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LeBron born too late to average triple-double
by Dennis Hans / December 1, 2004

Sorry, LeBron. I’m one of your biggest fans, but you have a better chance of leading the Cavs to the 2005 NBA crown than averaging a triple-double.

If, dear readers, you saw the NBA’s lame preseason promos, you know that many players have made New Year resolutions for the 2004-05 campaign. For example, Ben Wallace, regurgitating the rhetoric of bossman Larry Brown, resolved to “Keep on playing the game the right way.” One can imagine Ben going through his “right way” checklist: “Lead the league in rebounds. Check. Lead the league in blocked shots. Check. Make all the hustle plays. Check. Sink half of my free throws. Check. Start a scuffle with Artest that leads to riot and elimination of Indiana as a threat to our Eastern Conference crown. Check.”

Whereas Ben’s vague resolution is open to interpretation, LeBron’s is clear-cut. King James intends to match the great Oscar Robertson’s 1961-62 feat of averaging a triple-double – that is, average at least 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. No one besides the Big O has ever averaged a triple-double, and he did it just once. This is LeBron’s second season, and 1961-62 was Oscar’s second season. That year he scored a cool 30.8 points per game while dishing out 11.4 assists and snaring 12.5 rebounds.

Perhaps more impressive, if you average Mr. Robertson’s first five seasons, you come up with these per-game numbers: 30 points, 11 boards and 11 dimes. So not only did he average a triple-double in one season, he averaged one over the first 384 games of his career!

Bear in mind, however, that Oscar was playing about 45 minutes a night in that stretch. One difference between that era and the present one is that superstars generally logged more minutes. If Oscar had maintained the same rate of production but in 36 minutes of work (a typical workload for a modern point guard) those numbers would have fallen to 24, 8.8 and 8.8.

It gets worse (from the perspective of those who believe that today’s heroes can’t hold a candle to yesterday’s). Over those five seasons, the league scoring average was about 115 per game per team. Put Oscar in this century’s boring-as-heck slow-down game (which thankfully has started to speed up a tad this season) and we’d have to lop off another 18-20 percent. I won’t do the math. As a fan of the Big O’s, it’s too painful to contemplate. Still, you get the picture: Oscar’s triple-double in 1961-62 was a reflection of his magnificent talents and the
fast-paced, free-wheeling period in which he played.

Ironically, the one stat that most attests to Oscar’s greatness is not to be found in the components of the triple-double. Despite carrying an incredibly heavy scoring load and being the focal point of the opposing team’s defensive efforts, in that five-year span he shot 49 percent from the floor. During that period, a typical team shot 42-43 percent – and most guards didn’t even reach that mark!

Getting back to LeBron, he’s beyond fabulous. At 19, he may already be the best player in the world, and he gets better with each passing day. But until there is a dramatic change in the way NBA basketball is played, neither he nor anyone else will come close to sniffing a season-long triple-double.

Points? No problem. Assists? Doable for a point guard or a LeBron-style point forward, though the ball would have to be in LeBron’s hands far more than it is today, when he shares orchestrating duties on the Cavs with at least one and sometimes two point guards. The latter attack, featuring Jeff McInnis and Eric Snow in the backcourt with LeBron at the 3, is the Cavs’ best lineup.

Rebounds? LeBron has two prayers: (1) play power forward on defense, so that he’s always around the glass, or (2) play the 3 alongside two geezers who can still box out but can no longer react quickly to the ball. If Kareem and Clifford Robinson were both 37 and starting alongside LeBron, LeBron could average 10 boards this season — though the Cavs would likely be the worst rebounding team in the league.

Neither of those prayers will be answered, so if LeBron is serious about that triple-double, his only realistic option is to climb into Mister Peabody’s way-back machine and start his career circa 1960. (A word of warning, LeBron: Back then, racial indignities were even more plentiful than rebounds. Be sure to have long talks with Oscar, Bill Russell and Lenny Wilkens before you go, so you can get a feel for what to expect and how to deal with it.)

What if Earvin “Magic” Johnson had hitched a ride with Mister Peabody back to 1960?

If Magic had played his entire career in that span of seasons where Oscar averaged 30, 11 and 11, he would have averaged a career triple-double. And that’s despite playing girly-man minutes (36.7 per game). Magic averaged 19.5 points, 11.2 assists and 7.2 rebounds, playing in a period where teams scored nearly as much (110 vs. 115) while running less and shooting a higher percentage.

Because of the latter two factors, rebounds were far less plentiful – about 44 per team in the Magic years, compared to 63 per team for the five seasons beginning in 1960-61. Magic’s 7.2 boards in the 1980s equates to 10.3 boards in the early 1960s. If he had played Oscar’s minutes, he would have yanked down about 12.5 rebounds a night.

Jason Kidd, had he arrived on the scene like Oscar in 1960-61, would likely have accumulated at least a few season-long triple-doubles. His career numbers are 14.8 points, 9.4 assists and 6.4 rebounds, playing 37.5 minutes a night in the slow-down era. Teams have averaged about 96 points and 42 rebounds per game over the course of Kidd’s career. Put him in Oscar’s first five years and his rebounds jump to 9.6 even before we increase his minutes. At 42 minutes, Kidd would have averaged 10.8 boards.

As for Kidd’s assists, he’d have gotten a boost by playing in those high-speed years, but a portion of that boost would have been negated by official scorers who were less generous than today’s counterparts in registering assists. Still, he likely would have gotten enough of a boost to reach a double-figure average.

Getting back to LeBron, let’s assume he chooses not to hop into Mister Peabody’s way-back machine. What would be a challenging-yet achievable statistical goal for this season? He’s coming off a rookie year where he averaged 21 points, 5.5 boards and 5.9 assists in 39.5 minutes per night. His minutes will likely stay about the same (they're at 41.0 at the moment), so if he wants to stick to triples, I suggest he re-cut that promo and resolve to average a “triple 6” – at least 6 points, 6 boards and 6 assists.

Through 14 games he’s playing like an MVP but averaging a triple 6 only by the skin of his teeth – 27.4 points (on stunning 51.5 percent shooting), 7.8 boards and 6.1 assists.

What I most like about the “triple 6” is that it has a nice ring to it. Given the money-hungry NBA’s desire to reach untapped audiences in this world and beyond, that elusive “6-6-6” could make for one hell of a marketing slogan.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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