“I thought everybody played the same way. That’s the way I learned to play: Pass the ball, shoot when I got open, rebound if I’m inside.”
MILWAUKEE – It sounds so simple when Oscar Robertson describes it that way. Boiled down to its basics – as the great “Big O” did for NBA.com back in 2013, on the occasion of his 75th birthday – basketball wouldn’t even seem to need any individualized counting stats, with the scoreboard above as the be-all and end-all for what people witnessed on the court.
But Robertson was responding to a question about triple-doubles, that testament to versatility defined by a player amassing 10 or more points, rebounds and assists (or occasionally blocks or steals as alternate categories) in a game. And the fact is, we’re fascinated by personal stats within the framework of a team sport – and keep inventing more with each passing year.
Robertson, of course, was the king of this particular statistical novelty and likely will remain so, based not just on the 1961-62 season in which he averaged a triple-double (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg) but on this: If you take his totals from his first half dozen NBA seasons, the Big O averaged 30.4 points, 10.0 rebounds and 10.7 assists across six years.
That’s basketball’s equivalent to, and perhaps even more impressive than, baseball’s Rogers Hornsby batting over .400 for an entire five-year stretch. Doing that over even a single season hasn’t been done since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, with only a few – Rod Carew, George Brett, Tony Gwynn – taking serious runs in the 75 years since.
That’s why so many are taking note of Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, who had his fourth consecutive triple-double (ninth on season) Wednesday night against Washington. He is averaging 31.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 11.3 assists. That 20 games into a season or not quite 25 percent of the regular schedule – was the deepest anyone other than Robertson had gone into an NBA season averaging a triple-double, which demonstrates how rare and difficult a feat is.
It’s been 55 years since Robertson actually did it and 35 years since former Lakers great Magic Johnson came the closest with 18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 9.5 apg in 1981-82. Bear in mind, though, that Robertson frequently has said – with a twinkle in his eye – that if he’d known people were going to make such a big deal about triple-doubles, he would have made sure to get more of them.
That notion had Cleveland star LeBron James almost reeling Tuesday.
“He did it for almost two seasons. How ‘more often’ do you want to do it?” James said, laughing before the Cavaliers’ shootaround before facing the Bucks that night.
For the record, Robertson did it 181 times. But as the Boston Globe’s former columnist and great NBA writer Bob Ryan reminded the Twittersphere Tuesday, “it” didn’t have such a catchy name until Magic Johnson started compiling double figures in the same categories on a regular basis.
"Triple-Double" coined by Laker PR man Bruce Joelesch early 80s due to Magic. Oscar did it, but never heard the phrase. Nor did Havlicek.— Bob Ryan (@GlobeBobRyan) November 30, 2016
Havlicek, the underrated Celtics’ legend who had 31 triple-doubles, and Wilt Chamberlain – who with 78 ranks fourth behind Robertson, Johnson (138) and Jason Kidd (107) on the all-time list – played their entire careers without the terminology or the focus. It’s possible other Hall of Fame-caliber players might have gone stats-hunting for that 10th rebound or assist if they’d known someone would eventually keep track of them all.
Not that Chamberlain ever was oblivious to the numbers he did or believed he could put up. Consider that in 1967-68, fresh from shutting up critics by leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a championship and already owning so many scoring and rebounding records, the Big Dipper got it into his head he should lead the NBA in assists. Just to prove he could do excel at something folks didn’t expect from him at all. And he did it, racking up 702 assists and averaging 24.3 ppg, 23.8 rpg and 8.6 apg.
Chamberlain referred to the remarkable March 2, 1962 night he scored 100 points in a game against New York as his “quintuple double with a triple,” believing he reached double figures in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. Good luck proving him wrong, since blocked shots and steal weren’t even kept as official NBA stats until 1973.
In his 1991 book “A View From Above,” Chamberlain wrote: “In ancient times – when I played – many of these stats were not considered important enough to keep. If they were, a triple-double wouldn’t be enough; they would have had to come up with better phrases to describe some of my feats, or Oscar Robertson’s or Elgin Baylor’s or Jerry West’s for that matter.”
And he added: “Some announcers are now praising players who make double-doubles, which is almost like giving credit to a guy for not [leaving to use the bathroom] during the game.”
The oohing and aahing over Westbrook’s achievements thus far – 46 career triple-doubles – has been well-earned. That he would have the ball in his hands so much for the Thunder was a given, once Kevin Durant left as a free agent. But that also stripped from the OKC roster one of the most reliable assists “finishers” in the league – a pass becomes an assist only if a teammate hits the shot.
Kevin Love, who played with Westbrook at UCLA in 2007-08, is most impressed by his friend’s rebounding totals “since he’s only 6-3.” Westbrook (10.5 per 36 minutes) isn’t only outrebounding Oklahoma City big men Steven Adams (9.0), Joffrey Lauvergne (8.6) and Domantas Sabonis (5.4) – Enes Kanter has him per 36 at 11.3 – he’s grabbing more than Karl-Anthony Towns (9.9), Derrick Favors (9.8), Blake Griffin and Draymond Green (9.5 each).
Kidd, an exceptional rebounder at 6-foot-4 (six seasons averaging 7.2 or more), attributes triple-doubles to more than a smorgasbord of physical skills. Remember Darrell Walker, an NBA journeyman guard with a career 13.7 player-efficiency rating? In 1989-90 with Washington, Walker averaged 9.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg and 8.0 apg and had nine triple-doubles – and at 6-foot-4, 180 pounds, he didn’t get them on sheer ability.
“I don’t think the guys get enough credit for [their] basketball IQ,” Kidd said. “We talk about their talents, being able to jump and score. But just to think the game – and you have to think the game if you’re going to have a triple-double. You just can’t roll out there and roll into 10 rebounds or 10 assists. That’s thinking the game at a very high level and right now you’ve got quite a few guys – Westbrook and LeBron. LeBron has done it for a while now, but they’re on a different page from most of the guys in the league.”
James Harden, though, already has three triple-double this season. Chris Paul, Julius Randle and Giannis Antetokounmpo have one each, though Antetokounmpo crammed the score sheet in a different fashion Tuesday, with 34 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, five steals and two blocks.
“I think it’s just happening more,” James said. “I think it was a rarity since Big O did it. And then obviously MJ, he did it for a little bit in his career. Then when Grant Hill came in, with J-Kidd and those guys, they did it. But those were kind of like the only guys that were doing it.
“Now you see it more often. You see it with Russ and Draymond, a couple more guys. Giannis has the ability to do it. It’s not much of a rarity anymore. I think you even saw [two years ago] with Hassan Whiteside, he did it with blocks.”
James would seem to be one of those players who, had he focused on triple-doubles more intently early in his career, could have rung up more. A month shy of his 32nd birthday, he’s averaging career bests in rebounds (8.1) and assists (9.3) along with 23.5 points. But he shrugged off the suggestion Tuesday.
“At the end of the day, I think the numbers will take care of themselves,” the four-time MVP said. “For me, I just play the game. I’ve always wanted to be a triple-threat, first of all by getting my guys involved, that’s the No. 1 thing. Rebounding the ball. Points? I could care less about. If it happens, it happens. But it’s about me just putting myself in a position where I can help my team win ball games, and that’s all that matters.”
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