Posted 04 December 2007 - 06:25 PM
Hollinger wrote a piece on this on ESPN today...I'm reprinting it without permission.30.8. 12.5. 11.4. Together, those three numbers -- the points, rebounds and assists Oscar Robertson averaged in 1961-62 for the Cincinnati Royals -- comprise one of the most hallowed marks in basketball history. That season the Big O became the only player in league history to average a triple-double for a season, and in the years since few players have even come close. But this year, two players appear poised to make a stab at it. The first is no stranger to the triple-double -- Jason Kidd of the Nets. Though New Jersey's point guard is getting up in years at 34, he came as close to Robertson's feat as anyone in a long time last season, averaging 13.0 points, 9.2 assists and 8.2 rebounds. This season he's making an even stronger run at the triple-double, averaging 11.6 points, 10.7 assists and 8.6 rebounds through New Jersey's first 17 games. The other is LeBron James. While his per-game numbers recently took a step back when he checked out after 19 minutes against Detroit, his stats though 16 games still look reminiscent of Oscar's: 30.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.6 assists. He had triple-doubles on back-to-back nights in November and has four on the season. None of them were cheapies, either -- he scored at least 30 points in all of them. Since both players are chasing history, it's time to take a closer look at the phenomenon of averaging a triple-double for an entire season. Why hasn't it been done in so long?Because the game slowed down, basically. This is a phenomenon of Oscar's triple-double that still isn't commonly understood. The late '50s and early '60s in general, and the 1961-62 season in particular, were played at such a phenomenally fast pace that it's hard to draw a parallel in today's game. Let's just say the Golden State Warriors would be considered staid slowpokes in 1961-62; the average team scored 118.8 points per game that season. This is even more amazing when you consider all the bricks that were fired up that season. The league shooting percentage was 42.6 percent, and the true shooting mark was 47.9 percent. For offenses around the league, it was a case of quantity over quality. Robertson benefited, especially in the rebounding category. Remember, you can get a rebound only if somebody misses a shot. With so many more missed shots to gather, there were nearly 70 percent more chances for a rebound than there are today. With teams shooting early in the clock and mostly missing, four different players averaged over 18 rebounds a game that season -- in an eight-team league! On the other hand, even with all the high scoring, Robertson had to earn his assists -- scorers were far less lenient in awarding them in those days, with the result that the Big O was the only player that season to average more than eight assists per game. Still, the pace as a whole gave him an enormous advantage in the triple-double quest, because at the league's 2006-07 pace he'd be looking at averaging 7.4 assists per game rather than 11.4. Similarly, his scoring average would lose some of its mojo, dropping to 27.6 per game. What would it take for LeBron to average a triple-double?Based on the previous discussion, your first instinct is to say, "Increase the pace!" [+] EnlargeDavid Liam Kyle/Getty ImagesIn order for LeBron to average a triple-double, he will need help from his teammates.Not so fast. Think about what would really be required to ramp up the pace for the Cavs. Basically, they'd need a jackrabbit point guard who was constantly pushing it up court looking for early opportunities. That would help King James's scoring stats and probably his rebounds, too. But he doesn't need more points in his triple-double chase. And it would likely starve him of assists -- the one category where James is most likely to struggle reaching double figures -- with Mr. Jackrabbit now pulling in a bunch of them. The fact is, you can play only so fast if you're running every play through a 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward. So it's unlikely that increasing the tempo would do as much for LeBron's hopes as it did for the Big O's. Instead, he would need two events that would increase both his rates of assists and rebounds. Right now he's averaging about one per five minutes in both categories; quick math will tell you that even if he plays every minute of a 48-minute game, he won't get to double figures in either. I should point out that he's unlikely to hit either threshold this year, but since James is only 22 and still improving, he figures to have several more shots at Oscar's mark. The easier obstacle is increasing his rebounds, which would probably require the same phenomenon Kidd is experiencing in New Jersey -- being surrounded by big guys who can't rebound. Kidd's big guys are poor rebounders, so there are a lot of defensive boards available for him to swoop in and grab; James doesn't have the same benefit. Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden are among the best rebounding frontcourt combos in basketball, so there aren't a lot of leftover scraps for LeBron. If one or both of them were to get injured/traded/benched, it might create enough of a void to push the King's rebounding average into double figures. Averaging double figures in assists is also problematic. The issue here, basically, is that James is too good. You can't assist a basket to yourself, and with James pouring in over 30 a game, that takes away an awful lot of opportunities for assists. (This is also why Michael Jordan, for instance, never hit double figures in assists). Probably the best chance for James would be if the Cavs surrounded him with a bunch of deadly jump shooters who can't score off the dribble. That way, nearly all their baskets would be assisted, because most of them would come as a catch-and-shoot straight off a pass. More often than not, the man delivering those passes would be James. The Cavs actually employ several players of this type already, except they aren't of nearly high enough quality. As a result, too many of those jumpers off passes from LeBron rim out, depriving him off that extra assist or two a night he needs to hit the triple-double mark. For this season, rebounding seems his biggest obstacle to the triple-double mark, because Z and Gooden are going to take a lot of boards away. But as I mentioned above, he probably won't make it in assists, either, and long-term that seems the bigger problem. He needs better players around him who require him to score less, and he needs them to be of a certain type -- something along the lines of four Peja Stojakovics would be the ideal. What about Kidd?For this season, Jason Kidd has a much better chance of averaging a triple-double than James. I say that for a couple reasons. First, obviously, his averages are higher. Kidd is over the threshold in assists and close to it in rebounds. [+] EnlargeDavid Dow/Getty ImagesKidd has always been one of the best rebounding guards in the NBA.Second, Kidd isn't under any pressure to take over games as a scorer. The points hurdle is the easiest requirement, by far, so a player like Kidd might actually be more likely to break the triple-double barrier than one like James, simply because he can focus more on the assists part of the equation. There's another factor involving Kidd, too, and I'm conflicted as to whether it works for him or against him: The fact that most of his teammates stink. Yes, he has Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson, but the Nets also have a starting center who scores once every lunar eclipse and precious little else in reserve, and that has some serious implications for a guy who's trying to average double figures in assists. On the one hand, having offensively challenged teammates means they can't convert as many of his passes into baskets, which tends to keep Kidd's assist numbers down. On the other, it also means they rarely score on their own, which means they depend on a pass from Kidd to get a bucket, which tends to push his assist numbers up. If you don't believe me, check out the Nets' team numbers on the season, because they're ridiculous. The team is dead last in field goals per game at 31.4, with more than two fewer than any other team. Yet the Nets are ninth in assists! Think about that for a second ... you can't get an assist unless somebody makes a basket, and the Nets make far fewer of them than anyone. For them to be in the upper half in assists tells you they must be scoring nearly all their baskets as a result of a pass. And in fact, they are, with a league-leading 71.7 percent of their buckets coming off an assist. While Kidd looks to be in decent shape in this category, to stay over the 10-assist threshold, he needs the Nets to remain an assist-dependent bunch or, alternatively, for them to start knocking down more shots. Kidd's other big advantage is that both starting frontcourt players are allergic to rebounds. If he does break through and average a triple-double this season, he should remember to thank Jason Collins and Malik Allen. The fact that both are such poor rebounders leaves a lot more defensive boards available for Kidd to yank down; conversely, if the Nets somehow traded for Reggie Evans, Kidd's hopes would be dashed pretty quickly. More realistically, an increase in playing time for Sean Williams and Josh Boone at the expense of Allen and the ridiculous Collins (seriously, 4.6 rebounds per 40 minutes from a starting NBA center?) could start taking rebounds off Kidd's plate. And he needs every rebound he can get; even now, he's 1.4 rebounds per game short of double figures. Given the near-perfect conditions he's already in, it's hard to think of what else could improve his situation here. But if Kidd can boost his rebounding numbers still further, he'll need a couple of other things could push him over the top. For starters, lots of close games. The Nets have been blown out of the gym a few times already, and those games hurt Kidd's minutes, which in turn hurt his averages. For instance, he played only 24 minutes in the 106-69 loss to Toronto and finished with two points, six assists and three rebounds; and he played 27 minutes and went 2-8-2 in a 27-point loss to Utah. Some overtime games would be nice, too. Those are "free" minutes available for padding stats; if the Nets were to have several of these, some of which went to double or triple OT, that would be a welcome development for Kidd's quest. Even so, it seems awfully likely he won't get enough rebounds to make it -- even with a much higher rebound rate than the Big O's. This underscores just how much Robertson benefited from the fast pace in this category. What's a triple-double really worth?The other part of the discussion here is what it would mean if one of these players broke the triple-double barrier. By comparing the scoring averages of Kidd and James, one thing that immediately becomes obvious is that not all triple-doubles are created equal. Kidd often limps just over the threshold with 10 or 11 points, while James, as I mentioned above, has posted nothing but 30-plus efforts this season. In fact, Kidd's PER this season is much lower than in previous ones because he's scoring so much less. This stems from the fact that the triple-double itself is a contrived stat. In fact, if you wanted to compare somebody's ability to be a triple threat, there's a far better statistic out there, and it's something I call "versatility index." Inspired by the power-speed number Bill James created for baseball, the versatility index multiplies points, rebounds and assists and takes the cube root of the result. I know that "cube root" part sounds scary to the mathophobes, but trust me, it's relatively painless. We end up with one number that provides a composite average of the player's numbers in the three categories. The catch is that by multiplying instead of adding, we reward players who are strong in all three categories and penalize those who are weak in one. For instance, a player who averages 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists gets a 10.0 versatility index; but one who averages 20 points, 10 rebounds and one assist earns just a 5.8. You'll see that immediately in the chart:Versatility Index, 2006-07 leaders Player Team Pts/Gm Reb/Gm Ast/Gm VI LeBron James Cle 30.7 7.6 8.1 12.4 Baron Davis GS 23.3 5.4 8.6 10.3 Jason Kidd NJ 11.6 8.6 10.7 10.2 Kevin Garnett Bos 19.4 11.6 3.9 9.6 Chris Paul NO 19.6 4.3 10.1 9.5 This chart shows how much more impressive James' triple-crown stats are than anyone else's in basketball. Despite Kidd's being slightly ahead of him in the triple-double quest, James' 12.4 versatility index dwarfs that of the others in the league. Kidd, on the other hand, actually trails another player (Baron Davis of Golden State) who isn't as strong in rebounds and assists but has double the scoring average. If you're wondering, the Big O's number for his 1961-62 season comes in at an absurd 16.4. Even if we let the air out of his points and rebounds to adjust for the breakneck pace of the early 1960s by putting his season in a 2006-07 environment, he still outpaces the field by a comfortable margin at 13.3. Looking at that score makes it clear that Robertson's era isn't the only reason he put up such huge numbers. Yes, he benefited from playing at the right time, but his achievement was still extraordinary. The two players meeting Tuesday night, Kidd and James, exemplify what a huge challenge it is to match Robertson's mark. As well as they've filled up the stat sheets, both are likely to fall short. Kidd has as good a shot as anybody has had in a while to match it this season, but it appears he'll still lose out in rebounds. Long-term, James is the league's best hope to hit this mark, but he faces some serious barriers, as well, and likely would need his team's dynamics to change considerably. Overall, there's a darn good reason nobody has matched Robertson's feat in the past 45 years -- it was incredible. And unless the pace of the game goes through the roof again, it may be another 45 years before we see it equaled.
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