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What is a Triple Double in Basketball?

triple-double basketball

When basketball pundits and avid basketball fans compare star players in the NBA, the first thing they look at is their stats.

Most likely, they pay close attention to their points per game, but that doesn’t always paint the full picture.

Some players excel at other aspects of the game such as assists, blocks, rebounds and steals.

A unique way to dominate the court is by collecting stats in more than one of these categories during the game.

When that happens, you might bear witness to a player finishing up the night with a triple-double.

What is a Triple Double in Basketball?

A triple-double is achieved when a player reaches double digits for 3 of the following five statistical categories in a game: assists, blocks, points, rebounds and steals. In the NBA, most players earn triple-doubles from a combination of points, rebounds and assists.

The all-time leader for triple-doubles is Russell Westbrook with 198, eclipsing the previous record holder, Oscar Robertson (181).

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Russell Westbrook managed to surpass Robertson in the 2020-21 season. But it is important to note that steals and blocked shots were not monitored stats back when Robertson played in the NBA (1960-74).

Had all 5 statistical categories been tracked back then, Robertson’s triple double count would be much higher.

The triple-double stat was officially recognized by the NBA as of the 1979-80 season. So, in Robertson’s case (and other past stars), the league had to retroactively count the times he achieved the feat. 

History of Triple-Doubles

Knowing now that the NBA started counting triple-doubles in 1979-80, where did the term actually come from?

The earliest use of the term remains uncertain, but there are two origin stories that have widely floated around.

The first stems from the Los Angeles Lakers public relations director, Bruce Jolesch, who associated the term with the Lakers’ superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson. 

Jolesch wanted to bring attention to Magic’s dominance in various aspects of the game, and not just his scoring ability. 

The alternate claim is that Harvey Pollack, the media relations director of the Philadelphia 76ers, came up with the term. 

Pollack also claims he attributed the term “triple-double” to Magic Johnson’s multifaceted game performances.

Both stories have merit given that Magic Johnson accumulated 138 triple-doubles in his career, good for third place all-time to date.

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Has an NBA player ever topped a triple-double?

There are 4 officially recorded quadruple-doubles in NBA history. 

The feat was achieved by Nate Thurmond, Alvin Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson (source).

In fact, Olajuwon almost managed to achieve a quadruple-double twice in one month. 

There is an article claiming that he managed the feat twice, while another report states he missed the mark by one assist.

Below is a table of how each these four players recorded their quadruple-double.

As for the elusive quintuple-double, there was none recorded in NBA history. 

There is a rumor claiming that Wilt Chamberlain recorded double-digits in all 5 categories in one game, but it has never been officially validated.

Back on March 18th, 1968, Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Los Lakers by a score of 158-128.

On that day, I can confirm, with certainty, that Chamberlain hit a triple-double by registering 53 points, 32 rebounds and 14 assists.

According to this tagged article, Chamberlain also managed 24 blocks and 11 steals. But as we already know, the NBA didn’t monitor blocks and steals back then.

With the talent Chamberlain possessed, it wouldn’t surprise us if he actually did accomplish the feat. 

Sadly, we’ll never know for sure.

Noteworthy Triple-Doubles (Top Feats)

While triple-doubles have become commonplace in today’s NBA game, there are some accomplishments that stand out more than others.

As a note, there are 129 (and counting) triple-doubles for the 2020-21 NBA season. For the latest count, and for details on prior seasons, take a look at the reference site here.

Let’s get back to some of the most unique triple-double performances in NBA history:

20-20-20 Club

For the longest time, Wilt Chamberlain was the only player that belonged to the 20-20-20 triple-double club. 

On February 2, 1968, against the Detroit Pistons, Chamberlain scored 22 points, 25 rebounds and 21 assists. Chamberlain and the 76ers beat the Pistons 131-121 that night.

But along came Russell Westbrook to keep him company.

On April 2, 2019, Westbrook scored 20 points, 20 rebounds and 21 assists in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Westbrook and the Oklahoma Thunder beat the Lakers by a score of 119-103 that day.

These are the only 20-20-20 performances to date.  

Highest Point Performance (60)

Prior to the 2015-16 season, a triple-double which included a 50-point performance was a rarity. 

But with the uptick in production from both James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the 50-point triple-double performance became more common – at least by these two guys. 

So, Harden decided to up the ante and set the new bar to a 60-point triple-double performance.

On January 1, 2018, Harden (Houston Rockets) managed to put up 60 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists in a 114-107 win against the Orlando Magic.  

He is currently the only player to ever do so, but let’s not count Westbrook just yet with a 57-point triple-double under his belt.

Rebounds, Assists and Steals (Points excluded)

On February 10, 2017, Draymond Green managed one of the quirkiest triple-doubles of all-time.

Green and the Warriors beat the Grizzlies by a score of 122-107 on that day. 

But what stood out most was the fact that Green had a historical performance even though he had a 4-point night!  

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So, how did he manage the triple-double?

By reaching double digits in rebounds (11), assists (11) and steals (10).   

This stands as the only triple-double in history to exclude double-digit points while achieving the feat.

Top 10 NBA Leaders for Triple-Doubles

Player NameCount
1Russell Westbrook198
2Oscar Robertson181
3Magic Johnson138
4Jason Kidd107
5Lebron James106
6Nikola Jokić99
7Wilt Chamberlain78
8James Harden73
9Larry Bird59
10Luka Dončić56

Final Thoughts

Keep an eye out for Russell Westbrook for the balance of his career. He'll likely widen the lead even further on previous record holder, Oscar Robertson.

While I don't see Lebron James cracking the current top 3, he should finish ahead of Jason Kidd.

Just behind him is Nikola Jokić, who is still in his prime. He definitely has a shot at unseating Magic Johnson in third place.

We'll see how this all plays out in the not-too-distant future. 

As a final note, the list above does not include triple-doubles recorded in the NBA playoffs.

Your all-time leader is Magic Johnson with 30 and LeBron James with 28. The next players down that list trail by a huge margin, including Russell Westbrook at the three-spot with 12.

And if you're interested, make sure to check out my blog post on double-doubles and the current leader board.