A triple double is essentially 3 arbitrary counting stats. Typically achieved when a player reaches 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a game. There is no special basketball bonus it unlocks, there is nothing special about it. But still it holds a special place in NBA fandom, players achieving triple doubles is big news.
Who are the NBA triple double leaders? Russell Westbrook and Oscar Robertson are ranked 1 and 2 all time in NBA triple doubles. They have 198 and 181 triple doubles respectively. Westbrook is still active for the LA Clippers while Robertson retired in 1974. The other big names in triple doubles are Magic Johnson, Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic, who each average a triple double less than every 7 games played.
When Russel Westbrook won the 2016-17 MVP ahead of James Harden, the narrative was what got him over the top. In a season where all-world wrecker Kevin Durrant had left Westbrook alone in OKC, he strapped the team on his back and averaged a triple double for the ENTIRE season. Westbrook became only the second player to average a triple double, the other being Oscar Robertson in 1961-62.
The 2016-17 MVP race can beautifully sum up the power of the triple double in the NBA. Take a look at the stats below.
As you can see it’s hard to split the 1st and 2nd placed MVP finishers. Westbrook edged points, Harden edged assists. Harden was a more efficient shooter and won more games. The big difference is that while Harden grabbed a very respectable 8.1 rebounds, Westbrook managed to edge over the magical 10. Taking him into the historic realms of averaging a triple double for the season. In doing so, he sealed the narrative and the MVP title. Given that both of these players identify as Point Guards (as much as positions still exist in the NBA) one grabbing a couple more rebounds a game more than the other seems superfluous at best. Right side of history or not, Westbrook averaged a triple double and claimed the 2016-17 MVP title.
Westbrook would average a triple double again the next year, however Harden would beat him to the MVP title for 2017-18. In fact Westbrook would average a triple double 3 years in a row (2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19) and again in 2020-21 for the Washington Wizards.
Westbrook is a Triple Double machine. In May 2021 he passed Oscar Robertson to become the all time leader in triple doubles. Let’s take a look at the full list and see what NBA superstars from past and present have been the ultimate stat sheet stuffers.
NBA top 30 Triple Double Leaders: All time
Below we have compiled a list of the top 30 NBA triple double leaders, ranked by total triple doubles and then by how many games it took them on average for each Triple Double.
One of the immediate take-aways is that 10 of the top 30 are still active, not only that but they cluster towards the top with 8 in the top 15. This indicates that triple doubles are “easier” to come by in the modern NBA, or that players are more suited to achieve a stronger spread of stats as modern basketball moves away from set positions and skill sets.
|Rank||Player||Pos||Triple Doubles||Gamesplayed||Games per Triple Double||Career PPG||Career RPG||Career APG||Still Active?|
|24||Micheal Ray Richardson||PG||21||556||26.5||14.8||5.5||7|
Stats taken ahead of the 2023-24 NBA season
Russell Westbrook sits top of the all-time triple double leader board with 198 triple doubles. He is tied leader for games per triple double with Nicola Jokic, they have each taken 5.6 games per triple double so far in their careers.
As Westbrook moves into the twilight of his career at the LA Clippers, Jokic has just won his first NBA title and Finals MVP. The 7ft Serbian’s career is right in his prime and he trails Westbrook by ‘just’ 90 Triple Doubles, sitting 4th overall. While only 5 other players in NBA history have even got 90 Triple Doubles in their entire career, it does seem likely that the 28 year old Serbian will close the gap on Westbrook and at least take second place from the legendary Oscar Robertson.
We will take a look at some of the key NBA triple double leaders and look at how their unique skill sets and NBA careers have led to them sitting so high on the all-time list.
Russell Westbrook: Ranked number 1 all-time in Triple Doubles, 198.
Russell Westbrook exploded onto the scene alongside Kevin Durant and James Harden on a young OKC Thunder team that reached the 2012 NBA Finals. At 6ft4 and 200lbs Westbrook has always been one of the most traditionally athletic players in the NBA. A strong downhill attacker he has the speed, strength and agility to get to the rim at will. Mostly deployed as a Point Guard he has always been a good facilitator, averaging 8.4 career assists. His ability to pick up rebounds propelled his triple double stats. In particular his focus on getting triple doubles took off after Kevin Durant left the Thunder in 2016. He would average a triple double for the next 3 seasons before ending up in Houston playing alongside Harden on the Rockets.
