As a construct, the triple-double is both stupid and sensible—an arbitrarily defined cutoff point for counting numbers that still, in its own way, stands in as a decent representation of a player’s all-around contribution. We can agree that points, rebounds and assists aren’t always great indicators of a player’s value, that any 10 of each aren’t necessarily that much better than nine, and that honoring raw totals ignores critical factors like pace and efficiency.
But, golly, they sure seem cool. And it’s hard to say a guy had a bad game if he had 10 points, rebounds and assists.
And that dichotomy, that mashup of the triple-double’s worthlessness and value, is sort of where you have to start with Russell Westbrook and his ongoing statistical assault.
Because even if you’re fully of the mind that 10, 10, and 10 of something shouldn’t be objectively more impressive than 14, eight and nine of something, you have to concede that 30, 18 and 14 of something is worth noticing. Those digits—30 points, 18 rebounds and 14 assists—accumulated in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 112-103 win over the New York Knicks on Monday, put Westbrook into rare territory.
He’s averaging a triple-double now, and he’s doing it deeper into the regular season than anyone since Oscar Robertson in 1963-64. If you’ve made it this far, you’re aware Robertson became the only guy to average a triple-double for a full year two seasons prior, in 1961-62.
Chances are, you’re also aware that divorcing Robertson’s achievement from the context of his era is ridiculous.
The NBA of 55 years ago did not resemble the game we see today. Defense was effectively nonexistent, and strategy sessions consisted of pregame questions like “Who the f$*k are we playing tonight?” shared over cigarettes and Wild Turkey. Robertson’s NBA played at a pace that makes today’s fastest teams look like the mid-90s Cleveland Cavaliers. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to rack up counting stats when you’re logging 44 minutes in a game that affords you 125 possessions than it is when you’re playing 35 minutes and seeing 100 possessions.
Kelly Scaletta framed it this way, and I’m not sure there’s a better illustration of how ignorant it is to hold up Robertson’s iconic season against Westbrook’s:
Adjusted for Oscar's possessions, Westbrook would be averaging 46.6 points, 17.0 assists and 15.6 rebounds.
— Kelly Scaletta (@KellyScaletta) November 29, 2016
I mean, there’s something inherently laudable about being the first to do anything—even if the thing is, as we already discussed, arbitrary and generally not meaningful and not even celebrated as valuable when it happened. The idea of the triple-double wasn’t even a thing when Robertson averaged one. Nobody really cared.
Still, if you decide what Robertson did in 1961-62 is worthy of celebration, you have to concede something else: What Westbrook is doing right now is waaaaaaay worthier. Because era. Because pace. Because defensive sophistication. Because everything.
But that still doesn’t get you past another thorny dialectic because now, even if you’re sure what Russ is doing is incredible, you have to figure out if it really matters.
The Thunder are 39-6 in Westbrook’s 45 career triple-doubles, and that’s a pretty good indicator that his production is conducive to his team’s success. The Thunder, despite that, aren’t really all that good.
They’ve had a a stretch of seven losses in nine games, and they’re 11-8 overall. They might win 44 or 45 times this season if everyone stays healthy and Westbrook keeps doing what he’s doing.
Robertson’s 1961-62 Royals went 43-37—pretty good. Not great.
It’s hard to do an exhaustive study of how helpful (or unhelpful) a season like Westbrook’s is. But consider this: We’ve seen 18 seasons in which a single player used at least 35 percent of his team’s possessions. In 12 of them, the team either missed the playoffs entirely or got bounced in the first round. Westbrook, at an absurd 40.7 percent usage rate so far, is on pace to comfortably set the record in that category. No team with a player posting a usage rate over 37 percent has advanced past the first round.
Stated another way, when a guy is stuffing the stat sheet like Westbrook, there’s a good chance it’s because the rest of his team kind of stinks. I mean, every team is going to shoot 80-90 times a game. Every team is going to get 40-50 rebounds. There are always, no matter how bad a team is, 20 assists to be had by someone.
If one guy’s getting a disproportionate share of all those totals, it probably means he’s really skilled and versatile. But it also probably means nobody else can. Or, perhaps more interestingly, that he’s not interested in letting anyone else take a fair crack at it.
What Westbrook is doing is rare, and, for my money, more objectively impressive than what Robertson did. It’s also super fun and exciting—mainly because of how Westbrook is doing it.
But are we really sure it matters?