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Monday, November 26, 2007

LeBron's Triple Doubles Turn Back the Clock to 1989

Oscar 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:29 AM



At Monday, November 26, 2007 7:56:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

Kobe's season is not being of MVP standard so far - I'd go as far as to put Howard ahead of him at this point, although not as MVP material either. Right now it's LeBron vs Garnett.

LeBron is playing incredible in offense, but even though he is more committed to defense he is far from the 88-89 Jordan in that regard.

At Monday, November 26, 2007 5:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kobe's numbers are not as good as they were last year, particularly compared to his production down the stretch when he carried the Lakers into the playoffs and was clearly the best player in the league. However, 27.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 4.8 apg --plus his defense and the double teams that he constantly draws--certainly earns him a place in any MVP discussion. LeBron has been the best player so far but KG has been the best player on the best team, which often carries a lot of weight with MVP voters.

I agree that LeBron's defensive game is not equal to Jordan's (it is not equal to Kobe's, either).

At Monday, November 26, 2007 6:15:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


kobe team is starting to lose i had him number one but the man as far as now and any time soon lebron james the back to back trle doubles 45 vs minnesota and 2 other triple doubles. ive been saying for the LONGEST he is the best player in the league because he is most complete player in the league he does more than score he is great all around what he is doing is amazing even a big kobe fan like you have to acknowledge this. he has carried cleveland so far like jordan in 89 fifth season carried the bulls to conference finals. this guy is amazing i been saying he is the best the world is giveing it up now for the true king lb fam.

kobe is better and jordan is better at defense for now but the king is comeing and will surpass in all areas jordan is greatest ever for now but 10 years form now the king is greatest ever.

At Monday, November 26, 2007 7:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


What you previously said about LeBron is irrelevant because he was not playing the way that he is right now. If he had been playing this way then I would have made the post I just made at that time. I noted last season that LeBron is on what I called an "accelerated growth curve" and we see that this growth curve is continuing this year. I'm not writing about Kobe, LeBron or anyone else as a "fan" but as an analyst of their games.

Just like I said last season that it was too early to call LeBron the MVP, it is too early to say that in 10 years he will be the greatest ever--he must sustain excellence and win championships (or at the very least be in perennial contention for championships).

At Tuesday, November 27, 2007 2:14:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I'm not sure that number of career triple doubles is that good an indicator of all-around play for perimeter players. For instance, though McGrady only has two career triple doubles (a surprising fact), his production as far as rpg and apg is similar that that of MJ and Kobe. In light of that, I don't think it's quite fair to toss T-Mac in the category of dominant scorers who aren't all-around threats.

Getting a triple double in recent history has often come down to a willingness to make sure to grab the extra rebound or get the extra assist you need to keep your numbers up. For instance, it's no secret that when Jordan put up his impressive string of triple doubles that he was consciously trying to accumulate them. If MJ didn't feel a need to do this (then and perhaps at other isolated times in his career) and it caused his triple-double total to be chopped in half, that would not take away from his status as an all-around threat.

I think LeBron is capable of averaging a triple double, but not one of the 30-10-10 variety (that's just too much of a load to carry in this era). If he shot the ball less and focused some of that energy on rebounding and passing, he could probably average something like 22-10-10.

Magic Johnson actually came very close to averaging a triple-double in 1982: 18.6-9.6-9.5. It's interesting to note that this was before Magic had full-time point guard responsibilities. With Norm Nixon manning the point, Magic was free to crash the offensive boards. When Magic became the full-time point guard after Nixon was traded, he had to worry about setting up the offense rather than positioning himself for rebounds, and his offensive rebounding numbers declined dramatically. Moral of the story: it's tough to come close to averaging a triple double when faced with a responsibility (like scoring or running the offense) which takes away from your freedom to accumulate assists, rebounds, or both.

At Tuesday, November 27, 2007 4:10:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


My post may have come across as unduly harsh against T-Mac, whose game I very much like. Jeff Van Gundy has said that T-Mac is one of the most gifted passers in the league. Julius Erving would be another example of a very good all around player who did not rack up many triple doubles. Despite exceptions such as T-Mac and Dr. J, in general I think that triple doubles are a decent indicator of versatility.

You are probably right that some players have more actively pursued getting triple doubles than other players have. Of course, there are some infamous examples of lesser players who went to great lengths to get a triple double.

Oscar Robertson has told me (and other interviewers) that he never thought about getting triple doubles (or any other stat); he was just doing what he thought that his team needed him to do.

At Tuesday, November 27, 2007 3:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


no david he has been playing this way or close well not quite like this but he has been playing great kobe was more dominant scorer and better defender but james is now a dominant scorer. kobe a great rebounder at leat right now but not on the level of james in that area, im not saying james is way better than kobe he is not or vice versa i would love both guys on my team but kobe 29 an old 29 his 13th year and the kid is 22 with similar game it is james time now and he is playing like that. kobe is not as athletic as his younger years he is playing a non athletic game right now well james is till athletic.

james if he keeps this up will be greatest ever youre right we dont know what will happen but he will if he coud keep this up for that long.

At Tuesday, November 27, 2007 5:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


To cite just two examples, Kobe has delivered left handed blocked shots versus Tim Duncan and Yao Ming this year, so it is not correct to say that he is playing a "non-athletic" game. At 29 he is likely right in the middle of his prime (we won't know for sure about that until his career is over and we can look back on his complete body of work).

Kobe has already won rings and scoring titles in addition to making numerous All-NBA and All-Defensive Teams, so you cannot yet compare LeBron's career with his. However, this season LeBron has made great strides toward being recognized as the best player right now, which he has stated is a goal of his.

At Thursday, April 17, 2008 7:22:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Lebron is MUCH more similar to Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan... The cloned height/weight, the point guard / forward position, ridicilous passing ability. Only differense i see between Lebron and prime Magic Johnson is that Lebron is MUCH more athletic... and that Lebrons scoring priority is a bit higher than Magics was, therefore less assists.

Jordan? No.. i dont see any similarity at all. Except that they have the same #23... Dunking maybe?

This is a compliment from me to Lebron aswell.... because i think Magic Johnson was the best player of all time, not Jordan...

At Friday, April 18, 2008 9:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Physically, LeBron is more like Magic than MJ but LeBron's game is more like MJ's precisely because LeBron is much more athletic than Magic was. LeBron's numbers in 2007-08 are much more similar to MJ's in 1989 than to any season Magic ever had.

At Sunday, November 30, 2008 9:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Larry bird said something about triple doubles, he said that he could get triple double every night if he wanted it, but then what's the point if your team loses

At Monday, January 04, 2010 8:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well in that case if you wanna go by statistical similarity and athleticism... then only Oscar Robertson comes to mind.

Lebron & Oscar are the only people in NBA history to average 27+ ppg, 7+ rpg, 7+ apg more than two times...

Lebron is like a 6´8" clone of Oscar Robertson of our generation and our basketball ERA.


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