What Triple-Doubles Really Mean in the NBA
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a single stat doesn’t always tell the whole story.
Only four other players in NBA history have posted numbers like this in a single game: Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson. Who is the man collecting triple-doubles with some of the game’s greatest?
The Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green.
Last Thursday, the power forward had 10 points, 11 rebounds and 16 assists in the Warriors win at Houston. Not that big a deal. But the next game, he recorded his league-leading sixth triple-double, practically willing the hobbled Warriors to an overtime victory against the Denver Nuggets, with 29 points, 17 rebounds and 14 assists. And those numbers put Green in a class with legends. But he wasn’t done. The game after that, just to keep the streak going in the spirit of the Warriors’ season, he bagged a seventh triple-double. (For those not in the know, a triple-double is when a player hits double digits in at least three of five statistical categories, including points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots, in a single game.)
The curious part: The undersize and young passer isn’t a name you might expect to see atop any all-time leader board (he’s also currently beating out darling teammate Stephen Curry in assists per game). Only in his fourth season with the reigning NBA champs, Green has barely begun to scratch the surface of his career. And hot on Green’s trail? Veteran Rajon Rondo, another somewhat surprising face if you watched his performance (or lack thereof) last year. Which raises the question: Are triple-doubles an accurate way of differentiating the good players from the great? ESPN sportswriter and former Indiana Pacers consultant Kevin Pelton says no: “They’re an imprecise measure.” Sure, guys who can get to double figures in both rebounds and assists tend to be above average, but not all triple-doubles are created equal. And the figure doesn’t capture scoring efficiency or turnovers. So while Green’s output is impressive, it doesn’t mean he’s playing as well as other players with fewer triple-doubles — like Curry, who has just one this season.
The other truth, despite Green’s recent example, is that the triple-double can be meaningless when it comes to the bottom line: winning games. Dean Oliver, statistician and author of Basketball on Paper, points out a recent matchup between the Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder, in which the Magic’s Victor Oladipo filled the stat sheet with 21 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists; in the end, though, his team lost. It also took Oladipo 51 minutes and eight of 27 field goal attempts to get there, which is an almost embarrassing shooting percentage.
What the stat can show, however, is potential, Oliver says. In a season where Green’s team is chasing the NBA’s all-time-best record, it solidifies his role as not just a contributor but also a key playmaker. And he’s only three triple-doubles behind the Warriors’ single-season leader Tom Gola, who had nine in the 1959–60 season. So, it remains to be seen: Are we witnessing the emergence of the next do-everything marquee forward, or a flash in the pan?