He’s done it. Russell Westbrook has gone and given us what eluded two or three previous generations of NBA fans – a triple-double averaged out over an entire regular season. He’s done it spectacularly – leading the league in scoring, dashing in his usual style, acting as a desperately-needed clutch boon down the stretch of wins for the No. 6-seeded Thunder – and there have been precious few surprises along the way.
That, in itself, is an accomplishment. Russell broke the record for triple-doubles in a season on Sunday while confirming its season-long average on Friday, and yet nobody was waking the kids up from bed. NBA fans from years past would be astonished at that level of inaction: what we pictured for him was so fanciful at one point prior to becoming routine and now, by season’s end, assured.
In celebration, the last man to average a triple-double over the course of the season, and the player (past Magic Johnson) perhaps once best suited to approximate Oscar Robertson’s 1960-through-1962 averages hopped on the internet to wish the Internet Age’s leading star what he’s earned. Credit where credit is owed, starting with the Big O himself, at The Undefeated.
“I could not be happier for him. Congratulations to Russell Westbrook on a magnificent season!,” Robertson shared, before delving into a press release-styled litany of facts before fully revealing an absolute must-read of a column.
From there, LeBron James – a player that seemed as capable of anyone at adapting to Robertson’s style in the years before Westbrook came along – also joined the chorus:
— UNINTERRUPTED (@uninterrupted) April 10, 2017
“I’ve got to give a huge shoutout to the brodie, Russell Westbrook, on his historical season, breaking the all-time triple-double record set by the Big O — one of my favorite players, one of my idols so many years ago — setting the record with 42 tonight in Denver,” James said. “It’s just certain things that you never think you’re going to see or never think that’s going to be broken, and that’s one of those records.
“Like Russ always say, he always uses his hashtag and uses his motto: Why not? Why not him? Why not other people? Why not us? Why not all of us, man? Something that we should all live by,” James said. “Anything is obtainable, as we’ve seen Russ breaking that record tonight. As a friend, as a competitor, as a fan of the game, I’m just happy and proud of you bro. It’s great to see history. It’s great to see history, man. The way that you do it, it’s a really incredible feat.”
It is an incredible feat, that triple-double average. And, to hear just about everyone tell it, we’re probably done with the damn thing.
As Robertson reminded us in his feature, few during his era paid attention to the idea of notching three double-figure box score stats in an evening, and that it “wasn’t until Johnson was anointed as the all-time triple-double leader that someone said, wait a minute, we had better go back and check the records.” The idea of it acting as a “record” is only as old as the idea that televised news could be a viable money-maker on cable TV.
Its death straddles the generation between Gen X and whenever the millennials started popping out. The triple-double obsession had its thirstiest run during an era that saw its possession counts dip to (what we hope will stand as) all-time lows around the fin de siècle, thriving throughout with the pace dipping and dipping from a peak during Magic’s first season as a pro and lasting all the way until around the time LeBron James made his first NBA Finals in 2007.
This alone stands above the inexhaustible supply of other reasons for our infatuation. For so long, the box score quirk was a novelty to us, which partially explains why the stat itself became an explainer for “very, very great, indeed.”
In the heart of a night in which only six of the 22 active teams topped 100 points in a game, Jason Kidd hitting for 11 points (on 5-17 shooting), 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a disgusting 79-65 win over the Washington Wizards was alternately a kind gift and a bit of a diss. An unasked-for bon mot, curtly reminding us of what we used to have decades ago when Oscar was going for 30-10-10 on the same night that Wilt Chamberlain probably pulled in 79 or 65 rebounds.
We don’t mean to oversell this, but Jason Kidd’s New Jersey Nets (even while ranked around the top ten in pace) were weirdly credited for bringing fast break basketball back to the NBA upon Kidd’s movement to New Jersey in 2001, while working at a raw pace similar to that of the 2016-17 Utah Jazz. This year’s Jazz are the slowest team in the NBA by a wide margin. These brief bursts were, in an era that limited just one available headband for each team’s bench, all fans had.
