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The Real Value Of The Triple-Double

Harking back to the first recorded triple-double by Dolph Schayes in 1951 (cited in the Harvey J. Pollack NBA Statistical Yearbook), all the way to the historic season by Russell Westbrook last year, the triple-double has often been recognized as validation for the all-around prowess of a basketball player. Yet, with the increased regularity with which triple-doubles are now being seen across the NBA, the question that arises is if they are actually as valuable as they’re made out to be.

Whilst there have been many strange triple-doubles, such as Mark Eaton’s 12 points, 20 rebounds and 14 blocks, whilst shooting only 1 for 12 from the field and notably last season’s triple-double by Draymond Green where he had 12 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals but only 4 points, the main emphasis of this article will be on the value of triple-doubles involving only points, rebounds and assists, though the statistics will still encompass all types of triple-doubles.

Looking back at the 2011-12 NBA season, triple-doubles seemed to be on the decline with a lowly 18 seen throughout the regular season, the joint-lowest over the past thirty seasons. Despite all the lofty claims of people touting LeBron James to average a triple-double when sharing the load in Miami, he failed to register a single triple-double in his second year playing with the Miami Heat. Matching Oscar Robertson’s historic feat of averaging a triple-double in the 1961-62 season seemed out of the question.

The Real Value of the Triple-Double

Fast-forward to the 2016-17 season where not only did Russell Westbrook do what many people didn’t think they’d live to see in averaging a triple-double across a whole season, but the season saw a record 117 triple-doubles, blowing past the previous record of 78 set in the 1988-89 season.

But to analyze the true value of the triple-double at present, we need to look at how it factors into the fortunes of a team.

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- Of the 117 triple-doubles logged in the 2016-17 season, 87 of them led to a win for the team giving a percentage of 74.4%.

- Comparing this to previous decades, we see that from 1983-84 to the 1989-90 season, 72.0% of triple-doubles led to wins.

- In the 1990s 77.4% of triple-doubles led to wins, 74.2% in the 2000s and 77.4% in the 2010s so far.

Looking over these statistics, we can see that the importance of the triple-double has been fairly consistent over the years and that the value last year didn’t take a huge dip despite the surge in quantity.

Another common argument is that people seem to value a stat-line such as 20 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists more highly than a stat-line such as 25 points, 9 rebounds and 15 assists simply because the former has the label of being a triple-double. A look at the stats, however, provides a perhaps surprising analysis.

From the 2010-11 season to 2016-17, we noted that 77.4% of triple-doubles led to wins, however looking at when players had 9 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists or better, this number drops down sharply to 69.3% and looking at 8 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists or better it marginally falls to 67.5%. The fact that, at most, a point, a rebound and an assist can make such a difference in the fortunes of a team goes some way to justifying the obsession of certain fans with the triple-double.

With the number of field goals attempted and the average pace in the NBA rising each of the past five seasons, the number of triple-doubles last season were inevitably going to increase (although the field goals attempted only ranked 43rd in the NBA since the 1946-47 season and the pace 22nd of the 45 years recorded). Though the frequency of this statistical achievement seems to have numbed the impact on many people, the value of the triple-double definitely seems to be as influential as ever.