Magic Johnson said that both Kobe Bryant and LeBron James would "definitely"… (Diego Azubel / EPA / July…)
Let's make one thing clear.
Magic Johnson can't think of a single scenario in which the 2012 U.S. men's basketball would beat his esteemed 1992 Dream Team. Even if Kobe Bryant and LeBron James believe otherwise.
"They know we will crush them," Johnson said.
He then let out a laugh through his signature Magic smile Saturday in an interview with The Times, moments before holding a brunch at the Skirball Cultural Center for his self-named foundation. Still, Johnson hardly took offense to suggestions by Bryant and James leading up to the 2012 Olympics that their team would beat what many consider to be the most dominant basketball team ever put together.
That mind-set shows one of the many reasons why Johnson believes Team USA's game Sunday against France will mark the beginning of an inevitable gold-medal run. That mind-set also led Johnson to argue Bryant and James would earn a spot on the original Dream Team. If only someone could invent a time machine.
"You have to say Kobe would definitely make it," Johnson said. "He's unbelievable. We're so lucky and so fortunate we get a chance to watch Kobe play every single night here in L.A. LeBron is the best all-around player in the game so he would definitely make our team. Kevin Durant would have a shot as well. You have two definitely in with Kobe and LeBron."
But who would Bryant and James replace on the original roster? Johnson could only single out power forward Christian Laettner, who was the only college player selected for the 1992 team. Bryant would've had to compete for playing time with Michael Jordan and Clyde Drexler. James, who has played power forward and center through five exhibition games, would have to fight in a bloated frontcourt, including Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson. Or James could slide over to his natural position at small forward, though that would put him in contention with Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen and Chris Mullin for minutes.
Regardless of how that would've played out, it's clear that Johnson views Bryant and James as the leaders of this year's U.S. Olympic team.
"Kobe and LeBron won't let this team lose," Johnson said.
Theyll ensure victory in different ways.
Team USA suffered a rash of injuries to frontcourt players, including Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh and Blake Griffin. James' versatility has helped close that void. Whether he's playing at small forward, power forward or center, one thing stays constant for James. He's leading the team with an 18.6 points on 50% shooting. Even through five exhibition games, Johnson noticed James "has matured a lot" since he finally won his first NBA championship this last season with the Miami Heat.
Meanwhile, Bryant is only fifth on the team in scoring, averaging 8.2 points on 40% shooting, hardly the numbers he'd normally post with the Lakers. But he's having a large influence by becoming the team's elder statesmen, even joking to reporters in London that teammates call him the "O.G," short for original gangster.
Bryant isn't just giving speeches about how he won five NBA championships or the need to treat every game seriously. He shed 16 pounds to ensure playing at a faster pace. Bryant has gladly set up scorers in Durant and Carmelo Anthony. The Lakers star also embraces guarding the opposing team's top scorer. It kind of reminds Johnson of his own role with the Dream Team.
"He doesn't have to dominate like he used to. I didn't have to dominate like I used to," Johnson said. "I just went out and played the game. The main thing was to be the captain, push the guys and help them understand every game is a big game no matter who you're playing."
Still, Johnson believes such a presence would prove to be a wasted effort if time travel ever permitted the 2012 team to play the '92 squad.
Said Johnson: "We would beat them by 15-20 points."