By Jacob Hevenor ’17
If anything can characterize this year’s NBA season, it would have to be the impressive individual statistics. Take, for example, the triple-double’s emergence as a common feat. Triple-doubles are single game performances in which a player records ten of at least three of the five primary statistical categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals, and/or blocks. Even though there are about three weeks to play in the regular season, the league as a whole has already easily broken the record for most total triple-doubles in a single season, with 96 as of March 19.
Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double per game (31.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 10.4 assists), a historic level of performance. James Harden and LeBron James pile the points and usually lead their teams in assists. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins score with the best and consistently hit 20+ rebounds.
These are statistics that had mostly been reserved for the elite of the elite over the last several decades. Nevertheless, despite a more widely talented league than ever before, individual players are putting up gargantuan stat lines. And just as noticeably, players of all positions and ages are doing it all. Relatively unknown guards, Malcolm Brogdon and Tim Frazier, have recorded triple-doubles this season. Traditional centers such as Marc Gasol and Nikola Jokic have several.
Perhaps the explosion can be attributed to a new type of player that was not present in the previous decades. The concept of a “unicorn” – a player that is capable of post scoring, three-point shooting, distributing, and elite quickness – has grown into an archetype as players such as Kevin Durant, Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo bring individual and team success with their size and skill.
Antetokounmpo, for example, stands at 6’11” with a 7’3” wingspan, but at just over 200 pounds, possesses the quickness to facilitate and work as the chief ball-handler. The “point-forward” unicorn have the height of centers but the handles of point guards, enabling excellence in multiple capacities.
Coaches are also more reliant on their star players, giving them more freedom to play individually and opening up the opportunity for stat-stuffing. Interestingly, the San Antonio Spurs are renowned for playing a team-first style of basketball, and not a single Spur has recorded a triple-double this season. Yet, San Antonio still has the second-best record in the league.
Another contributing factor could be the media, which has somewhat glamorized the triple-double. Westbrook’s “Triple-Double Watch” has been plastered all over ESPN all-season long. Players can say they are just focused on winning the game, but the triple-double has been talked about so much that it must be in the back of players’ minds during games.
As the MVP race heats up, it remains to be seen if this “triple-double culture” has become so pervasive that it becomes the primary measuring stick for MVP voters. If the NBA is going to continue to shift its focus from teams to individuals, voters would do well to recognize individual performances. If they are hoping to reverse the trend and preserve the notion of team basketball, team success should be the primary determinant.