The Absurdity of Triple-Doubles and the Incredible 2017 NBA Season

What happens when five or ten NBA players all have historic seasons at once?

James Harden had a triple-double yesterday. You may not have noticed between Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins becoming the youngest 40-point teammates in NBA history and LeBron putting up a triple-double before blowing a 26-point lead and Russell Westbrook going nuclear and breaking records and ending seasons. Amidst all that, James Harden had an effortless 35 points, 15 assists, and 11 boards in another Rockets win, and it was barely even a footnote. Ho hum, another triple-double. Yawn.

We’ve become desensitized. We don’t let children watch movies with a lot of violence because of how much it normalizes it, but we’ve let the NBA regular season do the same thing to us. The stats and scoring lines are so explosive night after night that we’re barely even impressed anymore. Two nights ago Damian Lillard set the all-time Blazers scoring record and single-handedly saved their season. You already kinda forgot it happened, right?

And triple-doubles are at the center of it all, to the point that they’ve practically become a dirty word among NBA fans. James Harden had his 21st triple-double of the season yesterday. That’s more than any human not named Oscar or Wilt had ever had in a season before this year — and yet it’s literally half as many as Russell Westbrook. That’s ridiculous. We don’t know how to comprehend this stuff anymore.

Westbrook has 42 triple-doubles now in 80 games. Flip a coin. Heads, you get a triple-double, tails for 32/9/8 instead — that’s Russell Westbrook’s average line this season in non-triple-double games. Westbrook has more triple-doubles this one season than anyone besides Oscar, Magic, Kidd, Wilt, Bird, LeBron, and Fat Lever recorded in their entire NBA careers.

Is Westbrook stat hunting? Yeah, maybe a little, and that probably helped him get to the last few triple-doubles — but he also finished just one rebound or assist short of a triple-double seven other times. Russell Westbrook is two rebounds and five assists away from FORTY-NINE TRIPLE-DOUBLES.

It’s all absurd, really. Nikola Jokic has six triple-doubles as a 22-year-old center. Elfrid Payton has five, and you forgot he was still a starting point guard. There have been 115 triple-doubles in all this season. That’s almost one per day of the regular season, and Russell Westbrook has 37% of them. That’s just silly.

The whole concept of a triple-double is a bit silly. It’s a fascination with round numbers because our ancestors a few millennia ago decided upon a base-10 counting system to match our number of fingers. We like numbers that end in 0 or 5. We’re trained to think they’re pleasing to the eye. A triple-double is silly because it just means hitting three arbitrary numbers that end in 0.

But that doesn’t mean a triple-double isn’t still an incredible feat. How many games in your life have you attended and witnessed a triple-double? You remember them, right? Have you even been to one? Russell Westbrook has 42 triple-doubles this season, but the Celtics, Wizards, Hawks, Pacers, Heat, Pistons, Knicks, Sixers, Nets, Spurs, Jazz, Blazers, and Mavericks have none. The Jazz haven’t even had a single player clear eight assists all season. Triple-doubles may be more common in 2017 but they still don’t grow on trees.

Introducing the Triple-Ocho…

But what if a triple-double wasn’t 10, 10, and 10? What if it was another arbitrary number, say 8 of everything? Imagine a base-8 world where 8 of anything is a beautiful round number that catches our eyes and makes our hearts smile. In that world, a combination of 8 points, 8 assists, and 8 rebounds (or blocks or steals) looks pretty. We’ll call that a triple-ocho.

There have been 293 triple-ochos this year, compared to 115 triple-doubles. It probably won’t surprise you that Westbrook has the most triple-ochos this season with 55. Harden is still second with 35, but LeBron is a much closer third at 30. Draymond Green is next with 12, and suddenly his 10/8/7 is a lot more intriguing. In triple-ocho world, maybe Draymond Green is the MVP. After all, he’s the best defender on the league’s best team and he’s almost averaging a triple-ocho on the season.

