The lost art of the triple-double

Spencer+Hawes+Chicago+Bulls+v+Philadelphia+fI5TGCFYL5ulMIAMI – In an age of advanced metrics and heightened statistical analysis, the triple-double still stands alone. Often it is the pinnacle of all basketball accomplishments. To get double-digits in points, assists and rebounds, or even blocks or steals, is the mark that a ballplayer had a really good game.

Actually, a triple-double is a true indicator of the all-around player. Typically, players don’t get them by accident. In other words, all of a sudden a player isn’t going to “get hot” and mess around to get a triple-double.

If it could be labeled as such, the triple-double is the most organic of all statistical phenomenons, yet they never sneak up on anyone. If someone is an assist or a rebound or two away from a triple-double, everyone in the gym knows it and they keep track. A triple-double is like a hand grenade, in that when it is about to blow, it makes some noise. That's the way it seemed when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson used to get them. 

And yet heading into Sunday’s action, there has been just one triple-double in the NBA this year. It came from the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo on Jan. 1, when he put 18 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists on the Washington Wizards. 

Yes, even though the season has reached the quarter pole, the triple-double has become more elusive than ever.

Maybe it’s just a lost art?

“I don’t know if it’s a lost art, it’s just always been rare,” said Andre Iguodala, a player who is known for filling out the stat sheet. “You have your guys from different eras who always got them starting with Oscar Robertson and Magic and Larry did it a bit. I remember one year M.J had about 11 or maybe more. Then you have Jason Kidd, LeBron is up there, Rondo is up there and Chris Paul gets them every now and again, so you have your select few guys.”

Actually, the select club has trimmed down its members this year. Perhaps it’s because players are a bit behind offensively because of the lockout or maybe the scouting and the defenses have gotten so good that the triple-double has begun to disappear from the game like the mid-range jump shooter.

“You have to be a unique guy physically to get that just because you have to rebound or get assists, that’s tough,” said Sixers’ coach Doug Collins, who as one of those mid-range jump shooters back in the day, never got a triple-double.

Oh, but he’s coached a few unique players, including Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago and Grant Hill in Detroit. He also has Iguodala in Philadelphia who has seven career triple-doubles.

“There are a lot of guys who are on that cusp,” Collins said. “If you’re a smaller player, to get 10 rebounds is a lot and if you’re a bigger player to get 10 assists is a lot. So you have to be that hybrid guy who plays on the perimeter, who handles the ball, who has the size – Grant Hill had the size, Magic Johnson had the size, Jason Kidd had the size. If you look at the triple-double guys, you have to have the size to get the rebounds and the assists.”

But as Iguodala explains it, there really is no trick to getting a triple-double. A self-professed gunner in his younger days, Iguodala says he never really learned to be a good passer until he got to the University of Arizona and learned from the son of one of the best-passing big men ever to play.

“Luke Walton taught me how to get triple-doubles. I had one in high school, but in college, Luke Walton really taught me how to get them,” Iguodala explained. “He used to kill me every day at practice during my first year. He was the slowest guy, couldn’t jump off the ground – a slow white dude and how is he beating me? He’s beating me with the pass and everything, but he taught me how to pass and how to keep it simple.”

Keep it simple, as in don’t get caught up in it, is a pretty good way to go about it says Sixers’ ball-friendly big man, Spencer Hawes, who missed one on opening night in Portland by an assist. In that game Hawes said he kept his mind on the game, unlike the time when he was playing for Sacramento against the Sixers and came an assist shy of the triple-double.

“In the Portland game I don’t think at any point that I was forcing it. It was just the flow of the game, we were moving the ball and guys were finishing shots for me and it happened for me once before in my second year against the Sixers,” Hawes said. “I remember being a lot more caught up in it and I had the assists count in my head. I got the rebounds and the points early and then I started on the assist count and I got too caught up in it. A guy missed a layup and a guy missed a three-pointer, and I was thinking, ‘No!’ This time I just let it flow.”

Hawes has gotten close, but not all the way there. Interestingly, though, he remembered a game in high school when he nearly got a quadruple-double until his coach benched him.

“I started taunting the crowd and the coach pulled me out,” Hawes said.

Wait… what?

“I air balled a free throw and the crowd started chanting, ‘air ball’ at me,” he said. “I made the next one and I turned and started chanting, ‘scoreboard’ and then he yanked me. I think I was two blocks and three assists away from a quadruple-double.”

Still, though Rondo is the only guy to get a triple-double this season, there have been a handful of near misses. Six players have come within one assist of getting it, including Iguodala last Wednesday night and Hawes in the season opener in Portland. Sixers’ guard Evan Turner also missed a triple-double by two assists in a game last week, and boy did he know it. After the game when he returned to the locker room, his phone was filled with text messages from friends.

“I’m saving my first triple-double for later,” Turner joked. “When I get one everyone is going to know it.”

Turner isn’t much of a threat to catch Kidd, who, with 107 triple-doubles, is the active leader. Meanwhile, Robertson, famously, averaged a triple-double during the 1961-62 season for the Cincinnati Royals before folks even knew what it was he was doing. That season Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds per game, making him the only player ever to pull off the feat. He almost did it during his rookie season, too, going for 30.5 points, 10.1 boards and 9.7 assists per game in 1960-61 and again in 1962-63 when The Big O came seven rebounds away from the triple-double average.

Magic Johnson came 29 rebounds and 37 assists away from doing it in 1981-82 and 107 rebounds away from pulling it off in 1982-83.

For the Sixers, Iguodala had three triple-doubles last season, which is the most in franchise history since Charles Barkley got three of them during the 1986-87 season. Then again, the records are incomplete and it wasn’t until later when some players realized what they were doing. For instance, the Sixers have the only double triple-double in NBA history when Wilt Chamberlain got 22 points, 25 rebounds and 21 assists against Detroit at the Spectrum in 1968. Chamberlain also got a quadruple-double, but because steals and blocks were not an official stat in the NBA until the 1973 season, he doesn’t have credit for it.

In the meantime,
if there is one statistical anomaly all players pay attention to, it’s those triple-doubles.

“I always keep in touch with how I am with active players,” Iguodala said. “I think I’m like sixth or seventh, so I’m coming up.”

He’s getting there, but so far hasn’t climbed the charts this year.

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