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Saturday, November 09, 2019

Analyzing Pro Basketball's Triple Double Standouts

Harvey Pollack invented the "triple double" phrase/concept to coincide with Magic Johnson's rookie season in 1979-80. Pollack's famous statistical guide included records for all regular season triple doubles compiled since 1979. For quite some time, Magic Johnson was the leader by a wide margin in post-1979 triple doubles, finishing his career with 138, but recently Russell Westbrook passed Johnson. Westbrook has 140 career triple doubles. Oscar Robertson is the career leader with 181 triple doubles. The only other players who have at least 50 career triple doubles are Jason Kidd (107), LeBron James (84), Wilt Chamberlain (78) and Larry Bird (59).

Robertson was the first player who averaged a triple double for an entire season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg in 1961-62, his second NBA season), and he remains the only player who averaged an aggregate triple double over a five season span (30.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 10.6 apg from 1961-65). Early in his career, Magic Johnson was touted as a player who could possibly average a triple double for a season, but he only came close to doing it once, averaging 18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 9.5 apg in 1981-82, his third season; the season prior to that, he averaged 21.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg and 8.6 apg in just 37 games, and in 1982-83 he averaged 16.8 ppg, 8.6 rpg and 10.5 apg. Johnson averaged at least 10 apg in each of the remaining seasons of his career (other than his short comeback in 1995-96), but he never again averaged at least 8 rpg.

Kidd averaged double figures in assists three times, but he never averaged more than 7.5 rpg in those seasons. His peak rebounding season was 2006-07 (8.2 rpg), when he averaged 13.0 ppg and 9.2 apg.

Kidd had over 40 games in which he missed a triple double by just one point, rebound or assist, but he never chased individual numbers. "That's disrespecting the game," he declared in 2008 when he was on the verge of passing Chamberlain on the career triple double list. "That's how I see it. If it happens, it happens. If you disrespect the game, though, sooner or later it will come back to get you." That being said, Kidd also felt that the triple double is significant because it indicates a player's overall effect on the game: "The league has promoted scoring, but I think that any time you have a line where you can be involved in three categories--maybe four--it shows you've had a real impact. It tells me that I was involved--really involved--in the game."

Kidd's coach with the New Jersey Nets at that time, Lawrence Frank, said that the triple double "is the empirical evidence of how good he is. The thing about Jason that you try to describe to people is that without him ever having to say a word, you feel him as a coach, a teammate, an adversary, a fan--you feel him in the game."

Kidd is one of just three players to average a triple double in a Conference Finals or Division Finals series (17.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 10.2 apg in 2002), joining Wilt Chamberlain and Magic Johnson. Kidd is also one of just three players to average a triple double for an entire playoff run (2007), along with Oscar Robertson (1962) and Russell Westbrook (2017).|

Wilt Chamberlain averaged 24.3 ppg, 23.8 rpg and 8.6 apg in 1967-68, leading the league in both total rebounds and total assists (league leaders were not determined by average until 1969-70). On February 2, 1968, Chamberlain posted the first 20-20-20 game (22 points, 25 rebounds, 21 assists), a feat that has since been duplicated only once, by Russell Westbrook (20 points, 20 rebounds, 21 assists). Robertson holds the record with 14 games with at least 15 points, at least 15 rebounds and at least 15 assists, followed by Chamberlain (nine such games) and Westbrook (eight).

Larry Bird accumulated a large number of triple doubles, but he never came close to averaging a triple double for an entire season. He averaged at least 10 rpg in each of his first six seasons, but he averaged between 4.5 apg and 6.6 apg during those seasons; later in his career, he had three seasons during which he averaged at least 7 apg, but he averaged between 8.5 rpg and 9.5 rpg during those seasons.

LeBron James has a combination of size, athletic ability, durability and passing vision that would seem to make him a candidate to average a triple double for a season, but he has never averaged more than 8.6 rpg and he has averaged more than 9 apg just once.

In a December 30, 2001 Sacramento Bee article about the history of the triple double, Antonio R. Harvey declared, "It is arguably the greatest individual achievement in professional sports. It is also among the least appreciated and least discussed, perhaps because Oscar Robertson set the bar so high no one has come close to duplicating what he did 40 years ago. A triple double for a season. Today, it's news if a player has a triple double in a single game." Robertson expressed the opinion that no one would ever duplicate the feat.

