What If? 1988 USA Basketball Dream Team

What if there had been a 1988 USA Basketball Dream Team?  I know.  It’s not the top subject on the headlines this weekend.  However, our recent post stating why Larry Bird was better than Lebron James has opened up some debate on today’s NBA against the NBA in the 1980’s.

Most NBA fans would agree that the first professional USA Basketball Olympic Team in 1992 was the best basketball team ever assembled.  The team featured Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen Larry Bird, and many other NBA Hall of Fame players.  Over time, the USA Basketball Team has expectedly continued to dominate the Olympics.  These teams are often compared in historical context.

Just last week, 30 players were selected as finalists for the 2016 USA Basketball Team.  It’s certainly a strong list, but this team does not compare to 1992.  Some names on this list include Harrison Barnes, Bradley Beal, Mike Conley, DeMar DeRozan, Kenneth Faried, Andre Iguodala, and Gordon Hayward.  Would these players have been on the top 30 list in 1992?  Isiah Thomas did not make that team.  Another way to look at it is which of these 30 players are no doubt Hall of Famers?  Lebron James, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul are all going to get in. There are some players on the team that it’s just too early to say, but they’ll likely get in if they continue their current pace.  Stephen Curry is the best example.  This is certainly a great list of players, but not an all-time great list.

In 1988, the USA Basketball Team was led by college players for the final time.  This team won a bronze medal which prompted the push towards getting the NBA players to participate.  If the 1988 Olympics had featured NBA players, the team would have been stacked just like 1992.  However, there would have been a big difference.  This team would have had arguably three of the top five players that ever played basketball in their prime years in Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson.


This team would have had the best point guard, best shooting guard, and best small forward that ever played basketball all in their prime years!  In 1988, Jordan was 25 years old, Bird was 31, an Magic was 28.  They were all at the top of their games.  Jordan was the MVP that year averaging an amazing 35.0 point per game while leading a Bulls team that was not very good around him.  Bird finished second for MVP that year averaging a career high 29.9 points per game along with 9.3 rebounds leading the Celtics to yet another #1 seed in the Eastern Conference.  Magic led the Lakers to their fifth NBA Championship.  There were three all-time great players all at their peaks.  Think they could take Curry, Lebron, and Kevin Durant?!

This is what the 1988 USA Basketball Team probably would have looked like.  The stat lines for the 1987-88 season are included.

The Starting Five

Guard – Magic Johnson – 19.6 PPG. 6.2 RPG, 11.9 APG, .492 FG%

Guard – Michael Jordan- 35.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, .535 FG%

Forward – Larry Bird – 29.9 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 6.1 APG, .527 FG%

Forward – Karl Malone – 27.7 PPG, 12.0 RPG, 2.4 APG, .520 FG%

Center – Moses Malone – 20.3 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 1.4 APG, .487 FG%


Guard – Isiah Thomas – 19.5 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 8.4 APG, .463 FG%

Guard – Clyde Drexler – 27.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 5.8 APG, .506 FG%

Forward – Charles Barkley – 28.3 PPG, 11.9 RPG, 3.2 APG, .587 FG%

Forward – Dominique Wilkins – 30.7 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.9 APG, .464 FG%

Forward – Kevin McHale – 22.6 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 2.7 APG, .604 FG%

Forward – James Worthy – 19.7 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 3.9 APG, .531 FG%

Center – Patrick Ewing – 20.2 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.5 APG, .555 FG%


That’s six players of the twelve averaging over 27 points per game.  To put that in perspective, there are two players in the NBA this year averaging over 27 points per game (Curry and James Harden).  More importantly, all twelve of these players are in the Basketball Hall Of Fame,  Again, consider the ages of the players at the time.  All of the players were between the ages of 25-33.  The only player who you could really say was on the decline at the time was Moses Malone.  He averaged 20.3 points and 11.3 rebounds that year.  Also, imagine having to defend Barkley, Wilkins, and McHale in their primes off the bench?!

1988 was one of the few years you have Jordan, Bird, and Magic all playing at their peak.  You would be hard pressed to find three players playing at a higher level during any year.  While these same three players were considered the leaders of the 1992 team, the reality was that both Bird and Magic were on the decline at that time.  Magic had retired and Bird retired after the Olympics.  Neither player played in an NBA game the following season.  1988 would have been much different.

The one thing you could say that would not be a great strength on the 1988 team would be the center position.  Moses was starting to decline and Ewing had not reached his peak yet.  With Ewing at his peak along with David Robinson in 1992, that team was better off at the center position.  But, wait…  There was another center in 1988 in the NBA that would have started over Moses.  He just wouldn’t have been on the USA Olympic Team just like 1992.

Center – Hakeem Olajuwon – 22.8 PPG, 12.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, .514 FG%

If you Hakeem to the starting five, it would make a big difference.

We’re seeing a lot of debates about the NBA now compared to have it was 30 years ago.  The Bird and Lebron comparison is a great example.  We’re now even seeing nonsense such as Curry being compared to Magic.  Again, the current players get overrated in historical context because we see them all of the time.  Magic vs. Curry isn’t even debatable.

The NBA was at its absolute peak in the mid – late 1980’s and this team of twelve would have proven that.  An argument could be made this 1988 second team would beat the 2016 team.  Unfortunately, we never got to see this outstanding group play together.  However, it doesn’t take away from the greatness of this era.






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