Russell Westbrook recorded another triple-double for the Thunder on Tuesday night and has now posted a jaw-dropping 15 this season. Draymond Green's 11 isn't far behind. Rajon Rondo has five and John Wall and Giannis Antetokounmpo are at four each. Players as disparate as Hassan Whiteside, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Pau Gasol have all gone for two. For only the fourth time in its history, the NBA is collectively on pace for over 60 triple-doubles in a season.
When it comes to statistical talismans, the triple-double reigns supreme. In basketball circles, Oscar Robertson's 1961-62 is spoken of in the same breath as Wilt Chamberlain's scoring records from the same season. It's an accomplishment that speaks to not only the Big O's dominance, but also his ability to permeate every aspect of the game. If anyone wants a summation of why Robertson matters to this day, "He averaged a triple-double" is all you need to say. As with Wilt's 100, there is no more concise way to sum up his legacy.
The sanctity of the triple-double must therefore be protected. In a 2003 game against the Utah Jazz, free-thinking swingman Ricky Davis -- needing one more rebound to reach this benchmark -- infamously shot at his own basket. DeShawn Stevenson, who foiled Davis with a hard foul, talked about the transgression in moralistic terms. Stevenson, who himself proved to be a world-class knucklehead, accused Davis of "disrespect to the game" and worried about "little kids looking up to [Davis]." Old-school coach Jerry Sloan praised Stevenson's actions and went even further: "I would've knocked him on his ass."
For a purist like Sloan, it's unfathomable that the signature Oscar stat could fall into the hands of a goof like Ricky Buckets. A closer look reveals that the triple-double isn't quite as lofty as we've been led to believe. Davis almost made it, and as my esteemed colleagues Paul and Tom pointed out last week, Rondo has seemingly padded his stats with an eye toward 3x2s. Last year, journeyman reserve Evan Turner had three, and came close on more than a few occasions. From an analytics standpoint, the triple-double is so basic that it hardly even warrants mention. And yet the mystique persists; this is the stat that represents more than mere numbers.
Triple-doubles never made anybody great. In and of themselves, they can't sway a player's reputation. But when we see Westbrook or Green compiling them night after night, it's a confirmation of what we already suspected: That in very different ways, these players -- like Robertson -- can take over a game so comprehensively that the box score practically bursts at the seams. The triple-double may be a crude metric but when it happens as a matter of course, it's a qualitative marker of how these athletes thoroughly take over games on any given night. There's a difference between the positivistic "triple-doubles just sort of happen" and "triple-doubles just sort of happen for Russell Westbrook."
It's worth noting that Hassan Whiteside's triple-doubles, where the third category is blocks, feel less indelible than the standard points, rebounds and assists combo, since individual defensive stats tell us as much about that night's matchup as they do overall capabilities. And not all players excel at triple-doubles. It's hardly a knock on Curry that he only has two this year. He's still the consensus MVP.
If the triple-double isn't an absolute measure of greatness, it's a cipher for individual style and no two are ever alike. For Westbrook, it's a statement of all-out kinesis, of defying the very idea that he wouldn't be everywhere at once. Green's triple-doubles showcase a smart, resourceful player who continues to find new ways to leverage his skills. In the case of Giannis, a triple-double is potential realized; it's exactly what we'd expect from a seven-foot freak athlete who moonlights at point guard. We are in the realm of symbols and ideas, not hard and fast facts.
But the triple-double isn't just about individual style. It also provides a window into team play and where the league as a whole is headed. The more integral Draymond Green becomes to the very structure of the Warriors -- the more he both dictates the system and feasts on it -- the more triple-doubles we see. Green isn't getting better, he's getting more important.
The same goes for Westbrook. Last year's rampaging hellion is this season's more sure-handed pro. When Westbrook went on his triple-double tear in 2014-15, it was impossible to ignore the absence of Kevin Durant. The Thunder had to lean on Westbrook more than usual so his output soared. Westbrook took advantage of the situation to visit his full, unchecked wrath upon the league, or maybe KD was holding Westbrook back. But with both Thunder superstars healthy this season, Russ has picked up right where left off, playing the same brand of scorched-earth basketball even with Durant back in the lineup, as sublime as ever.
LeBron James is the epitome of a triple-double threat -- he's seventh on the all-time career list -- and yet he's only managed one this season. That doesn't necessarily mean that LeBron has fallen off or no longer has the kind of game that lends itself to this accomplishment. But the way James fits into this Cleveland team simply doesn't lend itself to high totals in all three categories. As in Miami, LeBron's chances of winning a championship seem to hinge on not being the all-powerful threat we know him to be and instead finding a very specific way to slot himself into the team concept.
There's a reason, though, why the league as a whole is seeing a sharp uptick in triple-doubles and it goes beyond meaning of a player's game or the structures around him. The more fluid, flexible and generally heady the NBA becomes, the more this kind of all-around play becomes the norm. This season's triple-doubles aren't just impressive accomplishments, they're proof of basketball's evolution.
As much as been made of the rise of the three-pointer -- a trend driven almost entirely by analytic consideration -- the increase in triple-doubles tells a parallel story. Rather than being an effort to shift the direction of the sport, they are a reflection on where it's naturally headed -- and yet another reason to get excited about the current state of the NBA.