The Mystique Surrounding the Triple-Double

The formation of “super teams,” historic scoring from young stars, a hotly contested MVP race, and fashion forward outfits all contributed to the uniqueness of the 2016-17 NBA season.  But, there was one pattern that kept unveiling itself.  Players kept reaching the mystical mark of a triple-double on a nightly basis.  The final tally on the season was 117, which is 45 more than the previous season.

NBA Triple-Double Performances
a) Russell Westbrook accounted for 42 of the total 117 triple-double performances this season.   b) There is a dip in 2012 in part because that was a shortened season from the lockout.

Over the past few seasons, there has been an upward trend of more and more triple-doubles.  Something that was once a threshold that was rarely achieved has now seemingly become a nightly occurrence.


The quick and easy answer is Russell Westbrook.  The OKC superstar and MVP candidate did what only one other player in NBA history could do and that is to average a triple-double for an entire season.  In fact, Westbrook broke Oscar Robertson’s record for most triple-doubles in a season by surpassing him with 42 such games.

The stat that truly signals a meteoric rise of triple doubles is the following:

If Russell Westbrook had not played one game this entire year, the number of triple-doubles produced would still have increased by three from the previous season (72 to 75).

NBA Triple-Double History
In a season where the most ever triple-doubles were recorded, the amount of point scored in such games also reached a pinnacle (26.2 pts/g).

So, the question still remains.  Why are triple-doubles produced so regularly now?

The NBA landscape of players is ever-changing with free-agent signings in the off-season to mid-season trades.  The NBA is ever-evolving with new rule changes and improved officiating but a major difference from 10 years ago is the style of play.  More specifically, the pace of play has increased dramatically.

The prototypical offensive system has seemingly shifted from post-oriented schemes to more perimeter outside shooting and higher up-tempo offenses.  Post positions are still an integral part of the game of basketball, however, even with outside shooting becoming as prevalent as it has, NBA junkies will notice that Centers are stretching their game to the 3-point arc.  For example, Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez attempted more shots from the outside than ever before in their careers while increasing their efficiency from behind the arc.  Gasol made 104 threes after only making 12 in his first eight seasons. And, Lopez has made 137 threes in his nine-year career, as the lion’s share came this season knocking down 134.

The point is that the league currently encourages more outside shooting and fosters a faster pace of play than it once did.  This sort of style lends itself to not only be more entertaining but also produce staggering statistical performances.

The faster offenses and a higher rate of possessions lead to greater number of shots attempted and thereby more scoring.

NBA pace of playOver the course of the 2007-08 season, 3 of the 30 NBA teams averaged over 100 possessions per game.  Those three teams were Denver, Golden State, and Indiana.  Four years later (2011-2012) not a single team averaged an offensive pace over 100 possessions.  The highest mark for the 2011-12 season was set by Denver who led with 98.6 possessions per game.  Now, fast forward to the current season, more than half of the league (16 teams) averaged a pace above the 100-possessions mark.

The median number of possessions a decade ago was 94.9.  Today, it is 100.2.  The increase in the median number of possessions per game (+5.3) signals a faster pace of play.

Statistically speaking, there is a strong positive relationship between the pace of play and the number of triple-doubles recorded over the last decade.  Calculating the correlation coefficient between the two variables yielded 0.88.

NBA Triple-Double Record Increase with Pace of Play

Ultimately, there are multiple factors that contribute to staggering performance, whether it is offensive systems geared differently than in years past, or improve scheduling to eliminate back-to-backs, or simply a generational superstar. The evidence laid out above is an outstanding trend that signals a positive relationship between pace and production – such an up-tempo pace that it is producing historic records of triple-doubles that the NBA has never seen before.


* CORRELATION = Correlation is a statistical technique that can show whether and how strongly pairs of variables are related. The main result of a correlation is called the correlation coefficient (or “r”). It ranges from -1.0 to +1.0. The closer r is to +1 or -1, the more closely the two variables are related. If r is close to 0, it means there is no relationship between the variables. If r is positive, it means that as one variable gets larger the other gets larger. [via]

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