Part of the thrill of following sports is the possibility of seeing history being made. All of our professional leagues have been around long enough to establish a generational history, a lengthy past that allows us to look back over the years. Statistical records in particular make this kind of nostalgic fandom possible.
Anyone who follows the NBA – or sports in general – is getting the chance to bear witness to that sort of historic performance courtesy of Oklahoma Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook has accomplished a statistical feat not seen in the NBA in over half a century by averaging a triple-double (double digits in point, assists and rebounds) over an entire season, joining Oscar Robertson as the only players to ever reach the milestone. In addition, Westbrook broke Robertson’s record for triple-doubles in a season.
It’s an unquestionably impressive line for Westbrook – he led the NBA in scoring with over 30 points per game while dishing out 10-plus assists and hauling down 10-plus rebounds. While it doesn’t QUITE measure up to Robertson’s raw numbers (30.8 points/11.4 assists/12.5 rebounds), when context is taken into consideration, it’s actually even more impressive.
Oscar Robertson put up his numbers in a league that was only 15 years old at the time. There were only a handful of teams and the professional game was still coalescing. Back in that 1961-62 season, the sport was different, both in terms of style of play and the skills of those who played it. The pace of play was significantly faster, leading to far more opportunities for a guy like Robertson to dish an assist or snag a rebound.
Today’s NBA is something else entirely, a league driven by otherworldly athletes. They take fewer shots, but make a higher percentage of them even when taking the advent of the three-pointer into account. Long gone are the days when a player had to do anything other than play basketball to make a living. Conditioning and sports medicine are quantum leaps beyond what they were five decades ago. One could make a strong argument that almost any player currently on a league roster could have been a star in Robertson’s NBA.
There are those who deride Westbrook’s efforts as stat-stuffing, a forced attempt to fill the box score rather than win. It mostly comes off as grumbly old man sour grapes, but if you tilt your head and squint, you can see their point. It’s possible – not easy, but POSSIBLE – to selfishly snag rebounds and toss out assists; guys like Dennis Rodman and Rajon Rondo are proof of that.
Another omnipresent argument is the “If So-and-so thought triple doubles were important, he’d have gotten them all the time” take. And sure, if someone like Magic Johnson or Larry Bird had decided to go into full-on triple-double mode, that guy might well have beaten Westbrook to the punch. But here’ the thing – they didn’t. Maybe they could have, but they didn’t.
Is the triple-double a largely arbitrary stat? Absolutely. But that doesn’t dull its allure. We love round numbers in sports; this accomplishment hinges on meeting or surpassing three of them. Regardless of how you feel about Russell Westbrook and how he reached this point, it remains a feat that only one other player in the 70-year history of the NBA has accomplished.
It’s remarkable that even now, with so many seasons in the rearview, we still sometimes have the chance to see sporting history being made.