Speaking a few years after Harvey wrote that article, Kidd felt that Robertson's triple double season did not receive enough appreciation: "It belongs with DiMaggio's hitting streak, with any record that's ever been set. Unless there's somebody close to doing it again, I think that would be the only way people could really appreciate it. That's the only opportunity we'd have to quite understand what Oscar did. I don't think he gets enough recognition for what he did achieve."

If Magic Johnson and LeBron James could not match Robertson's triple double season, it seemed unlikely that anyone else could do it, either. No one could have predicted or imagined that a 6-3 athletic dynamo who some critics charged to be miscast as a point guard would rewrite the triple double records.

Russell Westbrook averaged a triple double for the 2016-17 season (31.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 10.4 apg), and he also broke Robertson's single-season triple double record (41) by posting 42 triple doubles. Westbrook averaged a triple double in each of the next two seasons as well. Over the past five seasons, Westbrook has averaged 26.3 ppg, 9.4 rpg and 10.1 apg; if he averages around 12.5 rpg this season (he averaged a career-high 11.1 rpg last season) and maintains double figure averages in the other two categories then he could match Robertson's feat of posting a triple double average over five seasons (2016-20). Nate Archibald remains the only player to win a scoring title and an assist title in the same season (1972-73), but Westbrook is now the only player who has won multiple scoring titles (2015, 2017) and multiple assist titles (2018-19). Westbrook had at least 800 rebounds and at least 800 assists in back to back seasons (2017-18). Robertson, during his triple double season, is the only other player to have even one such season.

The cover of the April 6, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated summarized what makes Westbrook a unique force: "The Athleticism of LeBron + The Drive of Kobe." In Lee Jenkins' accompanying cover story, Westbrook explained his approach to his craft: "There are many times throughout a season that you may not feel like playing. You may not want to play on this night, or against this team. But I don't feel that way. This is one of the best jobs in the world, and you never know how long you'll be able to do it--how long you'll be able to run like this and jump like this. So I go for it. I go for it every time. It may look angry, but it's the only way I know."

That is beautiful and admirable. The NBA--the world--would be so much better if everyone thought that way and, more to the point, lived that way. The relatively short duration of an NBA career is a metaphor for the short duration of life itself. You don't know how long you are going to be here, so why not have the most positive impact that you can during every minute of your life?

Of course, most people are not wired that way, cannot be that focused and that committed.

Westbrook's dynamic, multi-faceted play had a significant impact on team success during his 11 seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder made the playoffs nine times during that span, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs' 11 appearances. The Thunder made it to one NBA Finals (2012) and four Western Conference Finals (2011-12, 2014, 2016) while posting the third best regular season record in the NBA from October 29, 2008 (the franchise's first game after moving from Seattle to Oklahoma City) through the final game of the 2018-19 season--and the Thunder had the league's second best regular season record from December 31, 2008 through the final game of the 2018-19 season, trailing only the Spurs. The Thunder became the second team to increase their winning percentage for five straight seasons while posting a winning percentage of at least .700 in at least two of those seasons (the first team to do this was the 1955-60 Boston Celtics, who were boosted by the 1957 addition of Bill Russell).

As noted above, Westbrook is one of only three players who averaged a triple double for an entire playoff run. He is also one of six players in pro basketball history who have averaged at least 17 ppg, at least 7 rpg and at least 5 rpg during a playoff career consisting of at least 30 games: Walt Frazier, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. The first four were selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, while James is a Pantheon-level player.

Westbrook is the only player among the top seven all-time triple double leaders who has not won a championship, but his statistical profile and all-out playing style matches the profiles of players who have led teams to titles (or, in Kidd's case, being a significant contributor to a title run in 2011 with Dallas after twice leading New Jersey to the NBA Finals during his prime).

Robertson was regarded during his era as the greatest all-around player in the sport, and nearly 50 years after he retired he still is on the short list for that title. Chamberlain, Johnson, Bird and James all must be ranked among the 10-15 greatest players of all-time. Kidd was widely respected as a great all-around player long before he capped off his career as a contributor--but not the best player--on a championship team. However, their triple double heir, Westbrook, is held to a different standard than other players. Take a recent example. Plus/minus numbers for one player for one game--or even a larger but still small sample size--can be very noisy. Much was made of Westbrook compiling a career-worst -46 plus/minus number in Houston's embarrassing 129-100 loss to the Miami Heat, but not much was made of Westbrook's +40 plus/minus number in Houston's subsequent 129-112 win over the Golden State Warriors. Westbrook's teammate James Harden outscored Westbrook 36-18 in the latter game but Harden's plus/minus number was +20, much lower than Westbrook's plus/minus number.

