What’s So Special About Triple-Doubles?

Every year around this time, Missouri and Illinois play an intense basketball game with an extremely clever name: “Arch Madness.” For an MU Alumnus and an Illini hater like myself, this game is either a double-dip of wins for my two favorite teams (Mizzou and whatever team is playing against Illinois) or a sports fan’s haymaker that’s reason to be physically ill for a week.

The good news for me is that Mizzou has had quite a run in basketball lately and extended the rivalry winning streak to four years thanks to a killer frontcourt tandem and Brandon Paul’s inability to play offense against real teams.

No player on the Illinois roster has ever beaten Missouri and that is my favorite Christmas gist.

No player on the Illinois roster has ever beaten Missouri and that is my favorite Christmas gift.

But this post isn’t about that game or either of those two schools, it’s about what I read in the post-game, particularly about Mizzou’s point guard Phil Pressey. He played above-average defense on a much bigger Paul and had 11 assists to only four turnovers, but he didn’t make a shot for the first 35 minutes! Anyone watching could tell you that one of the huge stories of this game was his ineffective scoring. It was unbearable to watch him artfully knife through three defenders and then blow a layup. He managed to make some free throws and finished the game with a mixed stat line of 12 points (3-19 shooting), 11 assists, 7 rebounds and a steal.

What you’re thinking is probably the same thing that several sports writers were thinking: that can’t be a bad game, it’s almost a triple-double. And it was. But Flip was probably the third best Tiger in that game and had an average overall performance.

Here’s the thing about triple-doubles: they’re not that great at indicating success. Track with me …

There’s nothing really consequential about 10 of something. Sure, there are two digits, instead of one, but the difference between the ninth and tenth rebound is still just one rebound, the same as the difference between the second and third rebound. Overall, a 10-10-10 game isn’t as impressive as a a 30-5-5 game or a 10-20-0 game. As I’ve written before, the best teams aren’t full of players who do a lot of everything, they’re full of players who do one thing extremely well.

Pressey’s 12-11-7 game was enough to win, but it’s not like he picked the team up and carried them to victory. A lot of the game, the Tigers were winning despite him.

NCAA hoops is full of statistical outliers when compared to the NBA (40 minutes games compared to 48-minute games, a wider range of talent, tons of non-conference games against joke teams, etc.) so we’ll look at NBA stats for the rest of this post.

To start off, let’s examine overall NBA statistics this year. As of Dec. 23, there are 107 players averaging 10 points per game or more. Double-digits in scoring is no feat to celebrate. It’s the easiest part of a triple-double. Hell, 10 players in the association are scoring 10 points before halftime.

After scoring, rebounds and assists are the two most likely other triple-double candidates. Those stats are harder to get; only 10 NBA players average double-digit rebounds and a single player (my man Rajon Rondo) gets 10 or more assists every night. It’s possible to get 10 blocks or steals in a game (ask Roy Hibbert or Larry Sanders), but no player averages more than 3 of either.

I don’t want to take all of the glory away from talented basketball players who record triple-doubles, I’m just saying it’s more a feat of statistical chance than outstanding individual effort.

Let’s go another step with this. Who do you think is leading the NBA in triple-doubles so far this season? If you guessed Jose Calderon (2), you’d be right. But you didn’t.

Triple-Double machine Ben Uzoh

Triple-Double machine Ben Uzoh

No other player in the league has more than one triple-double this year. The list of single-triple-doubles includes some of the usual suspects (Kobe, Durant, LeBron), a few borderline All-Stars (Tony Parker, David Lee) some solid role players (Hibbert, Sanders, Joakim), my favorite underrated player (Greg Monroe) and even a complete waste (Jordan Crawford). If you were to tell me that George Hill and Jordan Crawford have as many triple-doubles as Durant and LeBron, I’d tell you that the stat doesn’t measure much of anything.

But the 2012-2013 season is only a third of the way done. That’s a small sample. Let’s look at the last full season:

In 2011-2012, one player had multiple triple-doubles: Rajon Rondo (6).

Here is a list of players that didn’t record a triple-double last year: Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, you get what I’m saying.

Here is a list of players that did record a triple-double last year: David Lee, Jarrett Jack, Kyle Lowry, Drew Gooden, Kemba Walker, JJ Barea, Serge Ibaka, Ben Uzoh.

In fact, of the 13 players that achieved triple-doubles last year, only two (Carmelo Anthony and Andre Iguodala) even made the All-Star team. While neither making the All-Star team nor recording triple-doubles is the best measure of a player’s ability, you’d think there would be a higher correlation.

Is it impressive when a guy logs a triple-double? Maybe. It’s more of a bizarre combination of chance and outlying usage. Nothing worth celebrating as the cause of a win.

Merry Christmas to all.