And while that’s not as rare as averaging a triple-double for a season, it’s not exactly common. Oscar averaged a triple-ocho five times, and Magic did it thrice. The only others to do it were Wilt, Kidd, MJ, and journeyman point guard Darrell Walker in one of the all-time WTF triple-ocho seasons in 1990. This year Westbrook, Harden, and LeBron are all averaging a triple-ocho, and Draymond isn’t far off the chase. In triple-ocho world, we appreciate how ridiculous all three of those MVP-caliber seasons are right now instead of just the one that reaches our magical arbitrary numbers.

Besides, triple-ochos aren’t exactly a new thing for Russell Westbrook. He already had 35 of them last year, second most in the modern era (since Basketball Reference’s full stats in 1983) behind only 1989 Magic Johnson, and he had 22 the year before that. In triple-ocho world, Westbrook isn’t chasing down Oscar Robertson but rather Jason Kidd, whose 278 career triple-ochos are the gold standard.

In triple-ocho world, maybe we’re not comparing Russ to an Oscar season most of us never saw but to a better contemporary instead: 1989 Michael Jordan, the last big triple-ocho season. Jordan put up 32/8/8 for an otherwise ordinary 47–35 Bulls team that slowed it down and played a lot of defense, letting MJ run the whole offense. Sound familiar? Maybe in triple-ocho world, we rightly recognize Russ for putting up one of the greatest offensive seasons ever with a bunch of no-offense defenders around him, just like the GOAT.

Of course, even in that world, someone is bound to point out that MJ didn’t win the MVP that year. He finished second to a player that led the defending champs to the most wins in his conference with a once-in-a-lifetime passing gene while averaging a triple-ocho of his own. You’ll excuse the voters from missing MJ’s incredible season — Magic was still the best player after all. (Magic’s tired Lakers waltzed through a watered-down conference before getting swept in the Finals, but let’s not push the analogy too far.)

In triple-ocho world, maybe we notice that only two players in history had ever averaged 25/8/8 over the course of a full season before three of them did it simultaneously this year. Heck, only 25 players had even hit 20 points and 8 assists for the season, and only 10 of those had 20/10. Russ and Harden have now done it too, and so has John Wall if you’re still looking for a fifth name for your MVP ballot. Only three players have ever averaged 25/10 for a season, and now Westbrook and The Beard are doing it in the same season. It boggles the mind, but it dare not make us take for granted how incredible an achievement it is from both.

Triple-Doubles Aren’t the Only Crazy Stats This Year

Let’s just take a stroll through some of the other insane statistical feats we may be taking for granted this season:

  • Russell Westbrook has 2553 points, the 21st most in a season in NBA history. He’s scoring more points per game than Bird, Shaq, Nique, Malone, Oscar, or West ever did in a season, a top-10 scoring season in the last 25 years.
  • James Harden has 888 assists. He’s 12 away from having more assists this year than Oscar or Nash ever had in one season, all while also having a top-100 all-time ppg season.
  • Russell Westbrook’s 10.7 rebounds per game is the fourth most ever for a guard. He’s the first guard since Jordan in ‘89 to even surpass 8.2 rpg. James Harden’s 8.1 also ranks top-25 all-time among guards.
  • Before this season, a 50-point triple-double had happened only four times in history. This year, Russell Westbrook (3) and James Harden (2) have combined for five of them.
  • Magic Johnson had a 30-point triple-double 14 times. Bird had 15, MJ 16, and LeBron 21. Russell Westbrook has had 23 this year and is averaging a 30-point triple-double for the season. James Harden has 11 of his own, too.
  • LeBron James is averaging 8.7 assists per game. That’s the most in history for a non-guard. He has better all-around numbers than all four of his MVP seasons but may finish fourth in this year’s race. Draymond Green is over 7 apg too. Draymond and LeBron are the only non-guards since Grant Hill in 1991 to hit that number, and we barely even noticed.
  • Jason Kidd was an MVP runner-up in 2002 with a 15/10/7 season. Harden is replicating that season but with almost double the points. Allen Iverson won the MVP the previous year with 31/5/4. Russ is outscoring The Answer with an additional six assists and seven boards a game. Kobe Bryant won the 2008 MVP with 28/6/5. Isaiah Thomas is putting up a more efficient 29/3/6 and isn’t even in the MVP race.
  • A 22-year-old Greek dude leads his team in every statistical category and is about to become the first player in history to average 20 points, 8 boards, 5 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game, and he may not get a single MVP vote.

