Do Triple-Doubles Lead to NBA Wins?

Earlier in the season, we looked at the strange tendency for 50-point games to come in losses and put forth some thoughts related to whether individual stat-chasing might ultimately hurt team basketball.

But nobody’s arguing that players should put the ball in the basket less. If scoring 50 points is what it takes to get the win, just ask the Golden State Warriors how Game 6 went against the Clippers when Kevin Durant did it.

But the triple-double, that’s thornier territory. After all, if triple-doubles were the biggest contributing factor to wins, Russell Westbrook would have so many NBA Finals MVP trophies, he would need a second trophy case for his house. As it stands, he has zero Finals MVP nods and only one Finals appearance, a loss way back in 2012.

But with the 2018-19 season in the books, we’ve got an entire year’s worth of fresh data in the modern game to play with, so let’s take a look at the triple-doubles that dotted the NBA landscape this year and find out just how valuable they were to the teams whose players achieved them.

We’ll be using the Basketball Reference Play Index for this, of course.

Let’s break it down team-by-team. If a team isn’t mentioned, that simply means nobody had a triple-double for them in the 2018-19 season.

Atlanta Hawks

Triple-Doubles: Trae Young (1)
Record in TD Games: 0-1 (.000)
Record in All Other Games: 29-52 (.358)

Young had a triple-double on March 9; the Hawks lost to the Nets 114-112. So far, so uneventful.

Boston Celtics

Triple-Doubles: Kyrie Irving (1), Al Horford (1)
Record in TD Games: 2-0 (1.000)
Record in All Other Games: 47-33 (.588)

Irving had a triple-double in a March 14 win over Sacramento; Boston beat Miami on April 1 when Horford notched one.

Dallas Mavericks

Triple-Doubles: Luka Doncic (8), Dennis Smith Jr. (1)
Record in TD Games: 4-5 (.444)
Record in All Other Games: 29-44 (.397)

Another data point in favor of the triple-double…sort of. If any one of those four wins flipped the other way, Dallas would’ve been worse in triple-double games than in non-triple-double games. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.

In fact, the Dallas wins were against the Knicks, Hornets, and Suns…and one against the Warriors on the road.

Detroit Pistons

Triple-Doubles: Blake Griffin (2)
Record in TD Games: 1-1 (.500)
Record in All Other Games: 40-40 (.500)

Griffin had a triple-double in a loss to the Bucks and one in a win over the Victor Oladipo-less Pacers. .500 ball, just like the Pistons themselves.

I know it’s a small sample size, but so far, it’s not looking good for the triple-double’s predictive value. In the 14 triple-doubles we’ve met so far, only 7 resulted in wins.

Let’s move on.

Golden State Warriors

Triple-Doubles: Kevin Durant (2)
Record in TD Games: 0-2 (.000)
Record in All Other Games: 57-23 (.713)

And here we are again with a team that actually lost its triple-double games, both of these coming by Durant in a loss at the Clippers in November and a home loss to Portland in December. Yikes.

Houston Rockets

Triple-Doubles: James Harden (7), Chris Paul (1)
Record in TD Games: 7-1 (.875)
Record in All Other Games: 46-28 (.622)

You ever notice that the outlier on any chart often makes a lot of sense in context?

James Harden’s counting stats are the heart and soul of Houston’s offense, a barometer for the team’s performance, because the rest of the squad seems to build its points off of Harden flummoxing the defense.

So when Harden has a triple-double, and especially when he has a colossal triple-double (five of his seven triple-doubles were 40-point or better, and two featured 50 points), it tends to be a good sign for Houston.

And, continuing with that theme, Harden’s lowest point total in a triple-double was Houston’s only loss, when Harden scored 25 and the Rockets lost to the Mavericks in November.

So as with most stats, something holds except for the Rockets. Sounds about right.

Los Angeles Clippers

Triple-Doubles: Lou Williams (1)
Record in TD Games: 1-0 (1.000)
Record in All Other Games: 47-34 (.580)

Small sample size, but what a game that was when Williams came off the bench and dropped a triple-double on the Bulls. No wonder he’s All-Breakfast every year.

