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Oscar Robertson: Triple-Double Season

OSCAR ROBERTSON’S TRIPLE-DOUBLE SEASON: OUTSTANDING OR OVERRATED?

Synopsis: Oscar Robertson arguably was one of the top five or ten players in NBA history with extraordinary talent as a scorer, rebounder and passer. As an indication of his all-around ability, he is the only player to have averaged a triple double for an entire season. Less well known, but perhaps even more impressive, was his achievement of averaging double digit points, rebounds and assists over the first five years of his career. As an aside for stat junkies, he was 0.05 rebounds per game away from doing it through his first six seasons. For as incredible as Robertson’s “triple-double season” was, however, it might be overrated. To start, the infrequency of triple doubles today (on average, one occurs every 36 games) skews our perspective of it. Furthermore, the concept didn’t exist until five years after his retirement so the accomplishment was the product of retroactive data mining. If the NBA had recognized the stat prior to 1979, who knows how many triple doubles Robertson would have recorded? Then again, who knows how many other players (e.g. Wilt Chamberlain) would have done it as well. 


When Larry Bird and Magic Johnson joined the NBA in 1979, the league entered a new era. As a welcoming gift, the NBA added the three-point line and introduced the triple double as an official stat for the 1979-80 season. In retrospect, there couldn’t have been two more appropriate changes for the league’s future superstars.

Even though Bird was too well-rounded to be called a three-point specialist, his long-range shooting ability was memorialized by winning each of the first three 3-point contests held from 1986-1988. Bird’s victory at the 1998 3-Point Shootout while wearing his warm-up jacket was icing on the cake for the three-time champion.

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You know the result, but it’s still worth watching the following clip. Notice Bird’s finger in the air before the last shot goes through the hoop!

In addition to having a lethal shooting touch, Bird was a great all-around player who could rebound and pass extremely well. Perhaps the only player with a more well-rounded game than Bird over the last forty years was Magic Johnson. Since the triple double became an official stat, the top three career totals belong to Magic (138), Jason Kidd (107), and Bird (59). As a point of reference, LeBron has 37 [40 as of the end of the 2015-16 season], Jordan had 28, and Kobe has 19. Triple doubles didn’t exist prior to 1979; however, the NBA retroactively went back to old box scores to recognize triple doubles which can be confirmed. Since steals and blocked shots have only been recorded since the 1973-74 season, players needed to achieve double digit totals in points, rebounds and assists in order to earn the distinction prior to then. Based on this revisionist history, Oscar Robertson became the biggest winner while Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell became the biggest losers (because they often blocked more than 10 shots per game without getting credit).

As the media started to track Magic’s ability to record triple doubles, someone must have realized that Robertson was able to perform the feat with regularity. In particular, Robertson recorded 181 triple doubles throughout his career. Incredibly, his total of 41 during the 1961-62 season alone would be enough for 6th on the all-time career list. With 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assist per game that year, Robertson unthinkably averaged a triple double for the entire season. Clearly, he must have been the regular season MVP. Well, he wasn’t.

Unfortunately for Robertson, his triple double season was overshadowed by some of the most incredible individual performances in NBA history. As you’ll see in the following tables summarizing the statistics for the top six MVP finishers that year, any one of the players would deserve a unanimous MVP Award and a contract worth over $30 million per year if it happened today.

Coming in sixth:

Player

Team Record PPG RPG APG Votes % of Votes
Bob Pettit STL 29-51 31.1 18.7 3.7 31

4.1%

 

I’ll let that sink in for a second: a player who averaged over 31 points and almost 19 rebounds per game finished 6th in the MVP voting with 4.1% of the vote. His team (the St. Louis Hawks) finished the year with a 29-51 record, so his candidacy was impacted negatively because his stats didn’t result in wins.

 

Coming in fifth: 

Player

Team Record PPG RPG APG Votes % of Votes
Jerry West LAL 54-26 30.8 7.9 5.4 60

7.8%

 

While West scored nearly as many points per game as Pettit, he averaged less than half as many rebounds. However, the Lakers clearly were a much better team so his higher finish can’t be too surprising. Still, he got less than 8% of the total votes.