This season, the Rockets are 2-0 when Westbrook has a triple double, 3-1 when he has at least 10 rebounds and 2-0 when he has at least 10 assists. They are 0-2 in games that he played but did not reach double figures in either category (they beat the hapless Memphis Grizzlies during a game that Westbrook sat out).

All of pro basketball's triple double standouts had and/or are having a tremendous impact on winning. It will be interesting to see if the Rockets are savvy enough to maximize Westbrook's multi-faceted impact, or if they will sacrifice winning on the altar of the James Harden experience.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:36 PM



At Thursday, November 14, 2019 9:43:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I suspect that Oscar Robertson's triple doubles were more meaningful precisely because "triple doubles" weren't really a thing back in the day. What I mean is, the Big O's triple doubles were a matter of doing what he had to do to maximize his team's chance of winning. He was all-purpose everything because he had to be. His triple doubles were achieved in the flow of the game.

These days "triple doubles" are a big deal. Because they're such a big deal, they don't mean as much when accomplished. Kind of like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. That when you observe something, your observing it effects its behavior. Making the triple double a big deal, since Magic's rookie season as you point out, actually has made it not such a big deal anymore because players chase the stats to achieve it. Not sure how to get out of this conundrum. But basically, the triple double is not a big deal precise because for the last 40 years it's been such a big deal.

Which brings us to Russell Westbrook. He has clearly fished for triple doubles from time to time, aware of his statistics during the course of the game and making efforts to pad his statistics so as to secure his triple doubles. Westbrook is an athletic marvel, no doubt. As physically gifted a player as the NBA has seen. Arguably he's the most gifted player the game has yet seen, pound for pound. But his triple doubles seem to sometimes come at the expense of the team. A sort of zero-sum effect where his do-everything style of play actually takes away from his teammates' efforts. E.g. he has led the league in uncontested defensive rebounds per game at least once, which means that a high percentage of his total rebounds comes without his having to battle for a loose ball.

Furthermore, the assist category is now inflated thanks to the NBA's redefinition of it.

I think Westbrook has much to learn from MLB pitchers who force groundouts and popflies and thus get their infields and outfields involved. Throwing a bunch of strikeouts kind of leaves the rest of the defense standing around. I think that Westbrook's triple doubles have a similar effect on his teammates. He takes ball-hogging to a whole 'nother level.

At Thursday, November 14, 2019 4:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that Oscar Robertson's triple doubles were meaningful because he was not actively trying to get triple doubles. He has said the same thing.

However, I disagree with some of your other points.

It may be true that some players have chased or are chasing triple doubles, but triple doubles are still only the province of a few players--and, in recent years, Westbrook has lapped the field by a wide margin, to the extent that he has a chance of breaking Robertson's career record.

I emphatically disagree that Westbrook's triple doubles have come at the expense of his team. The numbers tell the story here: Westbrook's teams have gone 112-28 (.800 winning percentage) when he posted a triple double. That is equivalent to a 66 win season over 82 games. In contrast, his teams have gone 499-332 (.600 winning percentage) when he did not post a triple double, which is equivalent to a 49 win season over 82 games.

Let's look at this even further. In no season has Westbrook's team ever posted a better winning percentage in his non triple double games than in his triple double games, and the difference became more pronounced precisely when he became more prolific at getting triple doubles. In 2015-16, the Thunder went 18-0 during his triple double games and 37-27 in the other games. In 2016-17, the Thunder went 33-9 in his triple double games and 14-26 in the other games. In 2017-18, the Thunder went 20-5 in his triple double games and 28-29 in the other games. In 2018-19, the Thunder went 24-10 in his triple double games and 25-27 in the other games. This year, the Rockets are 2-0 in his triple double games and 6-3 in the other games.

I am pretty sure that you never looked at these numbers, and it is clear that if you watched Westbrook play you did not understand his value and his impact.

The notion that Westbrook is a selfish numbers chaser who is hurting his team is a propaganda narrative repeatedly spouted by media members who (1) don't understand basketball and/or (2) have an agenda.

I prefer to draw my own conclusions based on facts, and based on informed observation.


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