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The Triple Double Paradox

The triple-double is a paradox. On its face, it could show a player’s versatility on the court while depicting the ability to impact the game in a variety of ways. But, the volume of triple-doubles in a career also might not be indicative of any real career or team success. I mean, Michael Carter-Williams has more career triple-doubles than Tony Parker and Steve Nash. But what if that sheer volume of triple-double reaches levels of pure absurdity? Levels that were probably written off by NBA Historians as something the league would never see.

Welp. Here we are with Russell Westbrook.

As time passes, how will the league and fans view the triple-double and its historical significance? On a night-to-night basis, the triple-double is an impressive feat, but on the macro level, could very be insignificant to a season, a career, or a game. LeBron had a 50 point triple-double in the finals and still couldn’t buy his team a game in a series. The importance of the triple-double is undoubtedly a case-by-case basis, especially in today’s league where triple-doubles seem to be more common. And obviously you can’t talk about the triple-double without talking about Russell Westbrook, with whom the statistical feat is practically synonymous. But, for me at least, it’s incredibly difficult to contextualize his incredible run and how it should be viewed today and the annals of the league’s history.

One word comes to mind when I think about Westbrook the player: Relentless. There aren’t many players that should scare a team more than Russ in a one possession game in the closing minutes. His sheer will makes his triple-double stretch not overly surprising, yet no less surreal. And Russ is having truly an unreal three-year stretch, especially when you consider averaging a triple-double for a season had only been done once. In 1962. For a team that resided in Cincinnati. But despite his statistical dominance, I can’t help but feel there was something left on the table during these seasons. In his first triple-double season in 16-17, Westbrook sported a record usage of 41.7% which in hindsight, I’m not sure if that’s an unbelievable achievement or his inherent flaw as a player. Even during the current season of America’s favorite game show, “How Many Points Will He Score Tonight,” James Harden has a lower usage than that epic Russ season. LeBron’s highest usage season is about 8 percentage points lower than that season, and LeBron’s been on some less-than stellar teams while still reaching 8 straight finals. That season would also be most statistically-impressive of Russ’s last three seasons. In his first triple-double season, he averaged 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and &10 assists, by far his most absurd statistical season. He shot 42% from the field but an eFG% of .476 and TS% of .554 (35th and 28th respectively of the 37 players who took at least 15 field goal attempts per game), largely helped out by his career high 34% from 3 and 84% from the line. He led the league in BPM by a considerable margin and seemingly willed a Durant-less team to the postseason.

Yet, looking back, it feels like that team under achieved. Sure Oladipo hadn’t yet taken his super-soldier serum that has made him the physical specimen he is today, but I have a hard time believing he couldn’t have helped the team as a secondary playmaker more than he was allowed. Sabonis has been terrific for the Pacers off the bench after it seemed like OKC had no idea what to do with him. Instead, Russ was the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd option on a team that got smacked by James Harden and the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.

But should team success factor into the evaluation of a particular season?

Okay suppose it doesn’t. let’s say team success doesn’t matter and the 3x2 is a purely an individual achievement. There are still seemingly endless layers to analyzing the triple-double and its impressiveness as a feat. Let’s take a step away from Westbrook for a minute and look back on the vagueness of a triple-double. If there was a basketball version of the Declaration of Independence, it would say, "not all triple-doubles are created equal." For example, the 30 point triple-double is more impressive than the 20 point triple double. The Triple-Double in a win will get more attention than one in a loss (at least at the moment). The triple-double with double-digit steals has only been done 9 times since 1975. And the defensive Holy Grail of double-digit steals and blocks? Never been done. And yet all of these are triple-doubles and filed away in the same section of the NBA record books. If we accept all triple-doubles are not equal, should we also pay attention to how they are accomplished? Analytics and advanced stats have the potential to add a level of transparency to counting stats while allowing us to easily compare to other seasons.

Let’s again go back to Russ. in my mind, the closest comparison to Russ’s ‘16-17 season is this seasons James Harden. Like Russ in 2017, Harden was forced to carry an almost unfair burden while missing Chris Paul and single handedly keeping the Rockets afloat. Here’s a look at their numbers.

Harden has come remarkably close to Westbrooks absurd usage, but he is still over a point behind. And despite coming up short in assist and rebound totals, Harden is scoring almost 5 points more and far more efficiently by every metric. The evaluation of these seasons will be largely subjective, dependent on what the evaluator values the most. However, with the way stats and the way the game is played evolving, it’s difficult say James Harden isn’t having the better season, despite not being particularly close to a triple-double average.

It also feels like Westbrook’s second season averaging a triple-double had been largely forgotten, which might be some combination of national boredom surrounding the triple-double and a largely disappointing season with Paul George. This season he will again end with averaging a triple-double despite having an awful season shooting the ball. Of players shooting at least 15 times a game, Westbrook is currently 40th out of 41 players in true shooting and effective field goal percentage with at .500 and .467 respectively. The efficiency isn’t there and actually at historic lows. Yet, like his previous two seasons, the triple-double is seemingly comes easy. Which brings me to another question.

Is it easier?

While Westbrook triple doubles are now taken for granted, the volume at the top of seasonal triple-double leaders is also growing.

Although Westbrook has still led the league during each of those seasons (it’s not close,) other players are still racking up some volume with double-digit triple-doubles in a season. And it’s not just those players. In 1990, there were 9 players with exactly 1 triple-double. Last year there were 17, and as this season winds down, there have been 20 such players. Whether due to rule changes, or stylistic trends in play, the triple-double isn’t the statistical anomaly it once was. There almost seems to be level of randomness with who accomplishes the feat on any given night. The previous three seasons have seen players like Tim Frazier, Matt Barnes, TJ McConnell, and Jarrett Jack all record points/rebound/assist triple-doubles.

Not exactly the cream of the NBA’s talent crop.

This has me wondering how we will view, not only Westbrook’s current three year run, but the triple-double itself. Through no fault of Westbrook’s, it feels like the value of the statistical feat, and as a result his MVP and subsequent seasons, will diminish over time. Between the widespread availability of stats beyond the traditional counting numbers and the increased frequency of triple-doubles in a season, there will be some sort of shift in how this era is reflected upon. And that’s not to anything away from Russell Westbrook. From a pure numbers perspective, his accomplishment has been incredible. While I don’t buy the notion “he’s the only player who has done it because he’s he only player who could do it,” the fact he has been the only player to accomplish it once, let alone three times, speaks to his ability and desire to assert his will on a game. But we have learned there’s more to being a great player than his counting stats, (I’d argue his best season was his final season with Durant but that’s another issue.) There is a very real debate as to whether James Harden was more deserving of the MVP during the 2016-17 season, and you would be hard pressed to find somebody who believes Westbrook is even the best player on the Thunder this year, all while he is accomplishing something not seen since 1962. That sounds like a massive indictment of the triple-double narrative in the modern NBA. As eras change, so must the context in which we consider a statistical achievement. And considering of all of these details, I can’t help but wonder if triple-double stock is at an all-time low, and if they actually matter in the current state of the NBA.


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