What is a triple double in basketball?

HotbotBy HotBotUpdated: June 24, 2024

Understanding the Triple Double in Basketball

A triple double is a significant achievement in basketball, representing a player’s versatility and all-around performance on the court. It occurs when a player accumulates a double-digit number total in three of five statistical categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks, during a single game.

The Origins of the Term

The term "triple double" originated in the 1980s, popularized by former Los Angeles Lakers public relations director Bruce Jolesch to describe the incredible performances of Magic Johnson. Johnson’s ability to contribute significantly across multiple statistical categories highlighted the essence of a triple double.

Statistical Categories Explained

  • Points: The simplest and most common statistic, reflecting the number of points a player scores through field goals, three-pointers, and free throws.
  • Rebounds: Capturing the number of times a player retrieves the ball after a missed field goal or free throw attempt. Rebounds are further divided into offensive and defensive rebounds.
  • Assists: Credited to a player who passes the ball to a teammate in a way that leads to a score. Assists highlight a player’s vision and unselfish play.
  • Steals: Given to a player who legally takes the ball away from an opponent, demonstrating defensive prowess.
  • Blocks: Recorded when a player deflects or stops an opponent’s shot attempt, showcasing defensive skills and timing.

The Impact of a Triple Double

Achieving a triple double is indicative of a player’s comprehensive contribution to their team. It often correlates with a high basketball IQ, physical endurance, and versatility. Players who consistently record triple doubles are typically leaders on their teams and possess the ability to influence multiple facets of the game.

Historical Context and Notable Players

While the triple double became more widely recognized in the 1980s, earlier players like Oscar Robertson set the stage. Robertson, nicknamed "The Big O," was the first player to average a triple double for an entire season (1961-62). This extraordinary feat was not replicated until Russell Westbrook did so in the 2016-17 season.

Oscar Robertson

Oscar Robertson’s contribution to the game cannot be overstated. He achieved 181 triple doubles over his career, a record that stood for decades. His ability to influence the game in multiple ways set a standard for future generations.

Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson brought flair and showmanship to the triple double, often leading his team with incredible performances. His 138 career triple doubles reflect his all-around skill and leadership.

Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook redefined the modern triple double, breaking Robertson’s long-standing record for the most triple doubles in a season and eventually surpassing his career total. Westbrook’s athleticism and relentless play have made him synonymous with the term.

LeBron James

LeBron James, considered one of the greatest players in NBA history, has also made his mark with numerous triple doubles. His versatility and basketball intelligence allow him to excel in multiple areas, contributing to his team’s success.

Triple Double in the Modern Game

The evolution of basketball has seen an increase in triple doubles, partly due to changes in playing style and pace. Today’s game emphasizes versatility, with players often taking on multiple roles. The rise of "positionless basketball" has seen players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Dončić regularly recording triple doubles.

Recognizing a Triple Double in Box Scores

A box score is a statistical summary of a basketball game, and recognizing a triple double involves looking for double-digit figures in any three of the key statistical categories. For example, a box score line of 20 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists indicates a triple double.

Factors Influencing Triple Doubles

Several factors can influence the frequency of triple doubles:

  • Playing Time: More minutes on the court increase the opportunity to accumulate statistics.
  • Playing Style: Players who handle the ball a lot, like point guards, have more chances to score, assist, and, in some cases, rebound.
  • Team Dynamics: Teams that play at a higher pace or have fewer dominant scorers may see more triple doubles from their players.
  • Statistical Tracking: Improvements in how statistics are recorded can also impact the recognition of triple doubles.

Triple Doubles Across Different Leagues

While the NBA is the most prominent stage for basketball, triple doubles are recorded in other leagues and competitions, including college basketball, the WNBA, and international tournaments. Each league has its own style and pace, influencing how often triple doubles occur.


Triple doubles are rarer in the WNBA, partly due to the shorter game duration and different playing styles. However, players like Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie have achieved this milestone, showcasing their exceptional talent.

College Basketball

In college basketball, the shorter game length and lower scoring pace make triple doubles less common. However, standout performances do occur, with players like Shaquille O'Neal and Denzel Valentine making their mark with triple doubles during their collegiate careers.

Triple Doubles and Advanced Metrics

Advanced metrics and analytics have added new dimensions to understanding a player’s impact on the game. Metrics like Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and Box Plus-Minus (BPM) can provide deeper insights into the value of a player who frequently records triple doubles.

Memorable Triple Double Performances

Several games stand out in the history of triple doubles:

  • Wilt Chamberlain's Quadruple Double: While not officially recorded, Chamberlain is said to have achieved a quadruple double (double digits in four statistical categories) with points, rebounds, assists, and blocks in a game.
  • Russell Westbrook’s 20-20-20 Game: Westbrook recorded 20 points, 20 rebounds, and 21 assists in a single game in 2019, a performance dedicated to rapper Nipsey Hussle.
  • Magic Johnson in the 1980 NBA Finals: Johnson, playing as a center in Game 6, recorded 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists, showcasing his versatility and leading the Lakers to victory.

The triple double stands as a testament to a basketball player’s all-around abilities and impact on the game. It encapsulates the essence of versatility, skill, and intelligence on the court. Whether achieved by legends of the past or contemporary stars, the triple double remains one of the most celebrated feats in basketball, inviting endless admiration and debate among fans and analysts alike.

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In the winter of 1891, Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian physical education instructor, was tasked with creating a new game to keep his students at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, active during the harsh winter months. The result was the invention of basketball, a sport that would grow to become one of the most popular and widely played games in the world.

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