Russell Westbrook has averaged a triple-double for the second consecutive season. This is a first for the NBA, at least in recorded league history since assists weren’t counted in the earlier years.
To get the triple-double average this year, Westbrook had to really stretch to get enough rebounds over the final few days of the regular season. With two games left, he needed 34 rebounds to make it. He got them with room to spare, including 20 boards on Wednesday. His teammates helped him by boxing out and letting him grab any open caroms. They presumably did this because they like Westbrook and like to see him happy, which averaging a triple-double so clearly makes him.
There was a weird mix of joy and scoffs at Westbrook’s triple-double season a year ago. Those nice round numbers helped Westbrook’s MVP case greatly, and led to a backlash among those who felt James Harden’s contributions were more valuable. It was a close race that finished with a close vote
There has been a triple-double season repeat, but there will be no close vote this season: Harden will win the MVP with a solid cushion, and Westbrook won’t finish in the top five. This has created a certain bonus level of mocking from those who rode with Harden a year ago, who argue that if a triple-double season meant an MVP trophy last year, why doesn’t it this season?
This is wholly disingenuous, because the triple-double season wasn’t the entire argument for Westbrook, and because Westbrook’s overall impact on the Thunder has clearly been less valuable this season than last. Harden has also been better, especially on defense. You can still argue that Harden deserved the 2017 MVP over Westbrook, but applying new information retroactively isn’t fair or useful.
But here’s the core debate we’re always talking around when discussing the 2017 MVP race, and even the 2018 Rookie of the Year race. The question is whether triple-doubles are inherently valuable, or whether they are a meaningless, overrated novelty.
Triple-doubles don’t have inherent value, but they show an aspect of what we can call basketball value. What better way to show basketball versatility and an ability to contribute more than just points? This is really what the triple-double signals: the player who gets it — and the only player in the world who averages it — is not just a useful scorer, but also gets rebounds and assists.
This is a guard who fights for boards (typically the realm of bigger players) or a big man who makes plays for teammates (typically the realm of smaller players) or a wing who does both. Having a player like that allows a team to be more flexible with the rest of its lineup. If you have a triple-double threat at center, you can go with shooters or defenders in the backcourt. If you have a triple-double threat at point guard, you might get away with weaker rebounders up front.
Of course, you can meet those criteria without actually getting to the magical 10-10-10 line. This is where the argument that the triple-double is arbitrary and meaningless comes in. Would Westbrook be considered any less a rebounder if he finished the season with 9.9 per game, or even 8.9? Not really. The triple-double is elegant shorthand.
We love round numbers. They are pleasing to us. They make sense to us. They ease comprehension and communication. Is exactly 120 seconds the right length to cook a Hot Pocket in the microwave? I bet our friends at Eater could go full food science on us and determine that the optimal cook time is 116 seconds, or 123. But the Hot Pocket Powers That Be tell us to cook it for two minutes, because two minutes makes sense to us, and it’s easy to communicate.
Base-10 has been the order of the day for centuries, used by civilizations across the globe. The fact that we have 10 fingers is probably a good reason. So don’t blame Westbrook or Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson or Ice Cube or blog boys for the popularization of the triple-double. Blame al-Khwarizmi! Our obsession with round numbers isn’t a product of basketball. Basketball is simply subject to societal norms that emphasize round numbers.
We don’t have a name for the phenomenon when a player puts up 15 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists. So we don’t count those games up. But it’s easy to understand and communicate what happens when someone puts up 12 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists: so-and-so has a triple-double. That triple-double isn’t necessarily a better performance than the other one. But it’s easier to notate and share. I mean, I just had to call the 15-12-8 performance the other one because after five minutes I gave up trying to refer to it more reasonably.
It’s not like the triple-double is the only round-number novelty the NBA has. We note 50-point games, not 49ers. Twenty-point games and 20-point averages are notable. Nineteen? Nah. The biggest triple-double skeptics often tout the 50-40-90 club — when a player shoots 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three, 90 percent from the line — that means something more than 51-39-88. Unless you are going to abandon all your dear arbitrary round number children, don’t ditch the triple-double.
If there is one weakness in the triple-double it is that it underplays defense. That’s why quadruple-doubles — points, assists, rebounds, and blocks — are even better. My preferred round number box score line is actually the old 5x5: at least five each of points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. Only two guys have done that in a single game this decade (Draymond Green and Nicolas Batum) and no one has been a regular threat since Andrei Kirilenko and, before him, Hakeem Olajuwon. The idea of averaging those figures for an entire season is completely absurd because steals and blocks are too rare (and especially together — averaging two each is spectacular). But if there’s a single-game 5x5, you’d better believe we should be shouting about it.
And isn’t that what the triple-double and Westbrook’s quest to average a triple-double again are all about, sharing impressive accomplishments? Doing awesome things is good, and we should celebrate them!