In a preseason NBA commercial, LeBron James announced it was his New Year's resolution to average a triple-double for an entire season. Aspiring to average a triple-double—by reaching double figures in points, rebounds, and assists—is like vowing to average 50 points per game. Both feats have been achieved only once—and a long time ago.
Back when Oscar Robertson notched his season-long triple-double in 1961-62, "triple-doubles" didn't exist. In the early 1980s, a Lakers PR man conjured the term to add some Hollywood glamour to Magic Johnson's peerless all-around game. It's no surprise that a statistic created to celebrate one player's unique talents would be hard for any other player to achieve. In the 25 years since the triple-double has existed as an intellectual concept, only Magic Johnson himself has come close to averaging one for a season.
Scoring 10 points a game is a snap for any NBA player who isn't a total stiff. Pulling down 10 rebounds per game is tougher—this season, nine players have done it, all of them forwards or centers. And getting 10 assists a night is even tougher—only Phoenix's Steve Nash has reached that plateau in 2005. The characteristics a player needs to grab rebounds—strength, reflexes, playing inside—don't overlap at all with the characteristics a player needs to put up huge assist totals—quickness, court vision, playing point guard. A basketball player who averages both 10 rebounds and 10 assists per game is like a baseball player who leads the league in both home runs and saves.
LeBron James is arguably the best all-around player in the NBA. At 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, he has the passing skills of a savvy point guard and the rebounding ability of a power forward. Even so, the 20-year-old Cleveland Cavaliers star is nowhere close to averaging a triple-double. While James puts up a hefty 25.5 points per game, he dishes out but 7.6 assists and yanks down just 7 rebounds. In 57 games this year, he's notched a mere two triple-doubles. The most remarkable thing about Oscar Robertson is that over the first five years of his career he averaged 30.3 points, 10.6 assists, and 10.4 rebounds per game. How did the Big O average a triple-double for five years when no other player has done it for one?
Robertson combined Magic Johnson's playmaking, Michael Jordan's efficient scoring, and the overbearing court presence of Larry Brown. Most importantly, he got a boost by playing in the NBA's golden age of rebounding. In 1961-62, his Cincinnati Royals grabbed 61.3 rebounds per game, three below the league average of 64.3. This year, the average has dipped to 42 per game. Rebounds were so plentiful in the early 1960s because teams didn't hesitate to shoot and miss. The long-reigning champions, Red Auerbach's Boston Celtics, played an uptempo, running style, jacking up shots as quickly as possible. This season, the league leader in field goal attempts, the "go-go" Phoenix Suns, shoot 85.5 times per game. In Robertson's rookie season of 1960-61, the champion Celtics shot 118 times per game. A lot of missed shots means a lot of rebounds, particularly for a player like Robertson who averaged 15 boards as a college forward.
As the Big O put up historic numbers, the game was changing. Robertson was, in large part, responsible for changing it. Like Magic Johnson and LeBron James, the Big O was a gigantic player for his position. He used his 6-foot-5 frame and 220 pounds to back smaller players into the lane until he got close enough to the basket to shoot a high-percentage turnaround jumper. From the first day he entered the league, Robertson hit a higher percentage of shots than NBA guards ever had. The Royals led the league in field goal percentage in each of his first five seasons, setting an NBA record for that mark the first three.
In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the NBA got more sluggish. Teams shot the ball less often and made more of the shots they did take. Fewer shots and more made baskets meant fewer rebounds. This smaller rebounding pie meant that Magic Johnson, the man for whom the triple-double invented, would never achieve what Oscar Robertson did. In 1981-82, Magic was young and energetic. He also had a weak rebounding center in the aging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Yet he still came up short, averaging 9.6 rebounds. If Magic had traded places with Robertson and matched the Big O's 44 minutes per game, he might have averaged 15 boards. Hey, somebody give that man a time-machine-aided triple double!
Unless every team starts copying the Phoenix Suns, it would take a miracle for anyone to get over the bar. LeBron James, though, is the only guy who has a reasonable chance. That's because he's uniquely capable of being two players at once. On offense, James can collect points and assists as a point guard. On defense, he can collect rebounds as a power forward.
For James to do it, the Cavaliers must acquire a shooting guard with sufficient lateral quickness to defend the opposition's point guard—someone like Bobby Jackson. They'd also have to get a small forward like Michael Redd whose long jumpers would pad his assists total. That would leave James to play power forward on defense in the manner of Phoenix's Shawn Marion, a converted small forward who averages 10.9 rebounds per game. Cavs broadcasters will grow hoarse crying "LeBron coast to coast!" as James grabs rebound after rebound and leads breaks that culminate in dishes and dunks. That sounds like a formula that could produce a new-millennium triple-double and a Cleveland championship.