Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks will take the court in Chicago Sunday night as a 20-year-old NBA All-Star. The appearance is unlikely to be his last. Any doubts about the Slovenian point forward’s abilities have been shredded over the past 12 months. As Chris Mannix noted in a 2019 piece declaring Doncic Sports Illustrated’s 2019 Breakout Star of the Year, now “everybody knows” just how good the former international prospect is.
Doncic is amassing absurd numbers that have never before been registered by someone so young.
With an impressive 6-foot, 7-inch frame, a step back jump shot rivaling James Harden and a passing ability that Dwayne Wade called “LeBron-like,” Doncic is amassing absurd numbers that have never before been registered by someone so young. As Louisa Thomas wrote in the New Yorker in 2019, “it’s as though you’re watching a kid build a universe with well-defined rules and then find a way to be free of them.”
Nowhere is Doncic’s singular versatility more evident than in the league-leading number of triple-doubles (double-digit totals in three statistical categories over a single game) he has piled up thus far. Sadly, the achievement has been marred by stat-padding and inefficiency. Both casual fans and analytics wonks have accused stars as prominent as James Harden and Russell Westbrook of unnecessarry stat accumulation. But Doncic’s flair, efficiency and virtuosic play provides the best argument in a long time for why fans and pundits alike shouldn’t write off such a statistical triumph.
Even before the triple-double was a recognized statistic (the term was coined during the early 1980s in large part to describe the dominance of Magic Johnson), Oscar Robertson averaged one in the 1961-62 season while playing for the Cincinnati Royals. Robertson became the first big guard in the league to demonstrate abilities that far transcended his traditional positional responsibilities. As former Boston Celtics guard Bill Sharman observed, “Robertson was a big man with the moves of a really tremendous little man.”
Since then, the triple-double has symbolized the (supposedly) rare player who is able to do it all on the basketball court, from scoring to creating scoring opportunities for teammates to impactful defense. As Spencer Lund and Nelson Isava noted in Complex, “the NBA world's fetishization of stats has elevated the triple-double to a monolith of all-around excellence.”
During the 2013-2014 NBA regular season, 46 triple-doubles were recorded. But by the 2018-2019 season, this number had ballooned to 127, with eight different players amassing at least five. Apart from an increase in the number of triple-double adept talents (Luka Doncic, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook, Ben Simmons, etc.), this increase has a lot to do with how the NBA has stylistically evolved.
A hastened pace of play is resulting in more possessions on offense, leading to more chances for buckets, assists and rebounds. Smaller lineups without traditional centers are also being deployed, leading to greater opportunities for rebounds. And finally, assists are rising because of an increased preference for three-point shooting over mid-range shots, requiring more passing.
But this conducive environment has emboldened some superstar players to reach for triple-doubles by any means necessary. Ahead of the trend, back in 2003, Cleveland Cavaliers player Ricky Davis tried to shoot at his own basket to register the final rebound needed for a triple-double. (He was not awarded the rebound.)
More recently, Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors showed remorse after he pushed too hard for a triple-double — at the expense of his team — a few years ago. “We started turning the ball over due to my selfish unselfishness, and it was all downhill from there,” Green said at the time.
More egregious still is Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook, whose once celebrated triple-doubles now feel somewhat manufactured. In recent years, Westbrook has become synonymous with the triple-double — but not always in a good way. Westbrook averaged a triple-double over the course of his last three seasons with the Thunder, a historic feat. But Westbrook has also stolen rebounds from teammates and been permitted to ensnare them on purpose. This is topped by historically abysmal shooting percentages.
And yet, if anyone can redeem the achievement, it’s Luka Doncic.
Earlier this season, the Slovenian recorded a 30-point triple-double in only 25 minutes and 30 seconds, the shortest amount of time needed to produce the feat in NBA history.
Doncic’s natural play has been redemptive. His ability to accrue numbers within the confines and flow of the game is historic. Earlier this season, the Slovenian recorded a 30-point triple-double in only 25 minutes and 30 seconds, the shortest amount of time needed to produce the feat in NBA history.
In ESPN’s hallowed PER rating, which measures a player’s overall contributions, Doncic’s near triple-double season averages place him second overall in the league. And while these are “just stats” to Doncic, his triple-double efficiency has also meant wins for the Mavericks.
Unlike Westbrook’s predilection for poaching loose balls, Doncic uses his size and instincts to earn his rebounds. According to the NBA’s player tracking data, no guard or wing player surpasses Doncic’s ability to position himself on the court. This is doubly important as some teammates have aggressively snatched rebounds away from Doncic.
When the disparate parts of Doncic’s game coalesce, he seems capable of almost anything. For the average fan, this is why Doncic’s stat sheet sparks so much joy. And why after years of debasement, Doncic is working to make the triple-double great again.