Welcome to the Triple-Double Era: NBA Stars, Legends Shocked How We Got Here

Mike GavinFeatured Columnist IApril 10, 2017

MEMPHIS, TN - APRIL 5:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball during a game against the Memphis Grizzlies on April 5, 2017 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Nikki Boertman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nikki Boertman/Getty Images

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...until now.

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, who became the second player ever to average a triple-double when he clinched the mark over the weekend, 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.
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.

"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.
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.
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 generation to generation.

In Robertson's era—before the three-point shot existed and before the triple-double was called a triple-double—the pace of play was even faster than it is now. The season Robertson averaged a triple-double, his Royals had 124.9 possessions per game in what was a nine-team league. Westbrook's Thunder use 97.8 possessions per game in a 30-team league, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Also, playing time wasn't monitored as closely back then as it is now, with Robertson averaging 44.3 minutes during his triple-double season and Westbrook at 34.8 so far in what will be his.

More minutes, of course, mean extra time to compile stats, but they also mean more wear on the body.

Robertson, the career leader in triple-doubles with 181, tallied more in each of his first five seasons than the rest of the league combined, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He believes the uptick in triple-doubles over the last two years has been aided somewhat by centers being drawn out of the paint, thanks in part to big men who can shoot and other changes, such as the revised defensive three-second rule (in which a player must be closely guarding an opponent).

"Whoever got the rules changed, they wanted to make sure that guys can go in and dunk the ball with no defense," Robertson said. "They cleared it out for certain ballplayers to be successful."

Robertson, who led the league in assists per game in seven of his first nine seasons, also said scorekeepers have become too lenient in awarding assists.

"Every time you score, if it's a pass, it's an assist," he said. "Years ago, that wasn't quite the same thing."

A move to point guard and a new coach in Mike D'Antoni have allowed James Harden to become the league leader in assists this season.
A move to point guard and a new coach in Mike D'Antoni have allowed James Harden to become the league leader in assists this season.Noah Graham/Getty Images

This season, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic has six triple-doubles, two of which came in consecutive games, a rarity for a center. Golden State Warriors Swiss army knife Draymond Green has five, one of which was the first triple-double in NBA history that did not include 10 points (he had 10 steals to go with 12 rebounds and 10 assists). Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton has five. Julius Randle of the Los Angeles Lakers has three. Four players have two, and 11 players have one.

Accounting for 55 percent of all triple-doubles in the NBA this season are Westbrook and Harden, the two favorites for Most Valuable Player.

Triple-Doubles 2016-17
PlayerTeamCount
Russell WestbrookThunder42
James HardenRockets21
LeBron JamesCavaliers13
Nikola JokicNuggets6
Draymond GreenWarriors5
Elfrid PaytonMagic5
Julius RandleLakers3
Giannis AntetokounmpoBucks2
Jimmy ButlerBulls2
DeMarcus CousinsPelicans2
Marc GasolGrizzlies2
Nicolas BatumHornets1
Eric BledsoeSuns1
Malcolm BrogdonBucks1
Kevin DurantWarriors1
Tim FrazierPelicans1
Blake GriffinClippers1
Kyle LowryRaptors1
Chris PaulClippers1
Rajon RondoBulls1
Ricky RubioTimberwolves1
Karl Anthony-TownsTimberwolves1
Basketball-Reference.com

Harden, who has thrived with new Houston Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni and a shift to point guard, is averaging 29.3 points, a league-best 11.3 assists and 8.1 rebounds.

In most years, the 21 triple-doubles Harden has recorded this season, eighth-most in a single season in NBA history (per Elias), would easily lead the league. Instead, he's a very distant second.

Beyond pace and other analytics, the driving force behind this record-breaking triple-double campaign can be measured in much simpler terms.

"Well," Bird said, "it's because we haven't had a player that accumulated triple-doubles like Russell has over the last few years. What he's doing is pretty incredible."

   

IT SEEMED IT MIGHT happen again in the 1980s. That's when Bird and Magic Johnson ushered in a new era of basketball and the term "triple-double" entered the sports lexicon.

Positions, and the requirements of each, began to blur. Johnson, who trails only Robertson with 138 career triple-doubles, was a 6'9" point guard who also could play and defend every other position, including center. Bird was a revolutionary point forward with guard-like passing skills.

Johnson, now president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers, came closest to averaging one in the 1981-82 season, when he averaged 18.6 points but fell short by 0.4 rebounds and 0.5 assists. Bird, now president of the Indiana Pacers, was closest in 1986-87, when he averaged 28.1 points, 9.2 rebounds and a career-high 7.6 assists. With 59 triple-doubles, Bird is sixth on the all-time list after being surpassed by Westbrook in January.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson recorded a combined 197 triple-doubles over the course of their careers.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson recorded a combined 197 triple-doubles over the course of their careers.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Sitting in the Pacers' locker room before a game in Brooklyn, Bird said he was unsure if it's easier to record a triple-double in this generation but likened the current pace of play to when his Boston Celtics played up-tempo against the Western Conference.

"I do know when I played, when we went on the West Coast, we knew it was going to be open and fast and everybody was going to get their shots and there would be plenty of rebounds and assists," he said. "The league is changing. There's a lot more three-point shooting, longer rebounds, and scoring is up. So I'm not saying it's easy. There's nothing easy about it. But I'm not surprised guys' stats are higher than they were in the past."