 

Coming in fourth:

Player

Team Record PPG RPG APG Votes % of Votes
Elgin Baylor LAL 54-26 38.3 18.6 4.6 82

10.7%

 

In the 1961-62 season, Baylor exceeded Michael Jordan’s career high in points per game (38.3 vs. 37.1) and almost equaled Dennis Rodman’s career high in rebounds per game (18.6 vs. 18.7), yet finished 4th in the MVP voting. Then again, Baylor only played in 48 games that season so he was unable to crack the top three.

 

Coming in Third:

Player

Team Record PPG RPG APG Votes % of Votes
Oscar Robertson CIN 43-37 30.8 12.5 11.4 135

17.6%

 

The person who is recognized for averaging a triple double for an entire season finished 3rd in the MVP voting. Robertson’s team only finished six games over .500, but still, are you kidding me?

 

Coming in Second:

Player

Team Record PPG RPG APG Votes % of Votes
Wilt Chamberlain PHW 49-31 50.4 25.7 2.4 152

19.9%

 

Now, I get it. The Big Dipper averaged over 50 points per game (including his 100-point performance during the year) and over 25 rebounds per game. In addition, blocked shots were not recorded so who know how many triple doubles he would have had that year if they were. But wait, he only finished 2nd?

 

Coming in First:

Player

Team Record PPG RPG APG Votes % of Votes
Bill Russell BOS 60-20 18.9 23.6 4.5 297

38.8%

 

Huh?  Now I’m confused again. I get it that the Celtics were the dominant team at the time but Russell’s scoring average was 60% lower than Wilt’s. Regardless, Russell received twice as many MVP votes. Obviously, voters rewarded Russell because the Celtics finished 11 games ahead of the Philadelphia Warriors. Interestingly, the Cincinnati Royals finished 11 games behind the Lakers, but Robertson still got almost as many MVP votes as West and Baylor combined. If Robertson’s stats transcended his team’s relative performance, Chamberlain’s stats should have too. Furthermore, Chamberlain was named 1st Team All-NBA while Russell only made the 2nd Team. Apparently, Russell was the Most Valuable Player in the league but wasn’t even the best player at his position. Should someone alert Oliver Stone?

There’s not enough political controversy regarding the 1961-62 MVP vote for Stone to make a movie about it, but thinking about him reminded me of the 1994 movie season. Just like there were two basketball players (i.e. Robertson and Chamberlain) whose performances during the 1961-62 season could be considered among the best ever, there were two movies from 1994 which could be considered among the greatest ever.

pulp-fiction-guns
To this day, Pulp Fiction stands out as a inimitable masterpiece. Remind you of a certain player who averaged a triple double for a full season?

 

Prison-rules-...-Morgan-F-007
While The Shawshank Redemption has been recognized as a classic, it still hasn’t gotten all of the recognition it deserves. Remind you of a certain player who averaged over 50 points/game for a full season?

Despite their greatness, both players and both movies lost out to other quality options (i.e. Bill Russell won the MVP and Forrest Gump won the Oscar for Best Movie). We all can sit here and question MVP (or Oscar) voting years after it happened, but I’ll assume that the voters who watched the games (or movies) got it right based on the sentiment at that time. As such, averaging 50 points per game didn’t matter, nor did averaging a triple double. Yet somehow we’re supposed to reevaluate these players’ accomplishments and put them in context with today’s players.

Interestingly, Chamberlain’s rebounding totals usually are discounted as being a product of poor shooting, but the rebounding portion of Robertson’s triple double is not discounted. Since stats from the early 1960s don’t seem appropriate to use for comparison purposes today, it makes sense to adjust them so that they do. In particular, I don’t think it’s too difficult (or unreasonable) to looks at stats on a relative versus absolute basis. For instance, a player who led the league back then would probably be at or near the top of the leaderboard today. In addition, someone who scored half as many points as the league leader back then probably would be at a comparable level today. Based on this sort of relative adjustment, Robertson’s averages from 1961-62 can be compared more appropriately to the averages of current players.

