MIAMI -- Where would LeBron James fit in with the Dream Team of 1992? Charles Barkley didn't need much time to marry the two eras.
"I think LeBron is going to be one of the 10 greatest players by the time he's done," said Barkley on Tuesday night, less than an hour before James came just one rebound shy of a triple-double in Miami's Game 4 win. "I think he'd probably be -- after Michael [Jordan] -- the second-best player on the team."
Barkley wasn't talking about how James will be viewed once his career ends. He was referring to James as he is right now, on the verge of his first title. He also wasn't shy about forecasting James' spot in the history books.
"He's going to be one of the 10 greatest ever by the time he finishes," said Barkley.
That may have been the most impressive compliment I've ever heard on behalf of James, largely because it rings true. So much of the praise for LeBron has been based on what he could become. Now that he has been fulfilling that potential in this series, it is easy to see that his talent could have earned the No. 2 role on the greatest team of all time.
For the sake of perspective, I asked Barkley where Kevin Durant would have fit into the 1992 Olympic team.
"That's a great question," said Barkley, the leading scorer of the '92 Dream Team, taking a longer time to consider his response. "Well, I think the difference between [Durant] and LeBron is his primary thing is scoring. We all can score; LeBron brings all the other intangibles -- passing, rebounding, things like that to a team. That's the biggest difference I give LeBron a heads up. I mean, we all can score, but [Durant] is not as great a rebounder as some of the guys."
It is another testament to what Durant has been up against in this series. It is ridiculous to criticize him or Russell Westbrook for trailing 3-1 as the Heat look to capture the championship in Game 5 on Thursday. The Thunder's stars have been unable to establish their agenda because they've never been through an experience like this year's Finals. And so Miami, which has gone through two years of heavy scrutiny in preparation for this moment, has been able to dictate the terms defensively by keeping the ball away from Durant and forcing Westbrook to beat them.
OKC reached the Finals because it was able to establish Durant as its No. 1 option and the best player on the floor. But that dynamic hasn't been established against the Heat. In Game 4, Durant was at best the third-best player on the court, and maybe No. 4 behind Dwyane Wade. While such a hierarchy could never lead the Thunder to victory, it doesn't make Durant a failure. On the contrary, it shows how well he has done to come as far as he has so quickly. Durant is a 23 year old finishing his fifth season in the NBA, and so far in this Finals, he's realizing how much he needs to grow. It is not unlike the experience James had as a 22 year when he carried the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals faster than anyone could have predicted. Cleveland was swept by the Spurs because LeBron and his teammates didn't know how to finish the job.
At that time, I doubted whether Barkley would have nominated James as the No. 2 player behind Jordan on the original Dream Team. Applying the same perspective, I doubt whether Durant -- as he is today -- would have even earned a place on the Olympic team of '92. There were three small forwards on that team, and Durant wasn't going to replace Larry Bird or Scottie Pippen. You could make the argument that he would have been selected ahead of Chris Mullin, but I doubt it. That team was defined by the knowledge and experience of its stars, and Mullin was not only a terrific shooter, but also an exemplary teammate. In Jack McCallum's excellent new book Dream Team, he reveals that coach Chuck Daly listed Mullin among Jordan, Magic Johnson, Pippen, David Robinson, Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing as the players that he felt were needed on the team.
Durant's inability to find space on the floor in this series is another demonstration of how much he is likely to improve. It is amazing that such a young a player with so much responsibility has been able to average 30.3 points and shoot 55 percent in the Finals. Based on how far 27-year-old James has come since his Finals debut five years ago (and his failures in last year's Finals), Durant appears likely to build upon his performance and become a terrific leader over the next three or four years.
As for the speculation that the U.S. team of this summer's Olympics could prove superior to the Dream Team of '92, Barkley will have none of it. The charisma of the original team is unrivaled, as demonstrated by McCallum's book and the recent ratings success of NBA TV's documentary The Dream Team. The current group is not on the same level in terms of achievements or experience.
"The biggest advantage we had was depth," said Barkley. "Do they have five guys that can play with us? Yeah, of course they do. But they don't have 10. These players today, yeah, they got five great players, but when they went to the bench that was a huge drop-off. Huge drop-off. You take away LeBron, Kobe [Bryant] -- I'll even give you Dwyane. What would they have after that? They don't have the depth to play with us."