Higher than the triple-doublers of yesteryear, including Bird, Magic and the less-heralded Fat Lever, who led the league with 16 in 1986-87 with the Denver Nuggets and is eighth in league history with 43.

"Just let me stay in the top 10 with those guys; that's good company to be in," Lever said with a laugh in a recent phone interview. "People will look at the list and be like, 'Is this a misprint? Who is this guy?'"

Lever—who during the '86-87 season averaged 18.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 8.0 assists—said the stretch 4 has opened up the lane considerably, enabling guards to both penetrate and grab rebounds. With the prevalence of analytics and arena scoreboards that show players exactly how close they might be to a triple-double, he says some players in the league today "without question" take the court striving for one.

"I think the style of play for Russell now somewhat makes it easier, but I can't underestimate the feat that he is about to achieve," Lever said. "So if I had to rank them 1 and 2, I'm going to say Russell based on the numbers is 1; Oscar is going to be 1A."

To Bird, the likelihood of a player matching or even topping Robertson's triple-double season was going to be heavily reliant on the pace of the game.

"If you're playing a slow-down, deliberate game, pounding inside, they're hard to get," Bird said. "But if both teams are getting up and down the court, and teams are shooting around 100 shots apiece, it's a lot easier. But still, it's hard to get them night in, night out."

   

IT NEARLY HAPPENED AGAIN in the 1990s. Versatile talents such as Kidd and Grant Hill burst on to the scene, promising a triple-double-centric future.

Hill was a 6'8" point forward with a quick first step. In his second season with the Pistons in 1995-96, he led the league in triple-doubles with 10 and averaged 20.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 6.9 assists. He recorded 29 triple-doubles, tied for the 11th-most in NBA history, during a 19-year career in which ankle injuries robbed him of many more.

Jason Kidd ranks third all-time with 107 triple-doubles over a 19-year career.
Jason Kidd ranks third all-time with 107 triple-doubles over a 19-year career.Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Kidd, a pass-first point guard who now coaches the Milwaukee Bucks, is the only player in league history other than Robertson and Johnson to reach triple digits in triple-doubles with 107 in 19 seasons. Kidd, who was 2.5 rebounds per game shy of averaging a triple-double in 2007-08, said it was only a matter of time before someone did it.

"It's just the style of play," he said after a shootaround in downtown Manhattan just before the All-Star break. "There's more shooting on the floor, so assists are up. There's more rebounding because there are more shots and misses. And there's talented players. It's a great mix.

"I don't want to say it's easier; it's just the game has changed," added Kidd, who recorded at least one triple-double in 17 consecutive seasons, an NBA record. "The athletes have gotten better, and they're capable of putting up incredible numbers."

Kidd also believes Robertson and Westbrook could soon have more company. He is confident the Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo, a 22-year-old with an impressively wide skill set and wingspan, is capable of averaging one.

"At some point," Kidd said with a smile, "yes he will."

Kidd, at 6'4", never entertained the notion of averaging one himself.

"No, that's too hard," he said. "Just the grind, the physical grind. I wasn't big enough to keep rebounding with the big guys."

Which is what makes what Westbrook is doing all the more impressive. The list of this season's rebounding leaders shows the 6'3" Westbrook, whose 10.7 rebounds per game rank 11th-best in the league, is surrounded entirely by centers and forwards—from Hassan Whiteside to Marcin Gortat—all of whom measure at least 6'10". The only other guard in the top 50 in rebounding is Harden, whose 8.1 per game rank 25th.

"Russell is unbelievable," Kidd said. "I've said it from the beginning that he's one of the guys that could average a triple-double in this league."

   

WESTBROOK'S PURSUIT HAS THRUST Robertson back into the limelight. Yet it is Robertson's triple-double season that in some ways overshadows his equally, or perhaps even more, impressive accomplishments.

Roberston wonders what kind of statistics the stars of his era, such as Jerry West, would average in today's game.
Roberston wonders what kind of statistics the stars of his era, such as Jerry West, would average in today's game.David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

"People don't know what I did," he said when asked if being defined by his triple-double season bothers him. "They don't know what it took for me to get where I was in basketball."

In 1955, during an era of racial discrimination and segregation, Robertson was a member of the first all-black high school basketball team in the country to win an open state championship. Beyond becoming the first guard in NBA history to lead the league in scoring and winning the 1963-64 MVP over Chamberlain and Bill Russell, Robertson was also instrumental in bringing about an end to the league's reserve clause and launching free agency.

"I'm most proud of the longevity, the years I played," he said. "I'm happy to have played with some of the greatest basketball players in the history of the game."

Players that Robertson said could thrive even in today's league. He listed Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit, Walt Frazier and Willis Reed.

"What really bothers me more than anything: People think that all of a sudden the guys playing today are the greatest thing since sliced bread," he said. "I think there are a lot of great players. But there were a lot of great players when I played."

And yet none, other than he, averaged a triple-double. Until now.

Robertson said if he gets the chance to speak with Westbrook as he embarks on the conclusion of what has been a historic season, he'd congratulate him and tell him to keep it going.

"I'm rooting for him," Robertson said.

"Here again—different age, different times. I played when I played, and he's playing now," he added. "He looks like he may do it, and I'll be happy for him when it happens."

Because eventually, everything happens again.

   

All quotes obtained firsthand.

Mike Gavin is a writer for Newsday in New York. He can be reached on Twitter at @MikeGavin7.