure that matters. And I disagree with Coach K on one key issue. He thinks the players were not to blame in 2004. The simple model noted above says otherwise.
What about changes in the quality of competition? If that explained the decline until 2004, then what explains the improvement in 2008? I don’t think international players suddenly got worse in 2008. So apparently that isn’t the story either.
There is one story I’m not hearing that I might believe. Today’s league has far more international players than we saw just 20 years ago. This means there’s much more competition for the modern player. Maybe Kobe’s numbers would be as high Jordan’s if the level of competition were the same . This is not something I’ve heard the players posit though — it would be ironic for Kobe to use the presence of Gasol to prove why he was better than Jordan. I’m not quite sure how we could test this hypothesis though, barring a time machine. However, if the idea of a more competitive league is plausible then it’s also plausible that modern players are better than their 1992 contemporaries. If this is true then it’s also possible that our current Olympians would defeat the Dream Team.
Again, though, I am not sure I buy the idea that the level of competition has improved that much. So I am sticking with “could”, but if you don’t like that answer… I am okay with that too :)