In 2021 Westbrook passed Oscar Robertson’s 181 career triple doubles while on the Washington Wizards this would prove to be the 4th season he would average a triple double. Some criticism has come Westbrooks’ way that he spent many years “stat padding”. In particular his rebounds, with the majority coming on the defensive end. Evidence of this is that the 3 seasons between 2016 and 2019 where he averaged Triple Doubles, he out rebounded team mate and man mountain Steven Adams. Russell Westbrook has never won an NBA title, he is the only player in the triple double top 7 never to do so. 8th on the list is former team mate James Harden, who also doesn’t have an NBA title.
A classic Westbrook rebound
Oscar Robertson: Ranked number 2 all-time in Triple Double, 181
The Big O became the first player to average a triple double for an entire season in just his second season in the NBA. Drafted to the Cincinnati Royals in 1960, he won rookie of the year while posting 30.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 9.7 assists in 71 games. Missing out on averaging a triple double as a rookie by just 22 total assists. The next season he would have no such issues as he continued to dominate the NBA posting 30.8, 12.5 and 11.4 in 79 games. In 1963-64 the 6ft5, 205lb point guard would be crowned NBA MVP. He would eventually win a championship with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971 playing alongside Kareem.
Over the first 5 seasons of his NBA career he would almost average a triple double in each season. Falling marginally short in one category 4 times.
|Oscar Robertson: Triple Double Seasons|
Overall for his first 5 seasons in the NBA Robertson averaged 30.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 10.6 assists. In his 6th season his rebounding declined to “just” 7.7 per game and would never recover to the heights of his early years.
Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson: Ranked number 3 all-time in Triple Double, 138
The Showtime Lakers flamboyant engine was a 6 ft 10 point guard who won Finals MVP in his rookie year. He even started at center for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabar in the decisive game 6 of the finals to clinch the Lakers a title. He was a 3x Finals MVP, 3x MVP and 5x NBA Champion. Although his career was savagely cut short when he contracted HIV, he is the only player in the top 30 triple double leaders to finish his career averaging double figure assists.
Magic Johnson is a one of a kind NBA star, both on and off the court. He was in fact the reason the term triple-double was invented.
Prior to Magic’s emergence in the NBA the term Triple Double wasn’t used. In fact it was in his rookie year in 1980 that announcers and stat keepers started using the term to attempt to capture just how “Magical” Johnson’s stats were. In fact it was longtime Philadelphia 76ers media relations director Harvey Pollack who had the idea of creating a term for getting double digits in 3 categories (as Magic was so regularly). One game night in 1980 when the Lakers were in Philly, Polack dropped his idea in the Press Room. With a small tweak from LA Times writer Scott Ostler the Triple Double was born.
There is a great article exploring the origins of the term Triple Double that you can read here.
Nikola Jokic: Ranked number 4 all-time in Triple Double, 104
Serbian Nikola Jokic is in his 9th NBA season. The 28 year old Denver Nuggets center narrowly missed out on his 3rd consecutive MVP trophy in the 2022-23 season, having to settle for the NBA Championship and Finals MVP honors instead. Unarguably the best passing big man the NBA has ever seen and arguably the best passer, period, basketball has ever seen. He is very much a walking triple double. Listed at 7 foot and 284 lbs, he is huge and appears to lumber up and down the court. Jokic has proven this is merely a trick of the eye, he is skilled, nimble, fast when it matters and seems to be able to run up and down forever. Often putting the Denver Nuggets on his back and carrying them to victories.
Even the Jokers career averages are deceptive. A mundane 20.2 points, 6.6 assists and 10.5 rebounds per game don’t scream elite offensive weapon. Dig deeper and the truth emerges.