We are witnessing an historic season. No, we are witnessing ten or twenty historic seasons all at once somehow.

We’ve never seen anything like what Russell Westbrook and James Harden are doing. Or LeBron either, but we’ve long since taken him for granted. Isaiah Thomas or Giannis Antetokounmpo or John Wall would’ve been the story of almost any other NBA season. Joel Embiid had a rookie season for the ages. Nikola Jokic became that one-horned horsey thing The Ringer loves to talk so much about. Boogie Cousins averaged 27/11/5, got traded for 25 cents on the dollar, torpedoed two teams’ seasons, and was still only like the twentieth most interesting player in 2017.

But What about Assists?

Amidst all the focus on round numbers and scoring, we may have started to underrate the only stat in this team sport that takes a pair of teammates to accomplish: the humble assist.

An assist leads to a bucket. It’s just as good as scoring one yourself, often even better if the extra pass means the new shot created is a better one. More than three times a game, a Westbrook or Harden pass leads directly to a lay-up or dunk by a teammate. That’s six near-certain points. Westbrook’s teammates score from an NBA-low 7.3 feet from the basket off his assists. He’s hitting them near the basket for freebies off drives and transitions (transitions which often immediately follow his “stat-padding” rebounds). Harden and LeBron are setting their more-shooting-capable teammates up for threes. Both have over 4.5 three-point assists per game — besides them, only John Wall is even over three such assists per game.

Russell Westbrook has assisted on more points this season than Kawhi Leonard has scored. James Harden assisted over 2100 points this season. If there was a player named “Guy Harden Passed To,” he would be fourth in the entire NBA in scoring, just barely ahead of “Guy John Wall Passed To.” It turns out players are assisting teammates at historic rates this season, too.

You can make points by scoring them or by setting up your teammates to score. Let’s call that points created, the total of points plus assisted points. Only three players in NBA history have averaged more than 50 points created per game for a season. Oscar did it five times, Wilt twice, and the all-time best points-created season was by Tiny Archibald in 1973. He led the league in both points and assists per game, finishing the year with a record 56.8 points created per game.

Harden and Westbrook are both over 55 points created per game in 2017. They currently rank second and fourth all-time. Harden averages an extra point created per game but does it for a team scoring 116 a game. Westbrook’s team is at 107, so he’s shouldering even more of the offensive load. Russell Westbrook is about to become only the second player in NBA history to be personally responsible for over 50% of his team’s points for the season. Just let that sink in for a second.

LeBron is not far off the 50 points-created-per-game mark this year himself, though he’s never done it for a season and won’t get there this year either. He may not even finish the year ahead of John Wall. Kawhi Leonard will finish south of 35 points created per game. Blame that on the Spurs system if you want, but don’t tell me Kawhi’s defense is worth 15 or 20 points a game.

Choosing the Right MVP Narrative

So who is the MVP of this historic NBA season? The numbers are all so otherworldly and overwhelming that it’s tempting to just throw them all out and find the best narrative. Who is the best player? Who helps their team win? Who is most valuable? What’s “valuable” mean anyway?

It’s usually right about there that we throw out the most advanced statistics humans have ever had at their finger tips and start grasping at hypotheticals instead. Would Russell Westbrook have led the Houston Rockets to the 3-seed? Would the Thunder have more than 46 wins with LeBron or Kawhi? Can the MVP really come from a 3-seed? Or a 6-seed?

