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This summer’s roster at USA Basketball training camp in Las Vegas will not be nearly as star-studded as previous years’ teams since many of the biggest stars on the initial list of camp invitees pulled out for a variety of reasons.
Still, with a major tournament about to tip off and just one year out from the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, it’s worth looking back on the legacy of dominance by the United States men’s national team, which began with 1992’s legendary Dream Team.
That team, which took home the gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, was a virtual All-Star squad comprised of NBA legends, the likes of which, as much as they’ve tried, has not been seen since then.
All seven Olympic teams dating back to 1992 are ranked in this top 10, along with the three most important and influential FIBA World Championship teams, whose legacies are inextricably linked to the Olympic squads. A combination of star power, tournament success and historical significance are taken into account in the rankings.
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The final Larry Brown-coached team’s disastrous showing in Athens led to a full revamp of the USA Basketball program. On paper, the 2004 team had no shortage of talent—including Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and up-and-comers LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony—but that didn’t translate to on-court success.
Team USA lost its tournament-opening game by 19 points to Puerto Rico and lost once more in group play before ultimately falling to Argentina in the semifinals and defeating Lithuania in the bronze-medal game.
For most teams, a third-place finish would be something to celebrate. But USA Basketball’s history of dominance set the bar high, and this group did not live up to those expectations in Greece.
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After the 2004 debacle, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski took over from Larry Brown as head coach of the USA Basketball program. The 2006 squad kept the young core of James, Anthony and Wade and added fellow young stars Chris Bosh, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard to the mix.
However, the revamped roster didn’t translate to increased tournament success at the FIBA World Championship.
The USA team went undefeated in group play but lost to Greece in the semifinal game, and Greece went on to be blown out 70-47 by Spain in the title game. The Americans did avenge their 2004 Olympic loss to Argentina in the third-place game, which was a small consolation.
The 2006 tournament represented some forward progress, but it also showed the program still had work to do.
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At the turn of the century, USA Basketball was in a period of transition.
Most of the second Dream Team had aged out of the program, with Gary Payton as the only holdover from the 1996 squad. They stuck with the tried-and-true formula of drawing from the pool of NBA stars, but that pool was relatively weak in the immediate post-Michael Jordan era.
The 2000 team was headlined by young superstars Kevin Garnett and Vince Carter, alongside veterans like Payton, Steve Smith, Jason Kidd, Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway. The star power wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as it was in the years before or since, but the U.S. still went undefeated in the tournament to capture its third straight Olympic gold medal.
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A relatively run-of-the-mill dominant squad in the Coach K era won the gold medal in Serbia without much trouble.
The 2014 team didn’t have the wall-to-wall star power of its predecessors—NBA role players Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee and Rudy Gay got roster spots—but there were still plenty of big names like Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving, who were just coming into their own as NBA superstars.
Derrick Rose, working his way back from missing most of the previous two seasons with knee injuries, used the 2014 tournament to regain his footing. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson used it as a precursor to the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty, and James Harden‘s recent run of dominance also kicked off that summer.
Unfortunately, the most memorable part of this team’s run actually came before the start of the tournament when Paul George suffered a broken leg during an inter-squad scrimmage in Las Vegas that caused him to miss most of the 2014-15 season. The team still had enough firepower to overcome that massive loss and cruise to a gold medal in the World Cup.
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One of the most loaded Olympic squads outside of the two Dream Teams featured many of the NBA’s biggest stars.
LeBron James, Stephen Curry and James Harden sat out, but Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, Kyrie Irving, DeMarcus Cousins and Paul George made the trip to Brazil to help the United States win its third straight Olympic gold medal.
Durant was fresh off his controversial decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors in free agency and was joined on the Olympic team by future teammates Green and Klay Thompson, along with Harrison Barnes, who had been jettisoned by the Warriors to make room for Durant.
Carmelo Anthony was the 2016 team’s elder statesman, breaking from his Banana Boat compatriots to participate and take home his record-setting third gold medal.
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After 2008’s Olympic success, the entire Bejing gold-medal squad sat out the 2010 FIBA tournament. That meant some of the NBA’s biggest stars—LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade—were off the board. In this case, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it provided a launching pad for the second tier of NBA stars to take their careers to another level. Up and down the 2010 roster, which rolled to a world championship in Turkey, were players who built on their national team success the following year.
