Welcome to the Triple-Double Era: NBA Stars, Legends Shocked How We Got Here
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Everything happens again Numbers. Milestones. Records. The pervading belief that forms in the years after they’re reached is that those past feats, phenomena even, are not to be witnessed again. Ultimately, though, many of even the most prominent accomplishments, once firmly entrenched in the sports psyche as insurmountable, are replicated. Others, surpassed.
Babe’s 60 home runs became Maris’ 61. The Bulls’ 72 wins became the Warriors’ 73.
And even as hallowed numbers topple, others still retain an air of invincibility.
Numbers that, no matter how much the game changed or how athletic the players got or how advanced statistics became, would not be duplicated.
Or in this case, a series of numbers: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists.
It has been 55 years since they were posted by Oscar Robertson, an overpowering 6’5″ point guard with the Cincinnati Royals who became the first player in league history to average a triple-double in a season. Despite all the years that have passed, and all the players who have come and gone, and all the box scores that have been calculated, no one has done it since.
Those best at compiling triple-doubles offered differing opinions as to whether they thought anyone would do what Robertson did during the 1961-62 season.
“I really didn’t,” Hall of Famer Larry Bird told B/R.
“Oh yeah, it was going to happen,” said Jason Kidd, who has the third-most triple-doubles in NBA history. “Just like we didn’t think someone would break the Bulls’ record.”
While years turned into decades and decades into more than a half-century, did Robertson think he’d ever see it happen again?
“Eventually,” Robertson said, “everything happens again.”
IT’S HAPPENING AGAIN. Even Russell Westbrook, now just days away from becoming the second player to average a triple-double, said that while growing up as a fan of the game, he didn’t think anyone would do it again.
Russell Westbrook’s 42 triple-doubles this season are more than all but seven players have recorded in their entire careers.Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
“Umm, no,” Westbrook said before pausing.
“I didn’t know that anybody did it back then,” he added with a laugh.
In Westbrook’s first six seasons in the league, he had eight triple-doubles combined. During the 2014-15 season, in which his then-Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Kevin Durant was limited to 27 games, Westbrook began to emerge as a do-it-all star and exceeded his career total with 11 triple-doubles.
Belief that he could do what Robertson once did crept into the imagination last season. Westbrook began compiling triple-doubles with a regularity that made the idea of averaging one for a season seem more of an inevitability than an impossibility. He tallied 18 triple-doubles, which tied for the eighth-most in NBA history at the time, but fell 2.2 rebounds per game shy of the feat in his season-long averages.
It served as a mere prelude to this season, in which Westbrook has received ovations and MVP chants during road games after corralling his 10th rebound or dishing his 10th assist.
Durant’s departure from Oklahoma City created a one-superstar system for the Thunder, putting the ball in Westbrook’s hands more than ever. With it came added responsibility in more ways and statistical categories than one.
With two games remaining, Westbrook has recorded 42 triple-doubles, passing Robertson’s single-season record of 41. Westbrook’s total this season alone is more than all but seven players had in their entire NBA careers. It’s 14 more than Michael Jordan recorded in his 15 NBA seasons.
Westbrook, at 28 years old and in his ninth season, is already fourth in league history with 79 triple-doubles, eclipsing the 78 of Wilt Chamberlain.
With averages of a league-leading 31.9 points, plus 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists, Westbrook will become the second member of the exclusive triple-double club when the Thunder’s regular season concludes Wednesday.
“If he does it, I’ll applaud him,” the 78-year-old Robertson said during a recent phone interview from his home in Cincinnati. “All records are made to be broken, there’s no doubt about that.”
IF IT WERE EVER going to happen again, it would be LeBron James who made it happen.
LeBron James has racked up more triple-doubles this season (12) than during any other in his career.Brian Babineau/Getty Images
James entered the league in 2003 and quickly established himself as the greatest threat to be the next to average a triple-double. In his second season, at 20 years old, he averaged 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists. Posting those numbers, while the ink on his high school diploma was barely dry, made Robertson’s days as the only player to average a triple-double seem numbered.
Though James has recorded 55 career triple-doubles, seventh-most in NBA history, that day never came. This season, at the age of 32, he is as close as he has ever been to averaging a triple-double, with 26.3 points and career highs of 8.7 assists and 8.5 rebounds. He also has a single-season personal-best 13 triple-doubles this year, three more than his total from the previous five seasons combined.
“I can’t explain it,” James said before a shootaround at Madison Square Garden in February when asked why he thinks the triple-double has become increasingly common.
This season, James, Westbrook and James Harden became the first trio in league history to each have more than 10 in the same season. Never before had two players reached 20 triple-doubles in a season the way Westbrook and Harden have done.
“We got some great talents in this league, and guys are doing more than just scoring, more than just rebounding, more than just passing the ball,” James said. “They’re trying to contribute to their team and trying to help them win. So that’s great for the league.”
Though James couldn’t explain the prevalence of triple-doubles, some point to changes within the sport.
“It’s a little different from when I played,” said Robertson, who in his first five seasons had cumulative averages of 30.3 points, 10.6 assists and 10.4 rebounds. “The game has changed quite a bit to really endear itself to fans.”
Oscar Robertson, who was the last player to average a triple-double, in 1961-62, believes changes to the rules and style of play have made it easier for players in today’s NBA to accumulate statistics across multiple categories.BILL CHAPLIS/Associated Press/Associated Press
Indeed, the style of today’s game lends itself to filling out a box score. Pace of play has hastened, creating more shot attempts, more baskets and more misses. Many teams utilize smaller lineups, which has diminished the impact of traditional centers and rim protectors, thus opening the lane and helping to level the playing field in the fight for rebounds. The outlawing of hand-checking has facilitated penetration and has proved detrimental to those guarding explosive and uber-athletic players. An increased reliance on the three-point shot has resulted in longer rebounds that carom beyond the paint, where guards can corral the loose ball and create points in transition. And an abundance of shooters has spaced the court more than ever, making help defense more restrictive.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Westbrook said when asked why triple-doubles have become more common. “Probably because teams are playing smaller. Guards being able to rebound. You’re in the game a lot longer than bigs are. The game has changed. It’s more spread out. More shots. A few other things, probably.”
Combine those factors with the talent, size and versatility of today’s players, and it forges a stat-friendly era in which triple-double records get broken.
In the 10 full seasons before this one, excluding the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the league averaged 40.8 triple-doubles per season. This season, there have been 114 triple-doubles, shattering the league record of 78 set during the 1988-89 season.
“I don’t know if it’s watered down or not,” Robertson said of the value of triple-doubles in today’s game. “This is the criteria that you have.”
The way stats are amassed has changed, though, and will continue to be from…