Building an Olympic team shouldn’t be like constructing an All-Star team. A one-off All-Star team doesn’t need chemistry, role players or defense (definitely not any defense). An Olympic U.S. team requires all that and a dose of humility, too, a point underscored after the 2004 bronze medal Olympic performance and the World Championship failures surrounding it. This summer has broken out the nostalgia from the 1992 team, and the otherworldly talent on it. Picking that squad must have been like having a dozen straight first-round picks in your fantasy league. No team, though, is perfect, even with that much leeway. Try as a committee might, there are always deserving players left out when it comes time to represent a country at the Olympics. Here then, are the best 20 players of the last 20 years who never made a U.S. Olympic team.
*** *** ***
20. BEN WALLACE
The case for Wallace is the case for Rodman, eight years later. Everyone knows Wallace’s bread and butter was rebounding and blocking shots, with a dash of intimidation on the side. From 2001-03 he led the league in rebounds. As far as one-dimensional players go, this is your guy.
19. GILBERT ARENAS
Yes, I did say that FIBA teams need players whose makeup is able to adapt to a more team-oriented focus than an NBA squad. Sure seems to eliminate, Agent Zero, I fully admit. However, the way he could score in bunches because of his speed (he played in running shoes) would translate into a spot on 2004’s team taking the spot of, oh, Richard Jefferson. He officially blew up after his 29.3 points per game in 2005-06 that he continued into a 28.3 points per game season the next year and three All-Star games. His knee injury in 2007 basically ended any talk of him being added to the ’08 squad, though I doubt his reputation would have allowed him to be a part of the U.S. “Redeem Team,” anyway.
18. ELTON BRAND
The classic 20 and 10 guy actually averaged at least 18 points and 10 rebounds six of his first seven years in the NBA. Brand is likely the least flashy player on this entire list but he would have been a much-needed constant on the 2004 team. He seems like a no-brainer picking against another Duke guy and 2004 Olympic member, Carlos Boozer, anyway.
17. MICHAEL FINLEY
Flashy he wasn’t, but most people forget Finley carried the Mavs before Dirk became, well, Dirk. By 2000 he was averaging more than 22 points per game and even four years later he was putting up 18.6 a clip. In two of those seasons during that run, he broke 40 percent from three, where the two-time All-Star’s specialty was camping in the corner waiting for the kick pass. He was fine as a slasher but would have done well for himself just being a knockdown artist from the wing.
16. JERMAINE O’NEAL
Starting from 2001-02 and ending in 2003-04, the once-castoff from Portland put up three straight seasons of at least 10 boards and 19 points, all wrapped in a shell of a mean streak on the court. During the middle of that stretch he played on three U.S. teams, ending in the 2002 world championships. Did the sour taste of not even winning a medal at that tournament keep him off the 2004 Olympic team? No, a knee injury cropped up that didn’t allow him to go after all, and contributed to a lack of interior size on that squad. Based on numbers alone O’Neal was one of the league’s most dependable big men even if he was a bit of a black hole when the ball went his way.
15. METTA WORLD PEACE
Every national team needs a lockdown defender, and Ron Artest and later, MWP, would have been the obvious choice on both these teams. Again, the Pacers’ brawl in Detroit didn’t happen until after the 2004 Olympics, so that wasn’t in play even if Artest’s interesting attitude was already in play. Still, he could always shoot from mid-range and the three if needed and was a bull barreling to the hoop. Guarantee if you had put MWP on Manu Ginobili in 2004, that game goes differently.
14. PAUL PIERCE
He’s been a part of five U.S. national teams in one capacity or another, including the dreaded 2002 world championship team with O’Neal. Was he blackballed from further teams because of that, too? It’s too bad if so because the U.S. missed out on a maturing player who would have been a player able to get his own shot in 2008 (2004 may have been too soon to choose him after the 2002 tourney). We may think of him as an aging player now, but four years ago his defense was above average and he had been scoring at least 20 points per game every year since Y2K.
13. RICHARD HAMILTON
The U.S. plays too much stagnant basketball with too much emphasis on one-on-one? Enter Hamilton, who could have run Euro defenders off screens to death in 2004. His three-point shooting never scared anyone and his field-goal percentage was in the mid-40s during the years before the 2004 cut, but the shooting guard who played like a water bug would have filled a whole in the bronze-medal winning team’s mid-range game with his pull-up J after averaging between 17.6 and 20.0 points per game four straight seasons.
12. JAMAL MASHBURN
Mash was sneaky smooth at the three spot and would have been a solid addition to the ’96 squad after three years in the league. He’d averaged 24.1 and 23.4 points in his second and third years and was shooting 33 percent from three between those years. As kind of a poor-man’s LeBron James, he would have kept the ball moving from his forward position while picking up another team’s best player when Grant Hill wasn’t. He played on the developmental team of college kids that famously beat the ’92 Dream Team in San Diego, but he should have been an add as a pro, too.
11. MIKE BIBBY
When the Kings were in their prime under Rick Adelman, they were basically Argentina of the last decade. Big men who were agile, a point guard who did unseemly things with the ball and your token bizarre player (Doug Christie) who could score. Bibby was the floor general without a sense of hesitation from shooting when open and would have been a good nod for the ’04 team. He’s been in the league’s top 10 in assists three times in his career, and in 2003-04 was his second-best year as a pro, averaging 19.5 points and 6.8 assists.
