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A team for real, but is it a Dream?

/ Source: Washington Post Writers Grou

The destruction wrought by the United States men's basketball team in China has brought back some of the yawn-inducing, ho-hum predictability of past collections of NBA all-star talent in the Olympics. But this isn't Charles Barkley ramming his elbow into some puny-chested Angolan in Barcelona in 1992, or Shaquille O'Neal shaking off dangling Brazilians in Atlanta in 1996, or even Vince Carter catapulting over Francis Weis in Sydney in 2000.

This is Dwyane Wade driving around Yao Ming, Carmelo Anthony shooting over Pau Gasol and LeBron James shutting down Dirk Nowitzki. Previous gold medal-winning U.S. teams didn't have to contend with other NBA all-stars on the path to standing on the podium and hearing the national anthem.

"I think that's the big thing," Wade said. "We've won gold medals in the past, but out of any year, this has been the best competition, from top to bottom, USA Basketball has ever seen -- not to take anything away from other teams."

Despite the improvement of international basketball since the creation of the original Dream Team in 1992, the Americans have won their first seven games here by an average of 30.3 points, the third-largest margin behind the 1992 team (43.8) and the 1996 team (31.7).

But while those teams may have faced the likes of Brazil's Oscar Schmidt (a legend who never played in the NBA), Croatia's Tony Kukoc and Drazen Petrovic, Lithuania's Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis and Yugoslavia's Vlade Divac, the overall level of competition doesn't compare.

If the United States can beat 2006 world champion Spain and bring home its 13th basketball gold medal in 16 tries, it will have beaten seven teams (it plays Spain for the second time) with a combined 20 players with NBA experience, including four that have made all-star appearances.

The U.S. team has faced opponents that don't have any fear or awe of the Americans -- although some players on Angola wanted to take pictures with the players after a loss. After each game, however, players such as Germany's Chris Kaman and Argentina's Carlos Delfino cannot come up with -- or won't try to find -- answers for how to beat them.

The "Redeem Team" -- a term Kobe Bryant recently deemed "cheesy" -- is making up for past international failures while restoring America's spot atop basketball. One more victory would raise the question of where the fifth Olympic team of NBA players ranks in history.

"Right there with the Dream Team," U.S. Managing Director Jerry Colangelo said. "The Dream Team was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of team, more older and a more mature team. This is a very talented young team. You put the Dream Team and this team and I don't think you put anyone else in the same breath. Those are the top two, then you can argue it."

NBA Commissioner David Stern helped create the Dream Team with visions of globalization, selecting a team with the game and personality to expand its appeal worldwide. In phone interview, Stern expressed pleasure with how the current team has "demonstrated to the world how great players can play within a team concept."

Asked how it would compare with the original Dream Team, Stern said, "That's not a comparison that I'm going to make. I think it's a nice set of bookends representing how we introduced the sport to a broader audience to now, where we had 42 current of former NBA players participating in these Games. Our players have demonstrated that we still are up there in the ranks of international basketball, regardless of the competition."

U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski, an assistant on Chuck Daly's staff in 1992, said he didn't think comparing the teams was fair, because the 2008 Olympic squad was three summers in the making.

"It happens once," Krzyzewski said of the Dream Team. "This has been a process, where the goal is not only to win a gold medal but to develop something that will go forward. In '92, no one was thinking about that. They were just thinking this was the first time the NBA was here, it was a celebration of those great players being on the same team on the world stage. This is much different. We're trying to win right now in this environment.

"They had a better-looking coach in 1992 than me. That's the first inadequacy that we have," he said.

The original Dream Team was a veteran outfit with 11 future Hall of Famers, but Magic Johnson had retired in 1991 and Larry Bird was past his prime. With the exception of college addition Christian Laettner, none of them was younger than 26. The average age of this team is 26 years 1 month, with most of the players in their primes (Bryant, Wade, Carlos Boozer, Tayshaun Prince and Michael Redd) or about to enter them (James, Anthony, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Chris Bosh and Deron Williams).

"It would be a good one. It would be a real good one," James said, when asked about what a game between the two teams would like. "They were a lot bigger than we were, with David [Robinson] and Pat [Ewing] and Charles, but we're pretty good. We're really good. I mean, this is one of the best teams I've seen put together."

Carmelo Anthony took it a step further.

"I think we would've beat them," Anthony said." We always laugh and joke about that, that we got a team that would beat them. We think we can hang with anybody. Got to get that gold medal to solidify it."

Said Wade: "I would never even try to match us with the Dream Team. First of all, they gave us the vision to be the team that we are, with all those stars coming together. They were the first NBA guys to come together and do it. You can't be compared to the first. Only thing you can do is write your own history, and that's what we're doing."