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Woulda, Coulda, and the Real Story Behind the Redeem Team

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The post originally appeared on Freakonomics.com

ESPN.com recently offered a somewhat confusing article comparing the 2012 U.S. Men's Olympic basketball team to the 1992 Dream Team. The headline of the article -- "LeBron: We Would Beat Dream Team" -- makes it clear that LeBron James believes the 2012 team would defeat the 1992 Dream Team.

The first line of the story, though, makes a somewhat different claim: "LeBron James has joined Kobe Bryant in saying that he believes this year's Team USA Olympic men's basketball team could beat the 1992 Dream Team."

And then further in the article, we see...

James's comments echoed those of Bryant, who two weeks ago made a similar proclamation.

"It would be a tough one, but I think we would pull it out," Bryant said at a news conference. "People who think we can't beat that team for one game, they are crazy. To sit there and say we can't, it's ludicrous. We can beat them one time."

Bryant appeared to soften those comments a bit Friday, telling reporters, "I didn't say we were a better team. But if you think we can't beat that team one time? Like I'm going to say no, that we'd never beat them.

"They are a better team. The question was 'Can we beat them?' Yes we can. Of course we can."

So are LeBron and Kobe saying the current team would win, as the title of the article suggests? Or are they saying the current team could win, which seems to be the argument made within the article?

At Wired.com, Jason Turbow has written an article that helps answer these questions. Quick preview: The numbers don't suggest the word should be would. But if you want to saycould... well, we know from the NCAA Tournament that upsets in a single game of basketball definitely happen. So the 2012 team could -- as Kobe argues -- win a game against the original Dream Team.

In the process of comparing the latest Olympic team with the Dream Team of 20 years ago, Turbow touches upon a team that many U.S. fans would like to forget. The story of how the team from 2004 only won the bronze -- and the Redeem Team from 2008 -- seems to be somewhat misunderstood. But I think the very same analysis used in the Wired.com article can help shed some light on why the 2004 team failed so miserably and the 2008 team was so successful.

Before I get to this analysis, though, let's discuss another point of view. In The Gold Standard,the coach of the 2008 team, Mike Krzyzewski, had this to say about the 2004 team's problems:

"I, too, had watched as the United States had lost its competitive edge in international basketball. This is not to place blame on those involved with the 2004 Olympic basketball team, a team that was comprised of some of the most talented players and some of the most knowledgeable coaches in the game. In my perspective, the system failed them. The team was sent into competition ill-prepared. It was not a lack of talent or basketball know-how; it was simply a lack of proper time and competition."

Coach K. went on to note...

"It was easy to point fingers and blame this guy or that guy for the way he acted or didn't act in 2004, but Jerry (Colangelo) and I both believed that it was our current system that was flawed, not the players. This system was no longer conducive to winning."

Coach K. appears to make a compelling argument. After all, the 2004 team employed such "stars" as Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, and Carmelo Anthony. Surely such "stars" couldn't have been the problem.

Then again, maybe every "star" in the NBA isn't equally productive. As noted at Wired.com, players who score in abundance tend to be considered "stars." But wins in the NBA -- again, as noted at Wired.com -- are primarily about shooting efficiency, gaining possession of the ball (i.e. grabbing defensive rebounds and steals), and keeping possession of the ball (i.e. grabbing offensive rebounds and avoiding turnovers). Just chucking the ball at the basket might help a player increase his scoring totals (and consequently his salary and fan base); but if the shooting isn't very efficient, then that scoring doesn't really help a team win.

We can see this point when we use all the box score statistics the NBA tracks to measure how many wins each player produces. When we take that step, we can develop a very simple model to explain the failure in 2004 and the success observed in 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2008.

Let's start with the 2004 team. Before we look at the performance of the players on this team, we must remember that an average NBA player will produce 0.100 wins per 48 minutes. And as one can see, the 2004 had a few above average players. But it also employed four NBA veteran players -- LeBron James, Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, and Allen Iverson -- who were below average in 2003-04. LeBron and Melo were just rookies that season. And Stoudemire was only in his second season. Iverson, though, was an NBA veteran who had already demonstrated an inability to hit shots efficiently (a trait that carried over to the Olympics).

2012-07-31-Screenshot20120731at4.09.57PM.png

The article at Wired.com repeats the same analysis for the 1992 and 2012 teams. And we can repeat this analysis for the 1996, 2000, and 2008 teams. When we take this step, an interesting pattern emerges.

2012-07-31-Screenshot20120731at4.10.06PM.png

From 1992 to 2004, the average productivity of players employed -- as measured by the average WP48 on the team -- declined. And the average margin of victory in the Olympic games also declined. Then in 2008, the quality of players sent to the games improved. And suddenly, Team USA was once again trouncing their opponents.

The correlation between Average WP48 and Margin of Victory in Games is 0.96. That seems to suggest a very simple model to explain what we see in the Olympics. The key issue is the quality of players that Team USA is sending to the Olympics. This doesn't mean that the effort made to change the system used to prepare the players didn't have any impact. And it doesn't mean that changes in the level of competition didn't matter. But it suggests that the 2004 outcome is primarily about the quality of players the U.S. sent to these games. In other words, contrary to the argument offered by Coach K, I think we can blame the players for what we saw in 2004 (and yes, I am aware that a number of productive players chose not to go in 2004 -- so it is not simply the case that people in 2004 chose the wrong players).

Furthermore, rather than attempt to credit the coaching, or system, or team chemistry, I think the evidence strongly suggests the success of the 2008 Redeem Team was mostly about the players who played four years ago.

Given all this, what can we expect in 2012? As noted, an upset could definitely happen. So there are no guarantees. Still, it seems likely -- given the players the U.S. has sent to London -- that the U.S. would be expected to win the gold medal. And given what we have seen so far, the margin of victory should be similar to what we saw in 2008. In other words, the U.S. winning by 27 points on Sunday doesn't seem far from this team's expected margin of victory in this Olympics.

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