It was not only the paucity of posthaste options, for so many of the intervening years, but far too few stars packaged with the needed derring-do of the era. Jason Kidd’s best years came in a workmanlike run in terms of on-court personality as well, and the viewing public at large responded as you’d expect to an era that asked Mookie Blaylock to force his way into a top-four showing among triple-double providers. With two.
The triple-double providers in this era are the league’s MVP candidates, and not merely a bunch of clever point guards with a knack for rebounding. Don’t think The Big O hasn’t noticed:
This season alone, as of April 10 there were 114 triple-double games in the NBA, far surpassing the previous single-season record of 78 set in 1988-89.
“Does that mean there are more all-around players today? Or that today’s more wide-open game creates more opportunities for scoring, rebounding and assists? Or that the criteria for assists are no longer as stringent? Whatever the reasons, there’s little doubt that the triple-double is much more in the spotlight.
“People always want to compare players and eras, but you really can’t. You have to account for such things as minutes played, games played, changes in scoring, and other changes in the way statistics are kept. So I’m not drawn into comparisons between Westbrook and myself, or his era and my era. I leave that up to the basketball historians to decide.”
At this point, Oscar Robertson counts as a basketball historian, as would many of us – nearly sated after spying our trillionth pool of discussion filled in order the serve the growing lap that NBA fans by the million demand. Fans don’t need a discussion with an uncle paired with a trip to the library, prior to watching that night’s game, in order to act like boffins in the face of what’s new. The league and its fans – its basketball historians – have never been smarter.
It’s what comes after, that counts. The league will never fully devalue the triple-double, even if its numbers decline following the ascension of the NBA’s next batch of all-around stars. Stars like Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, and John Wall: brilliant and versatile performers, all, just ones that may fall consistently short of hitting double-figures in that third category every night. As if that third category ever mattered. As if, even in the worst of times, we wouldn’t have taken LeBron James’ two-rebound “off” night (alongside his 26 points and nine assists) on the same night Jason Kidd gave us a 12, 12 and 13 in 2006.
The idea that you’d take the best all-around night ahead of certain triple-doubles – even with the triple-double once acting as the NBA’s go-to characterization of All-Star level versatility – is hardly a new one, and it has taken hold even during Westbrook’s march.
Houston’s James Harden ranks second on the league’s list of triple-double achievers, but he’s fallen short in averaging one on the season. No matter, though, as he leads many (if not most) MVP ballots due to an observer’s ability to isolate why his certain strand of versatile production is more beneficial to his team’s odds. Even while acknowledging that his team’s odds, with Harden out of the picture, are better than Oklahoma City’s odds were Mr. Westbrook to take a night off.
You either needed a buddy with an anecdote to share or access to the internet to have learned, pre-introduction, that Westbrook pads his rebound stats. That was in NOVEMBER, not relayed 40 years later. And, as Oscar Robertson likes to tell it, you once had to forcibly pull a teammate into the goal itself in order to secure an official assist. Now, point guards pick up five assists per game just by passing that too-tough “Shoes: One, or Two?”-quiz.
It is easier to snare an assist in 2017, in ways that will take years to tame. It is still hard to assume that the league will get much faster, but it was also just as hard to anticipate that teams would do more than merely learn from D-League experiments with just about eschewing anything besides three-pointers, free throws and lay-ins. But here Harden’s Houston Rockets are.
The champs will figure it out, as they always will, as will the teams blessed with a set of distinctions not unlike Oscar’s Cincinnati Royals, or Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder. Where those two groups meet is, often sadly, somewhere in the middle and at the expense of what makes someone like Russell Westbrook so intoxicating in the first place. You don’t get the feeling that Oscar and Russell – unlike, say, Magic or LeBron – have a lot of records in their collection. Influence burdens them.
This is why the appreciation is necessary, within this season. Not because we have to, but because the honor is earned, and because Russell Westbrook (as he tends to do) may have just gobbled up all the damned honor.
We don’t know if the triple-double is just going to become another thing you do, or if it will go back to being just another thing that happens every so often that we don’t care about as much. We do know that nobody has done it like Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook have. In their respective years, too, because Russell might get another crack in 2017-18.
Enjoy triple-doubles, while they mean the most.
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