Analyzing the True Value of the Triple Double in the Modern NBA
By: Alex Guo and Darren Sohn
Using the stat sheet in the NBA is often an accurate measurement of how well an NBA performs on a game-to-game basis. Perhaps the most coveted statistic a player can record is the “triple-double”, an instance in which a player tallies double digits in three categories, with the most common triple-double being in points, rebounds, and assists. Recording a triple-double in a game essentially means a player must be highly productive on both ends of the court. However, while the triple-double has always correlated with a high-level player's performance historically, critics have recently been wondering if the value of a triple-double is nothing more but an empty statistic. In recent NBA history, players seem to be getting even younger and managing to record triple-doubles as if they were easy to obtain, with Lamelo Ball holding the record for being the youngest NBA player to record a triple-double in 2021 at 19 years, 140 days before losing the record the very next season to Josh Giddey, who recorded this statistic at 19 years, 84 days.
New-era playstyles heavily revolve around volume shooting and notions of “stat-padding” that focus on an individual’s stat sheet rather than a team’s. Therefore, the question remains uncertain: What is the true value of a triple-double? Is it something that contributes to both player and team success or is it something that anyone can achieve with some selfish basketball?
In this article, we take a look at players that have recorded the most triple-doubles in NBA history and offer an evaluation of how valuable these players were for their team during the course of the season. Furthermore, we analyzed if recording a triple-double translated into a team victory, solidifying this notion that the triple-double does have an innate value that can contribute to more than just the player’s stat sheet. Finally, highlight the jump in triple-doubles from earlier seasons to more recent seasons and how the new era of the NBA centers itself around elite players that have the ability to score at will, get their teammates involved, and push themselves defensively to get their team the win at any cost.
We analyzed data from all triple-doubles recorded by the NBA since 1983. It should be noted that the data was collected and cleaned on April 22nd, 2022, and therefore does not include any triple-doubles recorded after this date, mainly many playoff games. It should also be noted that players like Oscar Robertson (the player with 2nd most triple-doubles in NBA history) have not been included in certain graphics and some players may not have a complete representation of how many triple-doubles are recorded if they played in seasons both before and after 1983.
It seems as if every week there are more and more players earning triple-doubles, especially rookies and role players. Is it that much easier to record a triple-double today? While upon inspection, it might not be able to tell us if it’s easier, it can show us whether it’s happening more often and it most certainly is. In the previous fourteen seasons prior to the 2015-2016 season, there was an average number of 36 triple-doubles recorded per season. The next seven seasons have displayed an average number of 112 triple-doubles. The statistical difference between these averages is significant and it is essential to understand just why triple-doubles seemed to be so “easily” obtainable during these seasons. Perhaps the easiest explanation to dive into is the impact of playstyles on the game, or in short, the impact of one particular player within the last decade. Stephen Curry’s MVP season can be seen as a performance that opened the door to a more proficient NBA. His ability to manipulate defenders to find open shots and quickly drain threes became an offensive advantage that coaches had no choice but to implement. Thus, the era of midranges was over and the age of volumetric shooting had begun.
At its most basic level, it becomes evident that the triple-double is a contributing factor to winning games rather than being a meaningless, empty statistic. For example, Russell Westbrook’s historic 2016-2017 season was highlighted by not only his 42 total triple-doubles, but he also managed to average a triple-double and lead the league in scoring that same season. However, while the triple-doubles were insanely impressive as they were, Westbrook’s player efficiency rating (PER) was rated as the highest that season, showing that recording pure numbers were still essential to a player’s success that would holistically contribute to team wins. The total value that Westbrook added to his team during his MVP season was astronomical; the impact of his triple-doubles went beyond just simply becoming a part of history. As a result, what we are able to take from Westbrook’s historical season is that it would be ridiculous to cast aside the triple-double as an “empty statistic” that holds no true value in terms of actual performance. The statistics have proven that triple-doubles contribute to team success, individual success, and most importantly, a value that can actually be measured.
