The year is 1981.
Magic Johnson and the Lakers are coming off a loss in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual runners up, the Houston Rockets.
Johnson, still playing second fiddle behind Kareem, is unknowingly the leader in triple-doubles amongst active players in the league.
Unknowingly? How is that possible?
The triple-double was yet to be invented – or rather it was yet to be recognised. It wasn’t till Bruce Jolesch, the PR director for the Lakers, coined the term in an effort to measure a player’s all-around ability.
Jolesch, although only attempting to bolster the status of Magic, had invented the term that was to dictate the ways in which offence’s flowed and operated in modern NBA basketball.
Up until the 2016-17 NBA season, the most triple-doubles recorded by the league in a season was 78 in the 88-89 season – spearheaded by Jordan and Magic who had 15 and 17 respectively.
Then came the 2016-17 season.
This infamous season was highlighted by two players – Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Both were involved in one of the tightest and most debated MVP races in recent memory Both these players also led the league in triple-doubles. The Beard had 22 himself, whilst Brodie had 42.
The league combined had 117. The two seasons following this the league had 108 and 127 triple doubles.
Triple-doubles, once proclaimed as the newest and best measurement for a player’s all-around ability, have become a bland and overrated stat-line that does nothing but highlight a player’s usage in a particular game.
Offences nowadays have become more streamlined. The team’s best player – or best 2 or 3 players – are being used more and more with plays consistently running through their hands. Coaches have less control over who has the ball and the faster pace means more possessions. All these factors lead to a higher accumulation of stats, allowing for the triple-double to be more prevalent.
The modern-day triple-double does not mean merely as much as it did at its birth.
Offences, since the 16-17 season, have become much more streamlined – quicker, simpler, and narrower.
Never before has a team won the championship with a player having a usage rate higher than 36%. Steph Curry and LeBron are fantastic examples of this.
In Golden State’s first championship year, Steph’s usage rate was only 28.93%. A true testament to the style of play that the Warriors exhibited during their time at the top (maybe not so much anymore). In the famous 2015-16 NBA season when the Cavs came back to steal the championship from the Warriors, LeBron’s usage rate was just 31.38%.
This is more of a reflection of the top tier teams having a “team-ball” styled offence. Touches spread relatively evenly amongst the players on the court resulted in a style of play that was the definition of 5-on-5 offence.
Teams, however, are adopting a new style of offence that transitions from 5-on-5 to an offence that has a much narrower focus. This focus puts the ball into the hands of single players, with touches restricted to as little players as possible.
Houston and Oklahoma City have of course been the front runners for this new style of play over the last few seasons, but more and more teams are changing their way of thinking to this new “hero ball” style of play. Even Atlanta this season, with the young and exciting core they have accumulated over the last couple of years, have decided to hand Trae Young the sole responsibility to produce on offence and allow the others to merely exist on the court around him.
These more streamlined offences were no mistake, they were the result of mountains and mountains of research.
This new style can be another butterfly effect of the infamous Harden trade. The trade that allowed Daryl Morey to fully implement this new style of play.
Bigger gap between stars and role players
Another reason for the rise of the triple double is the gap between superstars and role players.
In today’s game, the gap between the star and the role player has never been so substantial.
Offences hinge on the stars ability to score. They live and die by it.
You will never see a team build around an all-star like Draymond Green. No disrespect to Draymond – as he is one of the most tenacious and aggressive players that we have seen in NBA history – but if your main star on your team is not leading your team in scoring, you are not winning. Look to Golden State Warriors 2019-2020 season for clear evidence of this.
This has been the case forever. There has never been a successful team in the past few seasons, where their leading score is not also considered their best player. Leonard, Durant and James – the last three Finals MVPs – are prime examples of this. Goliaths on the court who lead their team in virtually every facet of the game, especially scoring.
Since the 1999-2000 NBA season, only 3 of the 20 Finals MVPs have not been the leading scorer on the team.
