What Is A Triple-Double In Basketball?

A triple-double is one of the most impressive feats that a player can accomplish on the court in a single game.

If you follow NBA basketball at all, you’ve probably heard the term “triple-double“ being thrown around.

Not sure what it means? Don’t worry, because that’s what we’re going to be explaining that today. And even if you’re already familiar with the definition, there will still be some interesting historical info as well as some fun facts for you to enjoy as well.

So, what exactly is a triple-double?

While they are definitely an impressive feat and, usually, the mark of an amazing game from a player who got one, triple-doubles themselves are simply a byproduct of good performance stats across the board.

A player earns a triple double in basketball if they accumulate a double-digit (10+) number total in three of five statistical categories—pointsreboundsassistssteals, and blocked shots—in a single game.

So what makes this stat quite interesting is that it can come about in different ways, depending on the categories which entered double figures. A point guard, for example, would find it easier to rack up points, assists, and steals in order to record a triple-double. Meanwhile, a big center would typically get one by scoring double figure points, rebounds and blocked shots.

The Five Statistical Categories Which Contribute Towards A Triple Double

To properly explain them, we need to cover the basics of basketball stats. There are five major stats that are tracked in every basketball game and league – points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. The stats themselves should be quite self-explanatory but the NBA did not adopt all of them at the same time. 

Points are the oldest stats. Assists were first officially tracked during the 1946/47 season and rebounds were introduced as a major statistical category four seasons later. The two major defensive categories, blocks and steals, are the youngest since they were both officially introduced only during the 1973/74 season.

To get a triple-double, a player must simply record a double-digit (10 or more) number in any three major statistical categories he wants in a single game. Triple doubles weren’t even a thing in the NBA until LA media came up with the term to describe what Magic Johnson was often doing on the court in the 1980s.

What Is The Most Common Way To Get A Triple-Double?

The most common triple-double is going to include points, assists, and rebounds since those categories are usually easier to fill up than blocks or steals. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any triple-doubles that include other categories. For example, Hassan Whiteside has recorded four triple-doubles in his career and all of them have been a combination of points, rebounds, and blocks!

One player has even achieved a triple-double without points. That player is Draymond Green and his stat line of 12 rebounds, 10 assists, and 10 steals against the Grizzlies back in February of 2017. His unique feat remains the only instance of such a triple-double in NBA history.

Is a triple-double the only “double” category?

In a word, no. You’ve probably heard the term “double-double” mentioned at least once. Whereas a triple-double requires double digits in any three major statistical categories in a single game, a double-double requires only two. That makes it a much more common feat and many players have averaged a double-double for an entire season. 

There is also a “quadruple-double”, an extremely rare feat. It requires getting double digits in FOUR major statistical categories in a single game. Coincidentally, only four players in NBA history have ever achieved this feat. Their names are Nate Thurmond, Alvin Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and David Robinson.

Finally, we do have the concept of the quintuple-double, though such a feat has only been witnessed in female high school basketball competitions. Now there are rumors that in the NBA, Wilt Chamberlain actually managed to record a quintuple double on March 18, 1968. However, because in those days no one was officially recording steals and blocks, there is no way of being sure this happened for certain. As such, we are still waiting for the first quintuple-double to grace an NBA game.

NBA Players With The Most Career Triple-Doubles of All-Time

RankPlayer NameTriple-Doubles
1Russell Westbrook189
2Oscar Robertson181
3Magic Johnson138
4Jason Kidd107
5Lebron James99
6Wilt Chamberlain78
7James Harden62
8Nikola Jokic61
9Larry Bird59
10Fat Lever43
Source: Basketball Reference

Unlike other stats which are more focused on a specific area, the triple double leaderboard is filled with “all-rounders” who perform well in multiple aspects of a basketball game. That’s why you don’t see some big names like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant in the top 10, even though they are leaders when it comes to career points.

Why are triple-doubles so much more common in the NBA compared to other leagues?

Well, there are a few reasons for this. Compared to other basketball leagues, the NBA uses 12-minute quarters instead of 10 and there is much more emphasis on individual play in the NBA compared to the EuroLeague or some other foreign league.

However, triple-doubles used to be a very rare occurrence in the NBA as well and now someone seems to be getting one nearly every night. What changed? The answer – the speed of the game.  

There’s a stat called “pace” which measures the number of possessions a team uses per game. The pace has been rapidly increasing for the last few seasons up to the point where we are seeing the fastest basketball in the last 20 years. The average pace for the 2019/20 season is 100.2, the highest it’s been since the 1988/89 season. With more possessions, players simply have more chances to put up stats.

Did anyone ever average a triple-double for an entire season?

Believe it or not, yes. And it wasn’t just one player, but two! The first player who averaged a triple-double was Oscar Robertson who did so in the 1961/62 season. He recorded an incredible 41 triple-doubles that season and no one thought this feat would ever be achieved again.

More than 50 years later, Russell Westbrook (at that time playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder) came out of nowhere to average a triple-double in 2016/17 and broke Robertson’s record with 42 triple-doubles in a single season. Of course, he was deservingly named the MVP for that season and he went on to average a triple-double for three consecutive seasons.

With how the game is played today, we are seeing more triple-doubles than ever. It is probably just a matter of time until a couple of new names join the exclusive list of players who managed to average a triple-double for a season.

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