10. JAMES WORTHY
In 1992, the Lakers’ Showtime post had shot at least 53 percent 8 of his 10 years in the NBA, averaged at least 19 points the last six seasons and was a seven-time All-Star. The ’92 team had a glut of forwards but could have added him. Worthy was the forerunner to the Chris Webber and Chris Bosh forwards who could drag defenders out further than they wanted from the hoop, but Worthy was much faster than those two. Who are you going to knock off from 1992 for Worthy? Almost no one if you count Christian Laettner as a special, protected selection. Worthy was murder as a 6-10 forward running step-for-step with Magic Johnson on Laker fast breaks, and would have done the same internationally.
9. BRANDON ROY
One of the smoothest guards since the moment he was drafted, Roy fits the mold of the unselfish player needed to make an Olympic team win. But the best Euro teams that punished the U.S. in the mid-2000s had guys who would dice up a defense without hesitation because of a permanent green light. Roy had that in Portland and played the exact same way; he would get you the ball if you were in a better spot even though, 9 times out of 10, he was the better player on the Blazers’ roster. His biggest selling point was his clutch playmaking. On U.S. teams where defer is the watchword, he’d have taken a big shot in 2008.
8. ANDREW BYNUM
Just when you thought only guards were getting love on here in the last 10 years, the Lakers’ big man gets the spot because of his pure ability to go up and get rebounds. He’s not as versatile as Pau Gasol in an international setting and doesn’t have the what-the! hops of Lithuania’s Jonas Valanciunas, but the 7-footer is the large body the U.S. doesn’t have this year. He was third in the league in rebounds last season and has averaged nearly two blocks per game the last two seasons in Lakers’ purple and gold. Plus, he put the fear into every international player when he clotheslined Puerto Rico’s J.J. Barea in the 2011 playoffs.
7. CHAUNCEY BILLUPS
Once he picked up the pieces from his terrible start to his career in Boston, Toronto, Denver and Minnesota, Billups became the model of what a Team USA point should look like. Besides the unquantifiable “leadership” ability he showed, Billups was knocking down everything from behind the arc when the ’04 and ’08 teams would have been picked, shooting at least 39 percent from deep every year but one from 2001-02 to 2008-09.
6. CHRIS WEBBER
Another of the 1992 Dream Team scrimmage squad wasn’t where he needed to be mentally in ’96 for an Olympic spot despite being Rookie of the Year. But by 2000 and 2004, he was one of the NBA’s best players whose talents would have translated perfectly to international basketball’s passing-oriented style. The five-time All-Star, beginning in 1999, averaged 24.5, 27.1, 24.5, 23.0 and 18 points per game in his next five seasons when he was in the prime for an Olympic spot. Those same years he put up at least 4.2 assists per game, which only goes to show what we already knew without stats in front of us: Webber could dish as well as any front-court player in all of the 2000s.
5. ISIAH THOMAS
The leader of Detroit’s “Bad Boys” has been the topic of much discussion around the 1992 Dream Team for a reason. After winning two titles at point guard, he would have brought a surly edge in Barcelona, though that edge was hardly needed because of the inferior competition the U.S. faced. Would he have deferred enough with the ball or would one of the best scoring guards of his era have called his own number more than his teammates’ liking? That and his mix in the U.S. chemistry are still up for debate. The way he caused headaches on the court for opponents certainly isn’t, though.
4. SHAWN KEMP
Like Rodman, Kemp’s only shot was in 1996. By 2000 he weighed as much as a mid-sized sedan and lost the hops that would have cleared out every key in the Atlanta Olympics. The Reign Man was vicious in the air, whether he was challenging your shot or flushing his own down on your grill. And what do you know — his best overall year was 1995-96, when he shot 56 percent from the field and averaged 19.6 points per game and a career-best 11.4 boards.
3. RAJON RONDO
Even though he sticks to his claim he never wants to play for Team USA after worlds selection in 2010, he should have been on this year’s squad. Kyrie Irving was making guys look like they were playing defense in a blender in training camp, but Rondo has a better feel for the game right now. He’s channeling Jason Kidd’s triple-double fever, and we all know how well a player steps outside his comfort zone in Olympic basketball is key to his success. With him and Chris Paul in the game at the same time, defenses would be forced to stick to man-to-man, because they would find any crease for an assist. Is he the new Isiah Thomas because of his attitude? Maybe. But just like Zeke, he’s a player no international team could produce an equal for.
2. TRACY MCGRADY
T-Mac had an untouchable stretch once he left Toronto in 2000. Evidence: From 2002-04 he led the league with 32.1 points and 28.0 per game. How did he only make the 2003 Tournament of the Americas? Well, he turned down the chance to be an Olympian in 2004, dropping out from the team along with Elton Brand from this list because of his marriage at the time. Usually with a FIBA squad you want the 10 most versatile players you can find, but McGrady was deserving because of his scoring, period. It may have been the only trick in his bag but no one was better through that stretch (that would have decided the ’04 squad) than the seven-time All-Star.
1. DENNIS RODMAN
The Worm only had one chance to realistically make a squad, but the powers that be who made the 1996 team blew it by not adding one of the game’s best-ever rebounders. But this wasn’t a basketball decision, even though Charles Barkley has come out and said that team won gold despite one of the most selfish attitudes he’d been around. The U.S. just didn’t want to have Rodman as one of the faces on its team, because he would have surely been zoomed in on during the opening ceremonies in Atlanta, and you can bet he would have been wearing garish makeup. I suppose that somehow made sense leaving off an undersized player who averaged at least 14.9 rebounds per game for seven straight seasons starting in 1991-92. In 1994-95, he grabbed 37 percent of every defensive rebound on the floor when he played. Not like the USA Basketball leaders were watching or anything.
Who would you add to this list?
Follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGreif.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.