To start, the following table shows how Robertson’s point, rebound and assist averages stacked up relative the league-leading numbers that year.

OSCAR ROBERTSON’S 1961-62 SEASON AVERAGES

Season Leader Leader’s Average Robertson’s Average Robertson vs. Leader (%)
Points Per Game (PPG) Wilt Chamberlain 50.4 30.8

61.1%

Rebounds Per Game (RPG)

Wilt Chamberlain 25.7 12.5 46.6%
Assists Per Game (APG) Oscar Robertson 11.4 11.4

100.0%

With respect to current players, Chris Paul and LeBron James are most similar to the player Robertson was. Whereas Rajon Rondo is most likely to record a triple double, he doesn’t have the scoring ability that the other two have (or Robertson had). The following two tables summarize the best all-around statistical seasons achieved by Paul and James in their careers. In particular, Paul’s peak performance occurred in the 2008-09 season while James’ peak performance occurred in the 2009-10 season

CHRIS PAUL: 2008-09 SEASON AVERAGES

Season Leader Leader’s Average Paul’s Average Paul vs. Leader (%)
Points Per Game (PPG) Dwyane Wade 30.2 22.8

75.5%

Rebounds Per Game (RPG)

Dwight Howard 13.8 5.5 39.7%
Assists Per Game (APG) Chris Paul 11.0 11.0

100.0%

LeBRON JAMES: 2009-10 SEASON AVERAGES

Season Leader Leader’s Average  James’ Avg. James vs. Leader (%)
Points Per Game (PPG) Kevin Durant 30.2 29.7

98.3%

Rebounds Per Game (RPG)

Dwight Howard 13.2 7.3 55.3%
Assists Per Game (APG) Steve Nash 11.0 8.6

78.2%

 

The previous three tables enable us to evaluate Robertson, Paul and James at their peaks relative to the league leaders. Based on the relative averages:

  • James is the best scorer (98.3% of the leader’s average), followed by Paul (75.5%), and then Robertson (61.1%);
  • James is also the best rebounder (55.3% of the leader’s average), followed by Robertson (46.6%), and then Paul (39.7%); and
  • Robertson and Paul were equally good at creating scoring opportunities as both of them led the league in assists (100.0% of the leader’s average), while James lagged behind (78.2%).

Putting all of this information together, the following table adjusts Roberson’s triple double season as if it occurred more recently.

ROBERTSON’S ADJUSTED 1961-62 SEASON AVERAGES

Player

Season PPG RPG APG
Oscar Robertson 1961-62 30.8 12.5

11.4

Oscar Robertson*

 Hypothetical season* 18.5* 6.5* 11.0*
Chris Paul 2008-09 22.8 5.5

11.0

LeBron James 2009-10 29.7 7.3

8.6

 

*  Robertson’s actual stats were adjusted based on using his percentage of the stat leader’s total from the 1961-62 season and applying those percentages to the stat leaders’ averages from the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons. For instance, Robertson’s average of 30.8 PPG in 1961-62 was 61% of Chamberlain’s average of 50.4 PPG. Assuming Robertson’s PPG average in 2008-09 or 2009-10 would have been 61% of the league leader in either year, he would have averaged 18.5 PPG (i.e. 61% of Wade and Durant’s averages of 30.2 PPG). Using the same logic, Robertson would have averaged 6.5 RPG (i.e. 47% of Howard’s average of 13.5 RPG from 2008-10). Since Robertson led the league in assists in 1961-62, he gets full credit as if he were the 2008-09 or 2009-10 league leader. 

Despite my analysis, I believe that Robertson could have averaged a lot more than 18.5 PPG (perhaps in the 25 PPG range) and slightly more than 6.5 RPG (perhaps 7.5-8.0 RPG). Either way, I don’t think he would have been able to average a triple-double for an entire season based on higher shooting percentages (ergo, fewer rebounds). Regardless, the Big O’s accomplishments still should be appreciated and he should be recognized for his greatness.

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