Why do we compare these teams to each other when there’s a much more obvious comparison waiting? We have no way to know how much to penalize players for having good teammates or reward them for doing it all on bad teams. But what if we compare the teams to another version of themselves, the one from last season? Take a look at last year’s versions of the same teams:

  • LeBron’s Cavs won the championship. They added some extra Kyrie and Shumpert games to offset the Love and J.R. ones lost to injury. They replaced Dellevadova and Mo Will with Korver and D-Will. The Cavs coasted to 57 wins last year; they’ve struggled to 51 so far this year.
  • Kawhi’s Spurs kept LaMarcus Aldridge but replaced the rest of their big-man rotation. Duncan became Gasol, while Diaw and West turned into Lee and Dedmon. With all due respect to Duncan, he isn’t what he once was, and Dedmon may have had the best season out of any of the six. Last year’s Spurs won 67. This year they have 61 wins.
  • Harden’s Rockets are nothing like the last few years. Gone are Howard, Lawson, Beasley, Motiejunas, and Jones, replaced by the far more compatible Gordon, Anderson, Dekker, Nene, and Lou Will. Houston won only 41 games last year but won 56 the previous season, making the conference finals. This year the Rockets have 54 wins.
  • Westbrook’s Thunder are of course the most different of all. The Thunder kept Russ but lost their other three minutes leaders. They replaced Durant, Ibaka, and Waiters with Oladipo, Sabonis, and Jerami Grant. Waiters for Oladipo is a pretty even swap. Durant/Ibaka for Sabonis/Grant is not. Last year Oklahoma City won 55 games. This year they’re at 46.

On the surface, the “wins” narrative points to James Harden. He’s the only one of the four strongest MVP candidates whose team has won more games this season than last. But didn’t he get the most new help this season by far, and didn’t he just restore the Rockets to the same status they were at before he showed up out of shape and mailed in last season with Dwight and the crew? Put another way: If Houston won 53 games last year and one or two playoff series just like the year before, would you be as impressed with Harden’s narrative this year?

Russell Westbrook lost 41 points per game, his top three scoring teammates, and a former MVP. He gave up Durant and Ibaka for a Sixers castoff and an overmatched rookie. Remember what happened to the Cavs after they lost LeBron? Or to the Magic after they lost Dwight? Those teams went 19–63 and 20–62. That’s what’s supposed to happen when a team loses a megastar. They start over. They battle for the #1 pick in the draft. They aren’t supposed to win 46 games and make the playoffs. They’re not supposed to fall off by single digit wins the following season.

Russell Westbrook’s team cratered around him. Is it really that hard to imagine a world where another star player pouts his way through the season, sits out half the year to injury, and watches as his team tanks for a top-3 pick? That’s what happens when stars leave. This doesn’t happen. Nearly repeating last year’s success doesn’t happen. 32/11/10 doesn’t happen.

Look at Tiny Archibald’s ‘73 Kings team, the only other season ever with over 50% points created per game by a single player. He did so much because his team was terrible. They went 36-46. Oscar’s ‘62 Cincinnati Royals won 43 games. During Kobe’s 35.4 ppg season, his Lakers eked into the playoffs by two games. Westbrook’s Thunder have been a bona fide playoff team for months now.

We bemoan hero ball because basketball is a team sport, and heroes don’t normally win too. Russell Westbrook is a different kind of hero, the kind that sticks around and saves a franchise when another superstar leaves. He’s the hero Oklahoma City deserves and the one it needs right now.

Isn’t Batman always the most interesting hero anyway? Superman is amazing, but don’t Batman’s deep flaws help us truly appreciate his greatness?

It’s been a season of absurd statistical heights, but Russell Westbrook and James Harden stand above the rest of the crowd. One of them has to be the MVP — or both, if you’re into that sort of thing — because they’ve made round numbers obsolete and made us stop marveling at triple-doubles and 50-point games. Westbrook and Harden have been so good and put up such absurd numbers that they’ve somehow caused us to suspend our belief in numbers during the age of advanced analytics.

James Harden and Russell Westbrook are doing more for their teams than almost anyone in NBA history. It’s marvelous, and it’s been one heck of a ride. It’s time we take a deep breath, step back, and genuinely appreciate it.

Thanks as always to Basketball Reference, second only to oxygen among daily necessities. If you enjoyed this, please recommend by clicking the ❤ so others can too. Follow Brandon on Medium or @wheatonbrando for more sports, humor, pop culture, & life musings. Visit the rest of Brandon’s writing archives here.