Posted by Jonah Gardner on December 8, 2016
In the same way that the phrase that best summarized the 2015-16 season was "three-one lead," 2016-17 is shaping up to be the year of the triple-double. In general, the 2016-17 NBA season seems to be producing some absolutely insane stat lines, from Anthony Davis' early run of 40 and 50 point games to DeMar DeRozan's absurdly hot early start.
But one other thing that we've seen in the early part of this season is a ton of triple-doubles. Led by Russell Westbrook, who's threatening to make history by becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double over the course of a full season, NBA players are contributing to more phases of the game than ever before, and the result has been a real delight for stat-nerds.
Westbrook's season is especially impressive when considering how much the game has changed since 1961-62, the season that Oscar averaged his triple-double. That year, Oscar averaged 44.3 minutes per game, nearly nine more minutes than Westbrook this year, and he played in a very different environment:
While Basketball-Reference doesn't have a pace figure for 61-62, it's easy to tell based on the number of points and field goals that there used to be a lot more possessions in a game than there are now. Shooters also missed a lot more, going 42.6% from the field then as opposed to 44.9% now. The mix of more field goal attempts in general and a larger proportion of those shots failing to go in also led to more opportunities for rebounds.
All of which is to say that what Westbrook is doing is pretty amazing. In this context, with fewer possessions and fewer minutes, averaging a triple-double would seem virtually impossible. Here's another way to look at it. No one, not even Oscar, has ever averaged a per 36 triple-double while playing more than 10 minutes in a season. Not 10 minutes per game, 10 minutes total. Westbrook is on pace to shatter that barrier this year, averaging 31/11/11 per 36.
Which isn't to disparage Oscar. In fact, just the opposite. While it's amazing that Westbrook is doing what he's doing given the contextual challenges he's facing, it's just as amazing that Oscar was able to keep up his blistering pace with the added burden of so much playing time. It's impossible to imagine a player today who could play 44 minutes per game while carrying his team the way Oscar did in 61-62.
However, there's more to this season's triple-double spree than just Westbrook's season numbers. While the Basketball-Reference Game Finder doesn't have game-by-game triple-double figures for Oscar's era, what's happening this year is relatively unprecedented in the modern game.
To start with, there's Westbrook. Russ has the most triple-doubles of any player since 1983 thru the season's first 20 games and it's not particularly close. He has nine this year; only Magic Johnson in 1988-89 and 1990-91 and Fat Lever in 1987-88 even had five or six in a season's first 20 games.
While Westbrook is setting the pace, he's hardly the only one binging on triple-doubles. Four players (Russ, James Harden, LeBron James, and Giannis Antetokounmpo) had multiple triple-doubles in the first 20 games of the season. In the Game Finder era, that's a first; since 1983, no season has seen more than three players start off with multiple triple-doubles.
There's also been some bonkers scoring lines in these triple-doubles, again thanks mainly to Westbrook. Russ already has eight 30-point triple-doubles, second most in a full season since 1983 behind Michael Jordan in 1988-89. As a quick aside, MJ averaged 32 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists that season and we should all take a moment to appreciate it.
The other player with a 30-point double-double this year? It's LeBron, who dropped 31/13/10 on the Portland Trail Blazers this year. That was LeBron's 20th 30-point triple-double, the most by any player since 1983, although Westbrook has 17 and could surpass LeBron before the calendar even turns to 2017.
Somewhat lost in WestbrookMania has been the excellent season that James Harden is having. Harden has already matched his career-high for triple-doubles in a season and he's chasing his own sort of history. He currently leads the league in assists and he's fourth in scoring. No one has led the league in both since Tiny Archibald in 1972-73. And, while it's not a triple-double, it's worth noting that Harden is the fifth player since 1983 to have 15 or more 10-point, 10-assist games in the first 20 of the season.
And there's plenty of hope that this numbers binge can continue into the future, thanks to two players. First, there's the aforementioned Greek Freak, who's been putting up some truly funky stat lines this season. In both of his triple-doubles, Giannis also had at least two blocks and two steals. In total, he's had seven games with a triple-double on points, rebounds, and assists, as well as at least two blocks and steals. That's just one fewer than Jordan and LeBron, who have the most since 1983.
But don't sleep on The Process. Joel Embiid hasn't appeared in this column yet, because the Philadelphia 76ers have put him on a minutes restriction that's deflated his raw box score numbers. But his per 36 minute and advanced stats are pretty eye-popping. Embiid is averaging 28.6 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 3.8 blocks per 36, despite having missed the first two seasons of his career with injuries. If he can stay healthy and build on his solid start, there could be a lot of Kanyes in Joel's future. Between him and Ben Simmons, the #1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft who's built similarly to Giannis, Philadelphia could be Triple-Double Central in a couple of years.