Jokic had a slower start to his NBA career than many super stars. Not immediately in the limelight and certainly not asked to carry the Nuggets offense like he does now. Before the 2020-21 season the highest single season average points he had posted was 20.1, since that season the lowest is 24.5. Similar in his assists, last season saw a high of 9.8 per game. Even his rebounding, although always pretty high, has ticked up since 2020-21. In that time Jokic has won 2 MVPs, a Championship and Finals MVP. This trend can be seen in his triple doubles as well. Each season he has been in the NBA he has achieved a triple double in an increasingly higher percentage of his games.
|Season||Triple Doubles||Games||% of games with a TD|
Jokic Triple Doubles by season
Jokic recorded a triple double in 42% of the games he played in last season.
He is the most likely candidate to trouble Oscar Robertson at #2 and potentially even make a run at Westbrook who will surely have more than 200 career triple doubles by the time he retires. Starting the 2023-24 season only 30 triple doubles behind 3rd placed Magic Johnson, it is likely that Jokic will end this season in 3rd place all time.
Jason Kidd: Ranked number 5 all-time in Triple Double, 107
Before he was a coach, Jason Kidd was an elite NBA point guard. For a long time he was the gold standard in modern NBA triple doubles. Reaching 3rd all time before being passed first by Westbrook and now by Jokic. Kidd’s time in the top 5 looks set to end in the 2023-24 season as he starts off tied with the very much still active Lebron James on 107 career triple doubles.
Lebron James: Ranked number 6 all-time in Triple Double, 107
Despite seemingly being able to put up triple double stat lines at will, Lebron’s career has been surprisingly light on them. Always more focused on winning titles than individual accolades, Lebron didn’t put up double digit triple doubles until he grabbed 13 in the 2016-17 season. That was his 14th NBA season and he has only repeated the feat twice more, the following 2017-18 season where he got 18 triple doubles and then again in his title winning 2019-20 season for the Lakers. His place this high on the triple double leaderboard is born more from longevity and consistent all around excellence.
Averaging a triple double every 13.3 games, he is closer to Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain in ratio than those ahead of him in the table. While he wil edge into the top 5 this season, he won’t stay there for long. 10th on the list is a young star in just his 6th season in the NBA who grabs a triple double every 6 games. He’s coming for Lebron’s spot.
Luka Doncic: Ranked number 10 all-time in Triple Double, 58
Entering the 2023-24 season with a Lebron-esq 27 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assist career average, Luka Doncic is a one man supernova on a basketball court. A 6ft7 and 230lbs he is very much a non-typical NBA player. Having won Euro-league MVP as a teenager several NBA teams slept on him when he entered the NBA draft in 2018. The Suns took Ayton and the Kings took Marvin Bagley before the Hawks traded back from 3rd so they could take Trey Young at 5 allowing the Mavericks to scoop up the young Slovenian. He is destined to be a future MVP and if the Mavs can get it right, surely an NBA champion.
Lukas young career already has enough highlights to keep his youtube reals fed for years to come and he’s only just getting started.
The evolution of triple doubles in the NBA
It is not a coincidence that there are more active players in the top 15 of the all-time triple doubles list than ever before. When the Steph Curry led Warriors exploded onto the scene in 2015 and won a title with… shooters! The NBA had been dominated by big men.
Indiana Centre Roy Hibbert’s verticality was the talk of the town (he played his last NBA game in 2016). Small Ball, Skill Ball, Pace and Space, whatever your preferred label, the NBA changed forever. The giants of the NBA could no longer be one dimensional rim protectors and vertical spacers on offense. Anthony Davis, Giannis, Jokic, Embiid, Karl Anthony-Towns and now Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama were the new giants in town. Hyper mobile, hyper skilled and ready to dominate. The league lost its old lumbering giants and gained a ton of skill, all of a sudden triple doubles could explode. Big strong athletic point guards like Westbrook, Harden and Doncic hoovered in rebounds as they ignited breaks. Giannis and Jokic, while big, are almost point guards for many possessions a game, dishing out assists and racking up the rebounds being 7 feet tall allows them to with ease.
The graphic below highlights this explosion:
Hovering at around 40 per season for decades, the total number of triple doubles scored by all players in the NBA suddenly exploded in 2015 as the Warriors forced teams to bench their giants while bombing 3’s and flinging the ball around the court with precision and skill. Bigs were now playmakers and guards were now able to soar for rebounds, welcome to the modern NBA where anyone can be anything.
