Triple-doubles are great, but they’re no longer an NBA rarity

T.J. McConnell had a rare triple-double involving steals against the Cavaliers on March 3.
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the 3-point era in the NBA. The massive-salary era. The LeBron James era.

It’s also the triple-double era.

If it seems like triple-doubles are happening more often than ever, that’s because they are — by a huge margin. On average, the NBA has seen someone put up at least 10 of this, 10 of that and 10 of those in one out of every seven games this season.

The rate of them happening is up 47% over last season, and a staggering increase of nearly 700% over how often they occurred just nine years ago — when there were 18 in the entire 2011-12 season.

They happen with amazing regularity now. That doesn’t mean everyone is enthralled.

“I get it. They’re nice, round numbers and people get into those things in sports,” New Orleans coach Stan Van Gundy said. “But I’ve never really been one who thought a whole lot of the whole triple-double thing.”

He’s right. Some of them don’t seem to have much of an impact on the game.

Then there’s what Russell Westbrook — the triple-double king — did Monday night.

Westbrook had 35 points, 14 rebounds and 21 assists to lead Washington to a win over the Indiana Pacers. It was only the third time someone had that many points and that many assists in an NBA game; throw in the rebounds, and Westbrook’s night was unprecedented.

“He does things I’ve never seen, and I’ve been in this league for 30 years,” Washington coach Scott Brooks said. “He’s a winner.”

If people are bored by the triple-double, it might be Westbrook’s fault. He’s been making them seem like nightly happenings for years.

The reasons for the rise leaguewide in triple-doubles are many, but two of them are clear: the “freedom of movement” emphasis in officiating favors the offensive player, so that means more points and assists. So, too, does the increased pace of play, which also leads to more rebound opportunities. There are about eight more possessions and eight more shot attempts per team as compared with nine years ago, and every possession leads to a statistic of some sort.

“To me, they’re such arbitrary numbers,” Van Gundy said. “What, if you get 10, 10 and 10 that’s better than 35, nine and nine? … There’s a big difference between 15 points and 35 points. There’s a big difference between 10 rebounds and 18 rebounds. And there’s a big difference between 10 assists and 17 assists. So, to say a triple-double is a measure of a great game, I don’t know.”

This will be the fifth consecutive year that the NBA has seen players collect at least 100 triple-doubles; there were 99 this season through Monday and 551 in the last five seasons, with this one only barely past the halfway mark. Westbrook leads the league with 16 already, followed by Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Brooklyn’s James Harden with 12 apiece, then Dallas’ Luka Doncic with nine. The Pacers’ Domantas Sabonis has six.

Put another way, we’ve seen as many triple-doubles in the last five years as in the 15 seasons before that combined.

Even some players seem less than impressed by them these days.

“I could care less about a triple-double,” Miami’s Jimmy Butler said after he had one in last season’s NBA Finals. “We play this game to win.”

Here’s another example of how common the triple-double is getting: In the entirety of the 2011-12 season, only one player — Rajon Rondo, with six — had more than one of them. This season has already seen 14 players with multiple triple-doubles, a number that will almost certainly grow.

The record for most in one season is 127. That will likely get shattered; the league is on pace to top 150 for the season. On March 13, five players had them on the same day, the first time that’s happened in NBA history. The five: Harden, Westbrook, Julius Randle, Sabonis and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“It’s not always about scoring,” Antetokounmpo said. “You can manipulate the game in different ways: passing, finding your teammates, putting them in the right spot.”

Indiana’s T.J. McConnell had a triple-double with steals back on March 3 (16 points, 13 assists, 10 steals), just the 11th of those ever. There have clearly been nights where a player knows he’s a rebound or an assist away from getting a triple-double and might become singularly focused on getting that one last stat; that’s not so easy to do with steals, which made McConnell’s one of the more impressive in a while.

“I just let the game come to me,” McConnell said.

They just come in bunches now. From 2009-10 through 2013-14, only Rondo and Andre Iguodala had back-to-back triple-doubles. This season alone, four players — Westbrook, Harden, Butler and Antetokounmpo — have had streaks of at least three in a row.

And Westbrook — with 162 and counting, 19 away from Oscar Robertson’s all-time record — is in position to average double-digits in points, rebounds and assists for the fourth time in the last five seasons.

“He fills a stat sheet like nobody does in the history of this game,” Brooks said.

Yes, the triple-double is now ordinary.

But Westbrook provided a reminder Monday that they can still be extraordinary.