PlayBook: In The Name of Bill James

By Fraser Lockerbie

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Everyone from Kobe to the President has weighed in on who would win between the 1992 Dream Team and today's Olympic roster. But the answer as per usual is in the numbers.


Little has been said about the propensity of a few to indulge in a Jamesian addiction to basketball; that is, the obsessive scribbling of numbers on a piece of paper to determine a player’s worth. Basketball, by and large, is a simple game not yet open to the notion that a player’s ability might have more to do with what he can do, what he has done, than what he can’t. The sabermetric approach, now championed by a handful of young baseball GMs seeking, in the eyes of their elders, to cannibalize the corporate culture, is relatively new and has not yet reached the hardcourt. Here, we still see fit to speak in vacuities, in an incomprehensible tongue. “He’s got a good body, a good build, a smooth stroke. He’s long,” and any number of other unquantifiable words we feel comfortable attributing to an All-star to gauge his statistical future. It’s an in-house language, an inarticulate measurement of intangibles many of us still believe govern the game. If he’s got a good body, a good build and a smooth stroke, well, he must be good.

Which is why it comes as no surprise that half the world weighed in with catchphrases and buzzwords when Kobe opened his mouth and uttered what amounts to blasphemy in the eyes of basketball fans. The thought that the 2012 Olympic team could beat the 1992 Dream Team is considered by most to be a stretch and by others to be pure hokum, an all-out egotistical fantasy. The Dream Team, with the likes of Jordan, Ewing, Barkley and Magic, all in their primes, is considered to be the upper echelon of ability, an ultimate pantheon of players and the last stop for talent. Any ragtag group assembled afterwards could only ever be second best.

Which, given the surface stats, the five fun columns so often quoted by the half-bright yes men connected to little wires that run the world, seems to be true.

In the season leading up to the Olympics, the Dream Team passed the ball better, stole the ball better and blocked the ball better. They pulled down more boards, controlled more possessions and so, naturally, they scored more points.

What we hear, what we’re told, is that they were “bigger,” which is certainly true; they had two true seven-footers who averaged more than 11 rebounds a game and two more guys over 6’9” who did the same. Ewing and Robinson also averaged a combined 7.5 blocks per game.

We hear they were “smarter,” basketball brains with a high hoops IQ. Okay; Johnson and Stockton averaged 26.2 assists per game between them and five members of the Dream Team averaged more than two steals per 48. Hell, Stockton averaged 3.0. 

And we hear they had Jordan, His Airness, a mystical, magical being whose physical abilities transcended whatever nonsense you might find in a box score (which, for the record, had him averaging .519 shooting from the field in 1991-92 and a ridiculous 32.6 points per game).

But the most intriguing number we hear, the one that we as gambling people are most concerned with, is eight, or the spread out of Vegas for the Dream Team over today’s. Eight is a whole handful of points in a basketball game, and still people are taking, nine times out of ten, the Dream Team minus eight and feeling comfortable giving 12 or 15 and sometimes 24.

The truth is we wouldn’t, or rather we shouldn’t, go any higher than three, and that truth is, as it always is and always has been, is found in the numbers.

A 50-point discrepancy in the 3P% is what stands out here; in the seasons leading up to their respective Olympic games, the Dream Team drained a combined average of 7.4 threes a game while the 2012 team managed 14.8, exactly 200 percent more and a difference of 22.2 points per game.

So what? The Dream Team still outplayed them in every other facet of the game. True enough, except in the one area which matters most: buckets or baskets or whatever you’d like to call them. Points.

Truth be told, the efficiency ratings, the advanced stats that actually measure on-court performance as opposed to off-court paychecks and poster boards, show that these two teams are not far off in their ability to do what they need to do best: score points. Two points separating True Shooting percentage, four points separating Effective Field Goal percentage. A point difference in favor of the 2012 squad when it comes to their defensive rating (dispelling what has become the mainstay argument of ’92ers that the Dream Team was defensively superior) and though the Dream Team averaged a higher PER as a team, the starting five of 2012 edges the ’92 starters by five points, their top six players by seven and their top eight by eight.

What we’re seeing is that the difference in shots dropping between 1992 and 2012 is minimal except that the 2012 team might take, and make, twice as many three-pointers. The question then becomes, does the sheer volume of free throws and inside-the-arc field goals accumulated by the Dream Team make up that supposed 22.2-point difference?

We’ll admit it gets a little hairy here. For starters, these season averages suppose every player is playing their normal star-like regular season minutes. It also supposes that both teams take the exact same number and type of shots and sink them as their averages suggest they would.

The first problem is unsolvable; had we the actual minutes from the upcoming Olympics we might be able to make some comparative inroads. The second problem, however, can be accounted for by weighing both teams’ total attempts from the season with their averages and comparing the two. Granted, a flight of statistical fancy is required, but if you’ll permit me:

Let’s say every player on the team, save the two college outliers (Christian Laettner and Anthony Davis) play their regular NBA minutes and shoot their regular NBA averages. In 2PA alone, the Dream Team scores 180 points and adds 40 at the line. 

Dream Team: 220, Today’s Team: 0 

In two pointers, the 2012 team accumulates 156 points plus 37 at the line bringing the score before three pointers to: 

Dream Team: 220, Today’s Team: 193

Over the course of the ’92 season, the Dream Team averaged 15 three point attempts per game and shot .273 from beyond the arc, bringing their likely tre total to measly 12 points in the game. The 2012 team, shooting .323 and averaging 37 3PAs a game, amasses 36 points in threes bringing the final score to:  

Dream Team: 232, Today’s Team: 229

We’ll shave a point or two for the +1 defensive rating and here we are, falling within the margin of error and beating our own three point spread...

Not that we’re high and mighty enough to pretend that a one-off, 48-minute game between the Dream Team and 2012 Olympic roster would yield such an ungodly score of 231-229, but it’s nice to think we’ve done more than cue up the chrous: "they’re bigger, better, faster, stronger."


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