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The Miami Heat, Kentucky Wildcats and Beyond: Are Dream Teams Bad for Basketball?

Updated on August 7, 2010

It all started in the summer of 1988

The year was 1988. Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson was placed in charge of the United States Olympic Team. His squad included David Robinson from Navy, Danny Manning from the NCAA champion Kansas Jayhawks, Mitch Richmond and Dan Majerle. Despite the presence of these talented players, the U.S. team lost to Arvydas Sabonis and the Soviet team, 82-76. It was a defeat that shocked the basketball world.

The following year the FIBA, international basketball’s governing body, allowed NBA players to compete in the Olympics for the first time and in 1992 the original “Dream Team” was formed. Ten of its twelve players were included on the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History list. The team featured Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Charles Barkley, and David Robinson. They captured the world’s attention as they brought the gold medal back to the United States.

Flash forward to the summer of 2009. John Calipari was named head coach for the Kentucky Wildcats and proceeded to assemble one of the most celebrated recruiting classes in college basketball history. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Jon Hood and Daniel Orton gave the Wildcats a roster loaded with star power. The team was ranked in the top of the polls for the entire season. They lost only three times in 38 games, but one of those losses was a season-ending defeat at the hands of West Virginia, costing the Wildcats a trip to the Final Four.

One year later, the allure of a “Dream Team” struck the NBA proper. LeBron James said good-bye to his Cleveland teammates and joined Chris Bosh as new members of the Miami Heat. Not since Wilt Chamberlain teamed with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor on the Los Angeles Lakers in 1968 has a team faced expectations as high as those placed on Miami—despite the fact the Heat cut loose every player on their roster except Dwayne Wade and Mario Chalmers. They haven’t played a game yet, but they are the talk of the basketball world.

Are dream teams good for basketball, though?

Are Dream Teams worth watching?

The idea began shortly after the summer of 1988
The idea began shortly after the summer of 1988
The US Olympic team starring David Robinson and Danny Manning lost to the Soviets, 82-76
The US Olympic team starring David Robinson and Danny Manning lost to the Soviets, 82-76
In 1992, the greatest group of basketball players ever assembled became the first "Dream Team"
In 1992, the greatest group of basketball players ever assembled became the first "Dream Team"
Kentucky Wildcats and Coach John Calipari seem intent on assembling a college all-star team every year
Kentucky Wildcats and Coach John Calipari seem intent on assembling a college all-star team every year
The Miami Heat with Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh have high expectations
The Miami Heat with Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh have high expectations
Are dream teams and outmatched opponents good for the game of basketball?
Are dream teams and outmatched opponents good for the game of basketball?

The pros and cons of Dream Teams

An argument for dream teams

Whether in college, professional or international arenas, dream teams stir interest in the game. The 1992 Olympic basketball team was considered the greatest collection of hoops talent ever assembled, even if some players were past their prime. They beat their competition so handily Coach Chuck Daly never called a time-out in any of their games. Opposing players endured losses of 50 points or more, and then lined up to get their idols’ autographs. It wasn’t good basketball, but everyone tuned in to watch this group of legends play the game.

Seventeen years later, everyone wanted to see how Kentucky’s 2009 team of stars would perform. They were fodder for television, radio and Internet blogs across the nation. The UK team was news and when they took to the hardwood, they didn’t disappoint. John Wall was as good as advertised and DeMarcus Cousins was outstanding. The Wildcats were fun to watch, even if you rooted against them. When Kentucky lost in the Regional Final, John Calipari shipped his stars to the NBA and went out in search of a new dream team. They will be fun to watch again, but will they generate the same interest the second time around?

No one knows how the Miami Heat will perform, but it is clear that basketball fans are looking forward to the upcoming season and NBA teams are adjusting their rosters to compete with them. Their first game will match them against the Boston Celtics, and even casual fans will tune in to see what Miami can do. It will certainly be good business for the NBA and the television networks. Dream Teams spark interest in the game of basketball that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

But, is that enough?

The case against dream teams

The biggest argument against dream teams is that they destroy parity. Two talented but evenly-matched teams make for good games—one extremely talented team matched against an ordinary team usually does not. If Miami lives up to their lofty expectations, will there be a reason to watch the Heat play New York, Sacramento or Utah? Will they race to big leads against outmatched opponents and exile their stars to the bench for good in the second half? James, Wade and Bosh laughing on the sidelines (or sitting with bored expressions) instead of performing on the court is not good television or basketball. Will there even be a point to televising a game with Miami versus anyone other than Boston, Orlando or Los Angeles? And perhaps most importantly, will fans tuning in be rooting for the Miami Heat or against them? If fans watch hoping to see the Heat lose, television sets will turn to reruns of “Roseanne” as soon as Miami goes up by fifteen points.

Dream teams eventually get boring. They pique fan interest initially, but success that comes easily isn’t entertaining. Even if it’s interesting basketball, it isn’t good basketball. A predetermined winner is fine in WWF matches, but basketball needs strong rivalries to maintain interest. Without good teams, curiosity wanes.

Parity can still be found on the college level, of course. While Kentucky is blasting South Carolina off the court, hoops junkies can always tune in to Colorado State versus Utah or Nebraska versus Oklahoma State—but will they? A more likely scenario suggests fans will look for their remote to catch “Roseanne” when the Wildcats take a big lead, also. UK boosters will stay with the game, but everyone else will last only long enough to see if Kentucky wins or loses.

Kentucky’s all-star teams represent a different issue, as well. When five UK players were selected in the NBA draft and John Calipari hailed it as the greatest moment in Kentucky basketball history, we realized Coach Cal intended to field high school all-star teams wearing Kentucky jerseys annually. It isn’t about winning championships for Kentucky—it’s about turning the Wildcats into an NBA farm team and basking in the hype that accompanies stars—even 18 year-old stars. Kentucky fans have been cheated.

Dream Teams hurt the game of basketball

How does it all balance out? Are dream teams good for the game, or not? In the final analysis, I believe they are not. Watching Larry Bird and Magic Johnson duel in the NBA Finals was great basketball—watching them team up to destroy Chris Mullin would not have been. After seeing the Miami Heat on television a few times this fall, the casual fan will lose interest and the die-hards will grow bored with mismatches. People will root against them, simply hoping to see a good game.

College dream teams impact the game and its players negatively, as well. When the talent level is so much greater than that of an opponent, players won’t improve. Bad habits picked up dominating high school kids will stay with college stars because they won’t be challenged to improve. Players will view their success as something they are entitled to instead of something to earn, and ugly moments of posturing will follow. If Kentucky wins an NCAA title under Calipari, I fear it will be a hollow victory for the UK students and fans, because it won’t be about Kentucky—it will be about John Calipari and the NBA.

I hope to see the day when Dream Teams are trivia questions rather than basketball teams, but I suspect there will be many dull games to endure before all-star rosters are a thing of the past. Look for the NBA to someday imitate the NFL and establish franchise players to protect themselves against what happened to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Until then, we’ll be encouraged to tune in for a succession of 40-point blowouts on the college and pro level—live and in high definition.

The Dream Team Poll

Are all-star "dream teams" good for the game of basketball?

See results

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