Tracking NBA Triple-Doubles

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by Henry Liao

Every hoops fan worth his salt knows what a triple-double in a game is.

Wilt Chamberlain: The only player in NBA history to register a 20-20-20 triple-double.
Wilt Chamberlain: The only player in NBA history to register a 20-20-20 triple-double.

For the uninitiated, a triple-double is achieved when a player can collect a 10 or more in three different statistical categories. It can be in points, rebounds, assists, steals or blocked shots. A negative stat such as turnovers (or errors) is not included.

The origin of the term “triple-double” remains unclear, though.

According to some sources, it was coined by former Los Angeles Lakers public relations director Bruce Jolesch during the 1980s to showcase the multi-faceted skills of then-Lakers playmaker Earvin (Magic) Johnson, whose triple-double games mostly came from points, rebounds and assists.

Others claimed that it was the late Harvey Pollack, the long-time director of statistical information and media relations of the Philadelphia 7ers, who invented the term during the same period.

According to Pollack, Adolph (Dolph) Schayes of the Syracuse Nationals (the precursor of the Philadelphia 76ers) might have registered the first triple-double in National Basketball Association (NBA) history when the 6-8 forward-center racked up 18 points, 22 rebounds and 13 assists against the New York Knickerbockers on February 8, 1951.

Unofficially that was.

The NBA has been recording stats for points and assists since its inception in 1946-47 when it was known as the Basketball Association of America (BAA). However, it was only during the 1950-51 season that the league started to compile rebounding figures and steals and blocked shots were not official stats until the 1973-74 wars.

Indiana Pacers guard T. J. McConnell collected 10 steals in a triple-double game - one short of the all-time NBA record for most steals in a game.
Indiana Pacers guard T. J. McConnell collected 10 steals in a triple-double game – one short of the all-time NBA record for most steals in a game.

That’s why it’s highly probable that Hall of Famers and all-time NBA greats such as Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain would have accumulated a lot of triple-doubles if only blocks were already being counted during the mid-1950s and entire 1960s when the two prominent mastodons were banging against each other every so often.

Russell and Chamberlain might have even made it to the quadruple-double charts (double digits in four statistical categories.)

According to Pollack, Chamberlain recorded a quintuple-double with 53 points, 32 rebounds, 14 assists, 24 blocks and 11 steals in one game with the 76ers in 1968. It was said that Pollack kept track of The Big Dipper’s stats throughout his NBA career (1959-73).

Again, unofficially it was.

For the official records:

The NBA’s four documented Q-Ds were posted by Chicago’s Nate Thurmond (October 18, 1974 – 22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and 12 blocks in a 120-115 overtime win over the Atlanta Hawks at the Chicago Stadium), San Antonio’s Alvin Robertson (February 18, 1986 – 20 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals in a 120-114 home decision over the Phoenix Suns), Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon (March 29, 1990 – 18 points, 16 rebounds, 10 assists and 11 blocks in a 120-94 home success against the Milwaukee Bucks) and San Antonio’s David Robinson (February 17, 1994 – 34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 blocks in a 115-96 home victory over the Detroit Pistons).

James Harden, now with the Brooklyn Nets, owns the only 60-point triple-double game in NBA history, achieving the feat while donning the Houston Rockets colors.
James Harden, now with the Brooklyn Nets, owns the only 60-point triple-double game in NBA history, achieving the feat while donning the Houston Rockets colors.

Except for Robertson, a guard, the other three played the center position.

“The Big O” Oscar Robertson is the lone player in NBA history to chalk up a triple-double in his NBA debut with the Cincinnati Royals (a franchise that started as the Rochester Royals and then Cincinnati Royals, Kansas City-Omaha Kings, Kansas City Kings and now the Sacramento Kings), collecting 21 points, 12 boards and 10 assists in the club’s 140-123 home shellacking of the Los Angeles Lakers on October 19, 1960. The 6-5 guard thus is the player that posted a T-D the fastest, in terms of games played.

Some of the other memorable triple-double records in NBA history include the following:

  • Boston’s Bob Cousy (24 points/13 rebounds/10 assists) and Tom Heinsohn (17 points/13 rebounds/10 assists) were the first teammates in NBA history to each register a triple-double in the same game, turning in the trick on April 5, 1958 in a 109-98 road win over the St. Louis Hawks in Game 4 of the 1958 NBA Finals that tied the best-of-seven series at 2-2. The Hawks, led by future Hall of Famer Bob Pettit, beat the Celtics in six games to claim the NBA crown in Bill Russell‘s only defeat in 12 Finals appearances.
  • Miami’s Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler are the only duo to accomplish the feat on two occasions – the first on December 10, 2019 and the second on February 18 this year.

The most recent teammates to post a triple-double in the same game were Detroit’s guard Dennis Smith Jr. and center Mason Plumlee in a 129-105 road rout of the short-handed Toronto Raptors on March 3, 2021. Smith totaled 10 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists while Plumlee had 14 points, 11 boards and 10 feeds.

