In the coming days, Russell Westbrook will record a couple more triple-doubles and smash Oscar Robertson’s long-standing league record for the statistical achievement. What Westbrook is poised to accomplish is significant, poorly understood and truly impressive. What’s more: even if he retired without another triple-double, he’s already in a class by himself when it comes to multi-category production.
Historically, the triple-double is used as a measure of versatility and all-around production — and it’s a good one. The top of the NBA’s all-time list in career 3x2s are Hall of Famers and members of The Pantheon. Here’s the top 10:
- Oscar Robertson — 181
- Russell Westbrook — 180
- Magic Johnson — 138
- Jason Kidd — 107
- Lebron James — 99
- Wilt Chamberlain — 78
- Larry Bird — 59
- James Harden — 58
- Nikola Jokic — 56
- Fat Lever — 43
From that list, Lever is the only retired player not in the Hall of Fame. His career was hampered by injuries. Had he stayed healthy, he likely would have had more 3x2s and potentially played himself into the HOF discussion. With young active players like Luka Doncic and Ben Simmons just behind him, Lever is likely to drop out of the top 10 next season.
Every active player in the top 10 — Westbrook, James, Harden and Jokic — are surefire first ballot Hall of Famers. Doncic probably will be too.
When it comes to all-around production in these categories, none of them come close to Westbrook, and that includes Robertson. Including this season, a player has averaged a triple-double in five full seasons. Four of those seasons belong to Westbrook. And every one of those triple-double seasons is more impressive statistically than Robertson’s great 1961-62.
The reason? League context changes, and that means all triple-doubles are not equal. In 1961-62, the league averaged 107.7 FGA and 71.4 rebounds per team per game. In 2016-17, Westbrook’s first 3x2 season, it was 85.4 and 43.5. For this season: 88.3 and 44.3. In other words, with so many more possessions and errant field goal attempts, Robertson had more opportunities to collect stats — especially rebounds — than Westbrook has had.
That’s not to diminish Robertson’s season, as you’ll see below, his performance was great in any era. Rather, it’s better to contextualize each player’s performance as part of the evaluation.
Some years ago, I created an Era Translator to illuminate these kinds of conversations. My theory was that players could be compared across eras by looking at their contributions within the context of their own competition. An example to illustrate:
In 1961-62, Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game. Stated another way, that’s about 26% of the league’s average scoring per game that season, 18% of rebounds, and 48% of assists.
Drop that kind of production into the 2020-21 context, and it’s 29.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and 11.8 assists. Not quite a triple-double, but that’s a monster performer.
The Era Translator also provides a way to convert shooting efficiency from one context to another. That season, Robertson shot 48.0% from the floor. He accounted for about 24% of made field goals and 21% of field goal attempts. In 2020-21, that’s someone shooting 52.6% from the floor. I estimate a player like Robertson would average about 3.7 made threes per game in today’s context.
Another example? That same 61-62 season, Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points, 25.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. That’s 42% of points, 36% of rebounds and 10% of assists. In 2020-21, that works out to: 47.5 points, 15.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists. (The Era Translator thinks Wilt would be shooting and making threes, by the way.)
Back to Westbrook, this year he’s averaging 21.8 points, 11.4 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game. That’s 19% of points, 26% of rebounds and 46% of assists. Convert that to 1961-62, and it’s 23.1 points, 18.4 rebounds (!) and 11. 0 assists.
Comparing the two seasons, Robertson was the better scorer, Westbrook the better rebounder (by a lot) and they were comparable playmakers. The league didn’t collect stats like offensive rebounds, steals, blocks or turnovers so it’s impossible to get a full assessment.
Westbrook’s 2016-17 MVP season, impressive on its own, is truly eye-popping translated to 1961-62. In 16-17, Westbrook averaged 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists. That’s 30%, 25% and 46%. Translated: 35.6 points, 17.6 rebounds and 11.0 assists. A little more context: those numbers would have ranked second in the NBA in scoring, fifth in rebounding, and second in assists. Big O that season ranked 5th in scoring, 9th in rebounding and 1st in assists.
This is a rare time for the Wizards/Bullets franchise — an all-time great achieving a meaningful career milestone in the team’s uniform. Savor it. Don’t let anyone poo-poo the accomplishment. What he’s done is unparalleled in NBA history, and Wizards fans will get to watch him add to the record over the next couple seasons.