Los Angeles Lakers

Triple-Doubles: LeBron James (8), Lonzo Ball (1), Rajon Rondo (1)
Record in TD Games: 5-4 (.556)
Record in All Other Games: 32-41 (.438)

This includes one of the weirdest stats on this list. Two of the Lakers’ triple-doubles came in the same game, a 128-100 thrashing of the Hornets in Charlotte on December 15. That’s no way to show gratitude for the Hornets gifting the Lakers Kobe Bryant on draft night in 1996!

After a win in Boston on February 7 in which LeBron went to town on the Celtics right after that infamous “LeBron wants to trade you” drubbing at the hands of the Pacers earlier during trade deadline week, the Lakers went 1-4 in their last five triple-double games.

So when they were good, triple-doubles got them wins. When they were bad, triple-doubles came in losses. How interesting.

Memphis Grizzlies

Triple-Doubles: Delon Wright (3), Marc Gasol (1), Kyle Anderson (1)
Record in TD Games: 2-3 (.400)
Record in All Other Games: 31-46 (.403)

A .400 team on the season went .400 in triple-double games. Again we see a team not really moving the needle with the triple-double, in aggregate or on any given night. It’s looking an awful lot like triple-doubles have no predictive value at all. But then again, I’m reserving judgment because we’re only on the letter M. You all know where this is headed.

Miami Heat

Triple-Doubles: Goran Dragic (1), Dwyane Wade (1)
Record in TD Games: 1-1 (.500)
Record in All Other Games: 38-42 (.475)

Seriously, Goran Dragic had a triple-double. The Heat won his. They lost D-Wade’s. Again we have a wash.

Milwaukee Bucks

Triple-Doubles: Giannis Antetokounmpo (5), Eric Bledsoe (1)
Record in TD Games: 6-0 (1.000)
Record in All Other Games: 54-22 (.711)

Team with superstar wins game in which superstar has triple-double. If this sounds a lot like the Rockets, it should.

Giannis had a squeaker of a triple-double in one outing though, a Bucks win over Miami where Greekazoid had just 12 points on 4-of-9 shooting to go with 10 each of boards and assists, but he played just 25 minutes in that 124-86 drubbing of the visitors.

New Orleans Pelicans

Triple-Doubles: Elfrid Payton (6), Julius Randle (1)
Record in TD Games: 3-4 (.429)
Record in All Other Games: 30-45 (.400)

It speaks volumes that Elfrid Payton had triple-doubles in five straight games and the Pelicans lost four of them.

It also speaks volumes that we’ve got yet another team whose record in triple-double games tracks with their record on the season. You can see a theme developing. We’re almost there.

New York Knicks

Triple-Doubles: Mario Hezonja (1)
Record in TD Games: 0-1 (.000)
Record in All Other Games: 17-64 (.210)

Hezonja had a triple-double in Houston on April 5. The Knicks got mashed by the Rockets 120-96.

Now then, the main event of the evening…

Oklahoma City Thunder

Triple-Doubles: Russell Westbrook (34), Paul George (1)
Record in TD Games: 25-9 (.735)
Record in All Other Games: 24-24 (.500)

Once again, this list featured teammates with a triple-double in the same game, the Thunder’s 120-111 home win against Portland on Feb. 11.

But here’s a demonstration of the Harden/Giannis principle again. When teams get an overwhelming amount of counting stat production in wins from one superstar, it tends to come out as “triple-double equals win.”

Westbrook’s sample size is nearly half of his team’s games. The Thunder are a 60-22 team when Westbrook gets a triple-double. They’re a 41-41 team when he doesn’t.

We’re seeing a pattern-within-a-pattern as the data develops.

Orlando Magic

Triple-Doubles: Nikola Vucevic (1)
Record in TD Games: 0-1 (.000)
Record in All Other Games: 41-40 (.506)

And when that mini-pattern doesn’t hold with a true high-usage superstar, triple-doubles predict nothing.