Andre Iguodala in 2014-15 (one of the most controversial Finals MVPs), Kawhi Leonard in 2013-14 (who only finished 0.2 ppg behind Tony Parker who was the leading scorer) and Chauncey Billups in 2003-04 (who only finished 0.4 ppg behind Richard Hamilton who was the leading scorer).
However, with this birth of the streamlined offences, the gap between the star and the role player is immense and continues to grow.
Star players are not only expected to score, rather they are expected to stuff the stat sheet every single night.
Points, assists, rebounds.
The three key statistics in the game of basketball – all of which seemed to be worshipped when their number gets to double digits. The star player in today’s game are asked to achieve excellence in all three, and with the ball in their hand all the time, why can’t they achieve that?
Oklahoma’s offence was built around the concept of Russ grabbing a defensive rebound in order to spark a fastbreak and move the ball quickly upcourt. Russ would then either chuck up a shot or dish the ball to a teammate for them to attempt a shot. The end result was Russ having the ball in his hands for most of the possession. Their superstar got the stats he needed to achieve the holy trinity of the triple double.
Players have been putting up incredible stats over the last few seasons, but we must take this with a grain of salt.
Stats control the league.
The obsession of stats amongst players, coaching staff and fans alike has boiled a lot of perceptions of NBA players down to how they appear on the box score.
But, as we all know, the box score only tells part of the story. A player such as Marcus Smart or Patrick Beverly can change the outcome of a game and only score 4 points – begging the question of how does one quantify hustle?
How does one quantify an unquantifiable aspect of the game? Leadership, tenacity, the desire to win. The innate competitive instincts that make up the very best of the NBA – and sports all around the world – is something that cannot be shown on a box score.
Likewise, fans and media members prioritise stats over wins. When comparing players, stats appear much more often than wins do.
When a player steps out onto the court, their #1 goal is to win. That’s it, that’s all basketball is.
It’s about winning. It’s about doing whatever you can do for your team to make sure that they finish on top.
When KD joined the Warriors, Klay’s scoring in the playoffs was 9.3 points per game lower than the previous season – does that mean that Klay was a drastically worse player that year? No. Obviously not.
This relates to the classic “good stats bad team” players. The players that put up huge stats on bad teams that mean virtually nothing because of the overall success of the team. Zach Lavine, Julius Randle, even Andre Drummond this season.
At the time of writing this article, Zach Lavine has just put up 49 points against the Hornets on 13/17 shooting from the 3-point line. Does this mean that Zach Lavine should be considered one the league’s premiere players? No. He is merely putting up points on a Bulls roster, where no one else seems to be able to.
Derrick Rose put it well during a pre-season interview with the Pistons.
Stats only tell so much of the story – they do not however tell the entire story.
Team ball > hero ball
Unless the game has significantly changed overnight, there is only one ball on the court. Only one person can possess the ball at a given point.
The trend over the last couple of years is to make sure that your top asset possesses the ball as much as possible in order to get the most production out of them.
And it makes sense.
Why wouldn’t you want your best players controlling the flow of the game for you? Why would you not want your best players dictating the outcome of the game with their superior talent and production?
Well, looking back on history, team ball has always seemed to beat teams that focus their offensive output through one person.
Team basketball is historical. Its timeless. It works. Just ask the recent Warriors dynasty who led the league in assists
Team basketball will always prevail over hero ball. No one has ever won a championship single-handedly. Look back on history and try and find a team that won based solely on the output of one player – it has never happened.
Conclusion: Triple doubles are not a recipe for success
Triple-doubles do not correlate to winning championships. Nowadays, they are merely statement about how long someone had the ball in their hands during the game.
Of course, achieving one is a testament to someone’s talent and skill, but they are not the deciding factor when it comes to how the game should be played.
You may be reading this whole thing and saying to yourself, “But Milwaukee and Houston are 2 of the top teams in the league at the moment”.
And you’d be right.
But there are plenty of teams this year who have had fantastic success with their team-focused offences – some of which no one saw coming.
The Clippers, Celtics, Nuggets, Heat, Raptors, Pacers, Jazz, Suns and Lakers are all examples of teams that have a system in which everybody eats.
Team ball is not dead – and it never will be.