To finally close out the dead-on-arrival debate between the 1992 Dream Team and whatever this 2012 version is called that barely edged past Lithuania and Spain, let's examine what the best possible Dream Team of all-time would have been if NBA players were always allowed to play for gold medals.
There aren't a lot of years that need to be considered: the 1992 squad was certainly the best one that's been assembled over the last 20 years, either 1984 or 1988 needs to be argued for considering they were the only two Olympic years during the NBA's greatest stretch of talent ever—and since Bill Simmons convincingly explained in The Book of Basketball that 1984 would have been better, we'll go with that—and 1968 from the league's original Golden Age (edging out the '64 squad since '68 includes the collegiate versions of Kareem and Maravich).
We'll compare the post players, wing players, and point guards for each squad, giving a brief analysis of how the different groupings might have fared against each other, and finally we'll determine which year makes the best case for being the ultimate possible Dream Team ever. Players are listed in approximate order by rank/value/ability for each year so that you can see the basic depth chart, and names marked with (*) were in their prime during that year. I've also picked the starters and 4 key reserves who would get the majority of the bench minutes for each club.
31-year-old Wilt Chamberlain(*) -starter
34-year-old Bill Russell -starter
21-year-old Lew Alcindor -key reserve
28-year-old Jerry Lucas(*)
37-year-old Kareem Adbul-Jabaar -starter
29-year-old Moses Malone -key reserve
26-year-old Kevin McHale -key reserve
21-year-old Patrick Ewing
26-year-old David Robinson(*) -starter
29-year-old Patrick Ewing(*) -key reserve
29-year-old Charles Barkley(*) -starter
29-year-old Karl Malone(*) -key reserve
22-year-old Christian Laettner
There is no debate whatsoever that 1968 has this one in the bag. Assuming they only play Wilt for 20-24 minutes/game so that his egocentric style of play doesn't ruin the team, they can unleash him 5-6 minutes at a time each quarter and tell him that's all he gets to rack up the biggest stats he can (all he cares about anyway) which results in some serious overpowering around the rim, and Alcindor at 21 was certainly better than Kareem at 37 or even Ewing at 29. Russell at 34 is arguably still the best defender here, no lower than barely 2nd behind 1992's Robinson, plus he's fast and versatile enough to play PF beside Chamberlain or Alcindor. Lucas has the best stretch-4 capabilities above, adding another dimension to what '68 can do to cause trouble for opponents. One more piece of praise for '68: Russell and Chamberlain are the best two passing big men listed above. Looking at the other two groups, the post men of '92 take '84 fairly easily since 1984's center options are all off-prime and earn a shaky B to '92's solid B+, and their only real PF is McHale, meaning Bird would have to move up quite often to rebound and guard against Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Bill Russell, and Jerry Lucas – not happening. For what it's worth, I'd replace Laettner with Dennis Rodman, not Shaq -- 1992 has enough solid centers. Rank: 1968 > 1992 > 1984
30-year-old Jerry West(*) -starter
28-year-old John Havlicek(*) -starter
32-year-old Hal Greer(*) -key reserve
25-year-old Billy Cunningham(*) -key reserve
33-year-old Elgin Baylor(*) -key reserve
21-year-old Pete Maravich
27-year-old Larry Bird(*) -starter
26-year-old Sidney Moncrief(*) -starter
34-year-old Julius Erving -starter
27-year-old Bernard King(*) -key reserve
21-year-old Michael Jordan
26-year-old Andrew Toney(*)
29-year-old Michael Jordan(*) -starter
26-year-old Scottie Pippen(*) -starter
30-year-old Clyde Drexler(*) -key reserve
29-year-old Chris Mullin(*) -key reserve
35-year-old Larry Bird
Holy god, these groups are really hard to rank – they're all so good. Looking at each year's top-2 wings (West/Havlicek vs. Bird/Erving/Moncrief vs. Jordan/Pippen), I'm going to say it's just about a wash across the board with 1984 falling just a half-step behind the other two. Bird and Dr. J are the only non-elite defenders of the 7, but Bird is the only one who is West's equal as a passer. Jordan's killer instinct was something else, but it could also drive teammates nuts (remember that he continually demoralized Clyde in practices, and Drexler's career took a turn for the drastically worse from that point forward). Moncrief doesn't have the all-around offense of the others, but his outside jumper ranks near that of Bird and West (would have been a better 3FG% in a later era), so he adds a dimension to '84 that the '92 Bulls teammates don't; Greer and Mullin are the other wings who would log big minutes that could consistently contribute with their outside shot.
Beyond the top-2 for each year, 1968's backup wings have a good blend of defense, hoops IQ, outside shooting (Maravich would be the best 3-point shooter overall, plus Greer's jumper was great), and driving ability; 1984 has a good group of wings who could attack and fly for points in dazzling fashion, and Toney would be the second-unit's only 3-point shooter if he ever saw the floor (mainly just against Celtic players); 1992 has a trio of guys who are all great from a team chemistry standpoint, Mullin and Bird were outstanding outside shooters, but they're a poor group defensively after the starters and weak drivers to the hoop other than Drexler. If you're still not sold on the exceptional strength of 1968's wings, consider this: I didn't even feel the need to include 24-year-old Rick Barry in his prime. Why not? A) He sat out '67-68 as he switched to the ABA and then missed most of '68-69 with a bad knee injury. B) He was the biggest asshole in NBA history, and I won't add one more chemistry question mark to a team with Chamberlain. Rank: 1968 > 1984 > 1992
29-year-old Oscar Robertson(*) -starter
30-year-old Lenny Wilkens(*)
24-year-old Magic Johnson(*) -starter
23-year-old Isiah Thomas(*) -key reserve
32-year-old Magic Johnson -starter
30-year-old John Stockton(*)
1984 has the top group of lead guards since that year's Magic is certainly superior to 1992's Magic, and his ability to unify and maximize the offense was a slight notch above Robertson's contributions. 1984 also has the best back-up PG overall with Isiah Thomas trumping Stockton (not that close), who tops the very-good-but-not-quite-at-THAT-level Wilkens by a small margin. Stockton clearly has the best jumper of all the PG's, but he won't/didn't play much and 1968's Jerry West can seamlessly run the point (he was a first-rate PG his last few years in the league) if they get sick of Oscar being a total asshole, and then they would have the top shooter and defender at the position. Rank: 1984 > 1968 > 1992
Although 1992 probably has the best team cohesion of all the groups (depending on how much crap 1968 has to take from Chamberlain and Robertson, and how much 1984 has to deal with Isiah Thomas being a poor sport and Larry Bird being out late at the bar on the regular), they just don't have the plethora of go-for-the-jugular guys the other years have – only MJ. Their bigs are vulnerable to 1968's, and their backup wings give up a lot to both other squads. I hate to say it, but team chemistry won't be enough to place 1992's Dream Team better than bronze out of these three groups, not with defensive maestros Moncrief and Havlicek pulling full-time “guard Jordan” duty.
Between 1968 and 1984, the elder team utterly dominates in the frontcourt in a way that's not even fair, and their group of wings undeniably offers a lot more in virtually every aspect of the game. 1984 has the better PG's, but it's not enough to get them the gold, not when '68 can still roll out West and Oscar in their primes.
Bronze: 1992 (unless you include 1988)