As we stated before, the influence of historic players and their performances is essential for the way the league is shaped and adapted. The average number of three-point field goal attempts per game in the NBA during the first 15 seasons displayed in the chart (starting at the 2000-2001 season) was just under 20 attempts. Following Curry’s MVP season, the most recent seven seasons have been characterized by an average number of 30.9 attempts, a 54.5% increase in attempted field goals. However, it was not just shooting that has seen an upwards trend in recent seasons; the league’s PPG (Points Per Game) has shot up by a large margin, as well as RPG (Rebounds Per Game) and APG (Assists Per Game). To put it simply, the domino effect of taking more ranged shots has quickly transitioned the NBA into an era of high-scoring games, effective offensive players, and team play that contributes to higher averaging statistics as a whole. As a result of this new era of basketball, elite-level players that were able to find their niche, like Jokic’s ability to play as a 7-foot playmaker, allowed them to rack up impressive triple-doubles that have never been seen before.
The most essential argument about the triple-double debate and the question of its value can be answered with the true winning percentages in games with a recorded triple-double. Using data from the last twenty seasons of the NBA, we see that there is a high correlation between recording a triple-double and earning a win in the same game.
However people seem to forget this and because of how often a triple-double is recorded in today’s game and wonder in spite of all this, does it actually help the team win. The recency bias from the increase in triple-doubles recorded has diluted the notion that these statistics actually contribute to winning NBA games. Collecting data from all games of the regular season recorded from 1995-1996 to 2011-2012, each team with a player that recorded a triple-double in a game won 75% of the time. During this era of the NBA, we know based on how rarely a triple-double was recorded and the state of the game, a player’s success in the triple-double stat line was impactful to the team’s success.
What about games after 2012, where the triple-double seems easier to achieve and even the youngest of rookies are achieving them? Similar to the previous 19 seasons, 71% of games were won by teams when one of their players recorded a triple-double. While there has been a decrease in winning percentage over time, by no means has the triple-double lost its impact on a team’s chances of winning a game. Players that record triple-doubles are not just selfish basketball players; they still have the best interest of the team in mind and contribute to a win with amazing performances. Nikola Jokic, for example, and his two recent MVP performances are characterized by averaging 27.1 PPG, 13.8 RPG, and 7.9 APG in his 2022 season and 26.4 PPG, 10.8 PPG, 8.3 PPG in his 2021 season. Jokic nearly averaged a triple-double in both of these seasons, and his 19 triple-doubles this past season contributed to a winning Nuggets team (48-34) that struggled from injuries in top PG Jamal Murray and x-factor Michael Porter Jr. This narrative of triple-doubles shouldering a team’s success is reflective of Russell Westbrook during his prime, as we mentioned earlier in the article. The new era of basketball has catered to a fast pace, guns-blazing competition that revolves around volume shooting, which in turn has opened the door for talented players to be active on both ends of the floor, putting their best effort into getting a win for their team.
Due to the high frequency of games where players are scoring triple-doubles added with the fact that they sometimes come from players that aren’t MVP-caliber players, triple-doubles have been ridiculed and forgotten. However, we argue that this is far from the truth. Triple doubles, at the end of the day, are meant to demonstrate a player’s ability on both sides of the court, despite recent critics having seen it as selfish basketball. The NBA has simply adapted to a new play style that promotes key individuals over team play. With pioneers like Russell Westbrook and skilled big men like Jokic, there is no doubt that the triple-double will only become easier to achieve and more often. After all, the new generation found in LaMelo Ball, Josh Giddey, and Luka Doncic has proven that triple-doubles come easily with that new era mentality. Throughout this article, we used statistics and graphs to disassemble the myth that triple-doubles hold no inherent value and simply exist to boost an individual player’s ego. We have seen through winning percentages and individual players’ seasons that the triple-double stat does not come at the expense of a team’s success. In short, triple-doubles are not dead and should hold their value as they have done before, all while continuing to positively influence the game of basketball today.