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If Not Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, Who Should Have Been On the Original Dream Team?

Clyde Drexler has been in the news this week ahead of the release of Jack McCallum’s book “The Dream Team” about the 1992 Olympic Men’s Basketball Team. Deadspin ran an excerpt two days ago where Drexler said that “[e]veryone kept waiting for Magic to die,” and that if everyone “knew Magic was going to live this long, I would’ve gotten the MVP of that [1992 All-Star] game, and Magic probably wouldn’t have made the Olympic team.”

Drexler came out and strongly denied the quotes about Magic. Jack McCallum wrote about it on his personal blog, defending the quotes (“I did not fabricate quotes.”) He also tried to put it in context, saying that Drexler was one of the biggest defenders of playing with Magic at a time when there was great fear about HIV.

A statement that everyone was waiting on Magic to die, understood in the context of the time, isn’t that outrageous. When that news broke, it was like a funeral. The thought was that the All-Star game and the Barcelona games were his swan song. That stuff may sound outrageous now, but it was not like Drexler was saying something outside the norm.

That said, we can look at Drexler’s view of Magic in the All-Star Game and Olympics and see if it was fair. McCallum references Dominique (Wilkins), Worthy, and Isiah Thomas as people mentioned by Drexler, and said that Drexler thought four players should have been on the team that weren’t.

First, the All-Star Game: Drexler and Magic were the stars of the 1992 All-Star Game when the West won comfortably. Magic scored a game high 25 points. He was 9 for 12 from the field and 3 for 3 from 3-pointers, so it’s not like he was just a ceremonial selection. Clyde could have been the choice, too.

As for the Dream Team, if you saw the documentary on the NBA Network, there was attention early focused on the exclusion of Isiah Thomas. I think it’s fair to ask in retrospect, though, whether Isiah Thomas was even the best, or one of the top four choices for the Dream Team at the time. Clyde Drexler had a legitimate beef in not being included in the original selections. He was a no-brainer choice over Isiah when the final spots were added a year later.

Here are the Dream Teamers, and noted snub Isiah Thomas, ranked by their win shares from 1989-1991 (the team was first announced before the start of the 1991-1992 season)

  • Michael Jordan (1st-59.1 Win Shares): 32.1 PPG, 7.0 REB, 6.6 AST, 2.8 STL, 0.8 BLK, 54.8 eFG%
  • Magic Johnson (2nd- 48.0 Win Shares): 21.4 PPG, 7.1 REB, 12.3 AST, 1.6 STL, 0.3 BLK, 52.7 eFG%
  • Charles Barkley (3rd- 46.8 Win Shares): 26.1 PPG, 11.4 REB, 4.1 AST, 1.7 STL, 0.7 BLK, 59.7 eFG%
  • Karl Malone (4th- 46.6 Win Shares): 29.7 PPG, 11.2 REB, 2.9 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.8 BLK, 53.9 eFG%
  • John Stockton (5th- 44.1 Win Shares): 17.2 PPG, 2.9 REB, 14.1 AST, 2.9 STL, 0.2 BLK, 54.1 eFG%
  • Clyde Drexler (6th- 36.6 Win Shares): 24.0 PPG, 7.2 REB, 5.9 AST, 2.2 STL, 0.7 BLK, 50.4 eFG%
  • Patrick Ewing (8th- 36.4 Win Shares): 26.0 PPG, 10.4 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 3.6 BLK, 54.2 eFG%
  • Chris Mullin (10th- 33.0 Win Shares): 25.8 PPG, 5.7 REB, 4.4 AST, 2.0 STL, 0.6BLK, 54.3 eFG%
  • David Robinson (13th- 32.1 Win Shares): 25.0 PPG, 12.5 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.6 STL, 3.9 BLK, 54.2 eFG%
  • Scottie Pippen (40th- 20.9 Win Shares): 16.7 PPG, 6.7 REB, 5.1 AST, 2.3 STL, 1.1BLK, 50.4 eFG%
  • Isiah Thomas (60th- 17.1 Win Shares): 17.8 PPG, 3.5 REB, 9.0 AST, 1.7 STL, 0.2 BLK, 46.2 eFG%
  • Larry Bird (64th- 16.6 Win Shares): 22.0 PPG, 8.9 REB, 7.2 AST, 1.6 STL, 0.9 BLK, 49.3 eFG%

So yes, Magic then retired unexpectedly, only to come back for the All-Star Game and the Olympics. He was still at the top of the league when he did so, and based on his performance in the All-Star Game, if he wanted to play in a shorter tournament, his inclusion seemed entirely appropriate. Everyone but Scottie Pippen and Larry Bird was in the top fifteen in win shares for the previous three seasons before the first announcement was made. Scottie Pippen was a young player and made the leap during the 1991 season, so his ranking here doesn’t reflect how he was viewed. By the next season, his inclusion seemed a no-brainer as he averaged over 21 points and over 7 rebounds and assists a game as the Bulls won another title. Larry Bird was struggling with injuries, and he’s the only one to rank behind Isiah in win shares. On a per game basis, though, he was way ahead, as he played in 68 fewer games than Thomas. Larry was the Legend and if he could play in a shortened tournament, you didn’t leave off one of the two best players of the previous decade.

The uproar about Thomas being snubbed ignores one thing. He doesn’t compare to the other Dream Teamers. By 1991, he was no longer the “winner” as the Bulls had dethroned the Pistons, and his numbers were in decline. On his own team, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, and Joe Dumars rated higher. Even with a winner’s bump, Isiah no longer looked like a slam dunk choice by the 1991-1992 season. You can say something like win shares, which measures volume and efficiency, is underrating Thomas. It did a pretty good job at identifying the rest of the great players in the NBA, though.

The next year, Thomas was 59th in win shares, again shot a lower percentage, and again the Pistons were further removed from the titles. Compared to eventual choice Clyde Drexler, it seemed like a no-brainer–feud with Jordan or not–where the selection should go.

Honestly, I’m not sure why Isiah Thomas would have been the choice over any of the (non-collegian) Dream Teamers, and he probably was getting the benefit of the doubt to be considered ahead of several other American-born players. Who could have gone instead? At point guard, Kevin Johnson and Terry Porter were both more productive than Isiah Thomas in the years leading into the Dream Team. Reggie Miller was coming into his own in a Hall of Fame career, having his 3rd straight 20+ point season while shooting a high percentage. Dominique Wilkins missed half the season in 1992, but was still among the game’s top 15 or 20 players when he played. Any of them, it seems, would have been a much better choice.

By hook or by crook or by Michael Jordan’s command, they got it right, though. Well, except for Christian Laettner over Shaquille O’Neal, but that’s a whole other story.

[photo via US Presswire]

 

 

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