In 2010-11, 22-year-old Derrick Rose led the Chicago Bulls to the best record in the NBA and became the youngest MVP in league history. Kevin Love had a breakout year with the Minnesota Timberwolves and captured the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. Oklahoma City Thunder youngsters Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook made the leap from stars to superstars and reached the Western Conference Finals in their third season together.
The only two players over the age of 30 on this team were Lamar Odom and Chauncey Billups. Tyson Chandler had just been traded from the Charlotte Bobcats to the Dallas Mavericks, for whom he would play a key role during the following season’s title run. A young Stephen Curry was on the team, too, having just wrapped up his rookie season with the Golden State Warriors.
Historically, the 2010 FIBA team isn’t discussed in the same breath as any of the top Olympic squads, but it’s among the most influential. That year’s FIBA World Championship served as a coming-out party for many of the biggest stars of the current generation while also proving just how deep the NBA’s talent level had become outside the top-level names absent from this roster.
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How do you follow up the greatest Olympic run of all time? By running back about half of the original Dream Team’s roster and updating it with more of the NBA’s biggest names.
There was no Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, but five Dream Teamers—Karl Malone, John Stockton, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen and David Robinson—reprised their roles and were joined by younger All-Stars in Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Gary Payton, Shaquille O’Neal and Mitch Richmond.
It was always going to be impossible for Dream Team III to top the original, but the 1996 team had no trouble dominating in the Olympics, winning every game in blowout fashion.
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This was the Dream Team III to the 2008 Redeem Team’s Dream Team.
It’s hard to argue with the collection of talent here. It was an ideal cross-section of Beijing holdovers (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Carmelo Anthony) and up-and-coming 2010 FIBA standouts Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love.
Blake Griffin was originally slated to be on the roster but pulled out due to a torn meniscus and was replaced by 19-year-old Anthony Davis, who the New Orleans Hornets had just picked No. 1 overall. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden rounded out the roster.
It was the last time Durant, Harden and Westbrook would play together on the same team, as Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets shortly before the start of the 2012-13 season.
The Americans cruised to the gold-medal game and pulled out a close win over an excellent Spanish team featuring the Gasol brothers, Serge Ibaka and Rudy Fernandez to capture their second gold medal in a row.
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Following the 2004 disaster in Athens, the USA Basketball program needed a shake-up.
It replaced head coach Larry Brown with Mike Krzyzewski, who commanded a level of respect around the NBA that led the absolute cream of the crop to sign on. By this time, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard weren’t young up-and-comers anymore; they were close to the peaks of their powers.
Veteran stars like Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd also joined up, and the roster was filled out by All-Stars Michael Redd, Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer. They went undefeated in Olympic play, beating an excellent Spain squad in the gold-medal game.
The most lasting impact of the Redeem Team, besides restoring USA Basketball’s standing on the world stage, was its role as a precursor to the modern-day superteams. James, Wade and Bosh reportedly hatched their plot to team up in the NBA two years in advance of hitting free agency in 2010. The three stars ultimately teamed up with the Miami Heat and won two of the next four titles, radically shifting the dynamics of player empowerment and star team-ups.
Nothing will ever touch the original Dream Team. But with all the best players of their time close to the apexes of their careers, 2008 is the closest thing to a modern-day equivalent.
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There’s a reason the original Dream Team is still the standard against which every other U.S. national team is measured. This was the greatest collection of talent ever assembled on one roster in any level of organized basketball.
Just looking at the list of names next to each other is still staggering today.
Three of the sport’s 10 greatest players ever—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird—were on this team, as well as nearly a dozen more all-time greats. The worst of the NBA players on this roster (keeping in mind Duke star Christian Laettner had yet to play in the league at the time) was Chris Mullin, who is still a Hall of Famer. Their second-best point guard was John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals. Their centers were David Robinson and Patrick Ewing.
And we still haven’t mentioned Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone or Clyde Drexler.
The Dream Team’s cultural impact cannot be overstated. It’s an integral part of the legacies of every player involved and the genesis of every Olympic team since then. It spawned a hit documentary on NBATV and an essential book by legendary Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum.
The team itself was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010, and every player except Laettner has been inducted for their own playing careers.