LeBron's Triple Doubles Turn Back the Clock to 1989Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan each could score 30-plus points while putting up triple doubles but most perimeter superstars can be roughly divided into two categories: triple double threats who are not great scorers (such as Jason Kidd, who has 90 career regular season triple doubles) and dominant scorers like Tracy McGrady, who has won two scoring titles but posted just two career regular season triple doubles. The triple double threat player and the dominant scorer have different skill sets but each one places great pressure on opposing defenses. In case you're wondering, Kobe Bryant is somewhat of a hybrid of these types, with two scoring titles and 14 career regular season triple doubles to his credit; he has fewer triple doubles than the high-scoring Jordan (who had 25) but almost as many as noted all-around threat Scottie Pippen (17).
LeBron James had 30 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in Cleveland's 111-106 win over Indiana on Sunday; his 14th career triple double came just one day after James scored more than 30 points while having a triple double on Saturday, making him the first player to have at least 30-10-10 on back to back days since Jordan did it on March 28-29, 1989. That was the year that Chicago Bulls Coach Doug Collins shifted Jordan from shooting guard to point guard down the stretch of the season. Jordan racked up 15 triple doubles in 1988-89, including seven in a row and 10 out of 11 from late March to mid April. Jordan scored between 21 and 47 points in those 10 games but the Bulls only went 5-5. That was Scottie Pippen's second season; he had not yet fully blossomed but he showed plenty of promise, increasing his scoring average from 7.9 ppg to 14.4 ppg while enjoying similar improvement in other aspects of his game. In the first game of Jordan's fantastic triple double streak, Pippen scored a game-high 31 points in a 111-110 win over Seattle.
What does all of this history mean? James is making a solid case that he is the best player in the game by showing that he, like Robertson and Jordan, can score at a high rate while still amassing triple doubles. We could have a very intriguing MVP race this season between James, Kevin Garnett--the all-around threat who is leading Boston's resurgence--and Kobe Bryant, the dominant scorer who also makes his presence felt on defense and who can be counted on to provide solid rebounding and playmaking. Of course, Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash will also probably receive consideration, while Tim Duncan will be unjustly ignored since his relatively low minutes during the regular season artificially suppress his per game averages.
Robertson and Jordan's high scoring triple double feats are a tribute to their talent and hard work but these accomplishments also indicate that their teammates were not quite carrying their weight. Jordan did not start winning championships until Pippen emerged as an All-NBA player and Robertson's 1962 Cincinnati Royals went 43-37 and lost in the first round of the playoffs despite him averaging 30-plus points and a triple double during that campaign, the only time an NBA player has averaged a triple double for an entire season.
The Cavaliers have yet to find someone to play the Pippen role while James does his best imitation of Jordan (which is not to say that he is as good as MJ was); moreover, injuries to Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall plus the holdout of Anderson Varejao have whittled away a lot of the team's depth. James' response, like Jordan' in 1989, is to try to pick up the slack in as many statistical areas as possible. Jordan's Bulls made it to the Eastern Conference finals in 1989 before losing to a dominant Detroit team that was about to win back to back championships. There is no team like that in the East this year (Garnett's Boston squad has just been put together and does not have the collective playoff experience as a unit that the 1989 Pistons did) so it will be interesting to see just how long James can keep this up and just how far he can carry the team unless/until the Cavaliers are back to full strength; it seems like everyone has either forgotten--or simply dismissed as a fluke--the fact that James led the Cavaliers all the way to the 2007 NBA Finals. Garnett and Tracy McGrady are rightly considered to be superstars but Garnett has only been out of the first round once in his career and McGrady has never made it to the second round, so James' last two playoff runs already distinguish him from many other well known and well regarded players.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:29 AM