Philadelphia 76ers

Triple-Doubles: Ben Simmons (10), Joel Embiid (2)
Record in TD Games: 7-5 (.583)
Record in All Other Games: 44-26 (.629)

Another data set where, within half a game of the sample-within-a-sample’s expected win percentage, there is absolutely zero correlation between triple-doubles and winning.

The more we learn.

Portland Trail Blazers

Triple-Doubles: Evan Turner (2), Jusuf Nurkic (1), CJ McCollum (1)
Record in TD Games: 4-0 (1.000)
Record in All Other Games: 49-29 (.628)

The losers in these four games: Cleveland, Atlanta, Minnesota (in April), Memphis (also in April.)

So…yeah.

Also, Nurkic had a just-barely-there triple-double, with 10 of each for points, assists, and rebounds.

Three of Portland’s four triple-doubles this season involved seven FGA or less.

Sacramento Kings

Triple-Doubles: De’Aaron Fox (1)
Record in TD Games: 1-0 (1.000)
Record in All Other Games: 38-43 (.469)

Namesake got a triple-double. The Kings beat Atlanta 146-115 on November 1; the Hawks were 2-6 and Trae Young wasn’t Trae Young yet.

San Antonio Spurs

Triple-Doubles: DeMar DeRozan (1)
Record in TD Games: 1-0 (1.000)
Record in All Other Games: 47-34 (.581)

DeRozan was facing his old team, the Toronto Raptors, and he flat went to town on them. The Spurs won that game 125-107.

Toronto Raptors

Triple-Doubles: Kyle Lowry (2)
Record in TD Games: 2-0 (1.000)
Record in All Other Games: 56-24 (.700)

You’re not going to believe this, but it’s easier to get a guy a triple-double when your opponent stinks. Lowry’s came against Atlanta and New Orleans.

Washington Wizards

Triple-Doubles: Bradley Beal (2), Tomas Satoransky (1)
Record in TD Games: 2-1 (.667)
Record in All Other Games: 30-49 (.380)

Satoransky getting one against the Bucks in a Wizards win was one of the weirdest stat lines of the year.

The Wiz split Beal’s two triple-doubles, beating Phoenix but losing to Toronto.

Totals

Team Records in Triple-Double Games: 83-42 (.664)

Records Not Involving Harden, Westbrook, or Antetokounmpo: 47-32 (.595)

So What Have We Learned?

Well, we’ve mostly learned two things.

One, that for the vast majority of teams, there is little measurable correlation beyond statistical noise between a player getting a triple-double and the team winning the game. Sure, it’s nice to have and seems to be worth about a 49-33 record over an 82-game season, but a lot of players who rack up triple-doubles play on good teams, or a lot of teams are good because they have a regular threat to post a triple-double. The NBA is a star-driven league.

And two, that the three most notable exceptions—four if you count a healthy LeBron James before the Lakers went south—are James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Russell Westbrook, three stat sheet-stuffing high-usage-rate players whose teams rely heavily on total offensive efforts from them in order to win games. The offenses for the Rockets, Bucks, and Thunder simply wouldn’t work without those three guys piling up huge counting stats and therefore triple-doubles, so they tend to win when their guys deliver on that promise.

In fact, speaking of LeBron, if we run the numbers back for the 2017-18 Cavaliers, the team Bron more or less singlehandedly dragged to the NBA Finals, we find 18 triple-doubles and a 14-4 record in those games (.778) when the Cavs went 36-28 (.563) otherwise.

So if you’ve got a high-usage superstar, get him involved in all facets of the game and watch the wins roll in. If you don’t, one guy hogging the counting stats isn’t necessarily going to end any better for you than playing team basketball and spreading out the rebounds and assists.

After all, the Golden State Warriors don’t get many triple-doubles…and they lost the two games in which Kevin Durant got them this season.

The triple-double is neat…but overrated. That seems to be the conclusion except for the rarest of talents.