At just 6ft2 Gary Payton ii is often deployed like a power forward by the Warriors
NBA Legends of the past who grabbed triple doubles
As we have shown, the modern NBA has blown triple double statistics out of the water. While players like Magic and The Big O sit near the top of the rankings still, they were by far the exception to the rule during their time. We have also looked at Jason Kidd, a bridge of sorts between what was and what became. We will now dive into the big names of the past who had a skill level varied enough to frequently grab the hallowed Triple Double stat line.
Wilt Chamberlain: Ranked number 7 all-time in Triple Double, 78
Wilt is often the anomaly in basketball statistics that no one is ever going to surpass (Wemby maybe?) so it is refreshing to see him so far down this list. Wilt the Stilt grabbed 78 triple doubles in his career, one every 13.4 games. About the same rate as Lebron James. 53 of these came in 2 seasons. 1966-67 and 1967-68 when he decided he wanted to win the assist title. His PPG average dropped by 9 points per game, under 30 for the first time in his career and his assists ticked up. His field goal attempts changed from 25 per game to just 14! He averaged 7.6 assists the first season, losing the assist title to Guy Rodgers. He pushed harder in the second season, dishing out 8.6 assist a game and winning his prize the 1967-68 assist title. He also won MVP for both the season preceding his assist experiment and the two seasons he was focusing on assists. In short, if Wilt Chamberlain had wanted to get a triple double every game, he probably could have.
Larry Bird: Ranked number 9 all-time in Triple Double, 59
Larry Bird was all about winning. If his Celtics needed him to be a scorer he’d score, if they needed him to give everything on defense the other team’s best player was in for a quiet and painful night, if Bird was needed to play make then you better be sure to stay up and catch the game on tape delay when it’s eventually broadcast (oh, the 80s!). Basically Larry Bird could do anything on a Basketball court, but he’d only do it if he thought it would increase his teams chances of winning a basketball game. He averaged 10 rebounds a game for his career, organically, just by doing the right thing. In the modern NBA Bird might be totally unplayable, he’d certainly be getting a lot more triple doubles.
Michael Jordan: Ranked number 28 all-time in Triple Double, 59
15 of Michael Jordan’s triple doubles came in the 1988-89 season where he averaged 32.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists.
After going a career 5-15 in the Playoffs Michael Jordan had some questions to answer. Was he good enough to win an NBA title as the best player on the team? No one questioned his ability as a scorer or competitiveness as a defender, but in the absence of the 1 thing that defines success for players as good as Jordan, there was pressure.
During the stretch run of that 1988-89 season, Jordan moved to Point Guard, foreshadowing the high-usage primary playmakers that would come to define the modern game of Basketball. 25 years before James Harden & Russell Westbrook would fight it out for MVP honors with the ball in their hands almost the entire game Michael Jordan, the most lethal scorer the game will ever see decided to start playing point guard.
“We’re trying to get more distribution of shots, get everyone involved in the offense. I want to make everybody a weapon now, so we just don’t have one weapon. Last year, in the playoffs, we were exposed, where one individual was doing all the scoring.”
⦁ MIchael Jordan 1989
In his first game at point guard Jordan scored just 18 points (taking just 13 shots), but got 15 assists, and eight rebounds. The second game saw Jordan grabbing a triple double with 21 points, 14 rebounds, and 14 assists in another win. He was scoring less, but his team mates were scoring more and his assist numbers were through the roof. This was only the 9th Triple double of his career and only the 4th of the season. He would get 11 more before the Playoffs began.
At the peak over 15 games at point guard Jordan got 11 triple-doubles. It could have been more, if he had been focusing on that, averaging 32.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 10.1 assists, with 2.6 steals on 50 percent from the field and 88 percent from the foul line. However the physical toll of being on the ball all the time for 40 mins a night affected him the Bulls would eventually finish the experiment with a 13-11 record during Jordan’s time at PG.
While it was probably too early in the games stylistic development to have someone like Jordan running point, as a player he learned alot from it. Soon getting over that hump and well, dominating the 1990s.