Russell Westbrook: No. 2 on the all-time NBA list for most triple-double games.
Russell Westbrook: No. 2 on the all-time NBA list for most triple-double games.

Theirs is the 13th time that two teammates have registered a T-D in the same game in NBA history.

The other Pistons duo with triple-doubles in the same game was Donnie Butcher and Ray Scott, who accomplished the feat on March 14, 1964.

  • On March 3, 2021, too, Indiana guard Timothy John (T.J.) McConnell Jr. also made history when the 6-1 guard came off the bench to collect 16 points, 13 assists and 10 steals in the Pacers’ 114-111 win over the Cavaliers in Cleveland. The six-year vet went 8-for-8 from the field to become the first player ever to have 10 steals or more while shooting a perfect 100 percent from the field in a game. That shattered the old mark of Michael Jordan, who owned a 78-percent shooting clip with 10 thefts in a game for the Chicago Bulls in 1988.

McConnell, who turns 29 on March 25, had nine steals in the first half, the most by any player in a half since the stat became official in 1973-74. The all-time NBA for most steals in one game is 11, set by San Antonio’s Larry Kenon (at Kansas City on December 26, 1976) and duplicated by the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets’ Kendall Gill (vs. Miami on April 3, 1999).

  • Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook owns the all-time NBA record for most consecutive triple-double games with 11. He accomplished the feat from January 22-February 13, 2019 while donning the colors of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The 7-foot-1 Chamberlain ranks second on the list with nine straight T-Ds with the Philadelphia 76ers from March 8 to March 20, 1968.
  • The all-time NBA regular record for most triple-double games in a career still belongs to Oscar Robertson, who had 181 in a 14-year career with the Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks from 1960-74. Westbrook, still active with the Wizards, is second with 156 and counting.
Nikola Jokic: Owner of the quickest T-D in an NBA contest, in terms of minutes played.
Nikola Jokic: Owner of the quickest T-D in an NBA contest, in terms of minutes played.

Westbrook, though, has surpassed Robertson in two other categories – most triple-doubles in a single season and most seasons with a triple-double game. Westbrook racked up 42 T-Ds in 2016-17 – one more than Robertson accumulated with Cincinnati in 1961-62 – and won NBA MVP honors that season with Oklahoma City. Westbrook averaged a triple-double (points/rebounds/assists) in three straight seasons from 2016-17 to 2018-19 with the Thunder, eclipsing Robertson’s single feat in 1961-62.

  • Serbian center Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, who recently compared himself to (ahem) LeBron James, owns the NBA mark for the quickest triple-double in a game, in terms of minutes played, when the 7-footer amassed 30 points, 15 rebounds and 17 assists in just 14 minutes and 33 seconds of his club’s 134-123 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on February 15, 2018.

The old record was held by Jim Tucker of the Syracuse Nationals (the predecessors of the Philadelphia 76ers). A 6-7 forward, Tucker, who was then in his rookie season, netted 12 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in just 17 minutes during the Nat’s 104-84 triumph over the New York Knicks on February 20, 1955.

  • “The Beard” James Harden, whom Brooklyn acquired from Houston last January 13, owns the highest-scoring triple-double in NBA annals. While still with the Rockets, the 6-5 guard collected 60 points (19-30 FGA, 5-14 3FGA, 17-18 FTA), 10 rebounds and 11 assists in 46.5 minutes during a 114-107 home win over the Orlando Magic on January 30, 2018.

Harden’s 30-point triple-double for the Nets in a January 16, 2021 game against the Orlando Magic is historic in that he was the first NBA player ever to turn in the trick in his debut with a NEW team.

Charlotte Hornets rookie LaMelo Ball is the youngest NBA player ever to post a triple-double.
Charlotte Hornets rookie LaMelo Ball is the youngest NBA player ever to post a triple-double.
  • Rookie LaMelo Ball of the Charlotte Hornets is the youngest NBA player ever to register a triple-double at the age of 19 years and 140 days old when the 6-6 guard put together 22 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists off the bench in the Hornets’ 113-105 home decision over the Atlanta Hawks on January 9, 2021. Ball thus broke the record set by Markelle Fultz, then of Philadelphia but now with Orlando, who was 19 years and 317 days old when he had a triple-double for the 76ers on April 11, 2018 in the team’s 2017-18 season finale win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
  • Only once has an NBA player registered a 20-20-20 triple-double in a game. The double triple-double record belongs to Chamberlain, who totaled 22 points, 25 rebounds and 21 assists in the Philadelphia 76ers’ 131-121 victory over the visiting Detroit Pistons on February 2, 1968. That season (1967-68), Wilt became the only center ever to pace the NBA in assists (at the time, the assist leadership was based on total, and not on average as it is now) with 702 in 82 games.

Until now, there has never been a 30-point, 20-rebound, 20-assist triple-double effort in NBA history.

Who could likely be the first?

Henry Liao