by Andrew Mooney
One of the biggest yawn-fests of a story in the buildup to this year’s Olympic basketball tournament was the idle bantering between this year’s US team and the original Dream Team from 1992. It seemed fitting that the playground-style argument (“We would win!” “No, we would!”) must inevitably have no definitive answer; the point has no bearing on the current Games and serves only to ruffle a few pages in reporters’ notebooks.
The fact is that the NBA will always have the best of the best basketball players in the world, the vast majority of which come from the United States. The more interesting question, in my view, is how the rest of the world has improved since its nuclear destruction at the hands of the ’92 squad, which stomped through Olympic play with an average margin of victory of 43.75 points. As the years have advanced, it’s clear that American teams have faced much sterner tests than their predecessors—USA’s shocking sixth-place finish in the 2002 FIBA World Championships and its bronze medal in Athens attest to that fact.
Of course, the relative quality of some of these teams certainly isn’t constant—no one would confuse Raef Lafrentz with a Dream Team member (except perhaps Christian Laettner), so it’s somewhat difficult to evaluate just how much the rest of the world has improved in relation to the US.
Thankfully, we have numbers to take care of that problem. Using data available at basketball-reference.com, I added up the Win Shares per 48 minutes for every member of each United States team that competed at a major tournament (Olympics or FIBA World Championships), with the exception of the 1998 World Championships, from which NBA players were excluded due to a work stoppage. In order to assure that I fairly evaluated each team, I used the players’ Win Shares per 48 minutes in the NBA season immediately preceding the major tournament in which they competed. For instance, Larry Bird’s game, while transcendent in 1986, had lost much of its luster by the Olympic year of 1991-92, a difference that should be acknowledged when assessing his team’s talent level.
Next, I looked at how each US team actually performed on the court, recording their average margin of victory at each of the major tournaments. This is the number I used to represent the quality of their competition, the rest of the world; the closer USA’s opponents kept games, the better basketball I assumed they were playing.
But to discern anything about the change in the standard of international basketball, I needed a constant baseline with which to compare it. This is where the Win Shares data comes in; using the measures of quality for each US. team as weights, I adjusted the US margin of victory numbers to produce a single number that represented how tough of a fight the Americans’ competition put up in each event.
By this measure, the 1994 US team actually put on a more impressive on-court display than the original Dream Team. The ’94 team was far from the most talented America would assemble in the coming decade and a half, but they won games by nearly as much as the ’92 team, defeating opponents by an average of 37.75 points.
Surprisingly, this analysis suggests that international basketball has actually regressed at every tournament since Yugoslavia’s breakthrough victory at the 2002 World Championships. I think, however, that the better conclusion to draw is not from the single year-to-year changes, which are subject to quite a bit of variation in the teams’ performances, but from the general downward trend in the magnitude of USA’s dominance, represented on the chart by the dashed trendline. Slowly, the rest of the world is closing the gap.
This is not a perfect proxy for international quality, of course. The US doesn’t play the same teams at every tournament, and the numbers are based on a very small sample of games per tournament, certainly not large enough to give us a totally accurate picture of the various international teams’ talent levels. But it does shed a little light on a question that has typically been reduced to hand-waving generalizations: how far is the rest of the world from catching up? I don’t think there’s any doubt they are moving in the right direction; if you need more evidence, note that the number of non-American players in the NBA has increased from 21 to 89 since 1992.
If this trend continues at the constant rate implied by the trendline, the rest of the world would finally catch up to the US in time for the 2042 World Championships, which assumes quite a bit about the increasing popularity and participation in the sport around the world. And even so, that suggests a lot of American gold in the interim 30 years.
This post can also be seen on Boston.com here.