The paradigm of modern NBA basketball was best captured by a recent stat correction. A loose-ball rebound in the third quarter of Monday’s game between the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets was originally credited to Rockets center Clint Capela. Because of that board, Capela had joined an illustrious group of 100 centers in the past 50-plus years to record a 20-point, 20-rebound game.
But the next morning, the NBA issued a correction. The rebound was taken away from Capela and given to teammate Chris Paul, which gave the point guard the necessary counting stats for a triple-double (18 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds). In the end, it served as a fitting microcosm: just the latest story of a big man marginalized in a ball handler’s league.
Paul played 35 minutes on Monday, the fewest he’s ever played in order to compile a triple-double; he averaged over 42 minutes in his other 13 triple-double games, most of which happened nearly a decade ago. Paul made the most of his minutes and touches despite playing at a grueling, Jazz-approved pace of 93 possessions on Monday. And he made it look easy. Probably because it’s never been easier in league history to achieve one.
So many MVP debates ultimately break down to numbers versus narrative, but last season, the numbers were the narrative. Russell Westbrook’s 42 triple-doubles told the story of the season. Back in February, I called it the season that broke statistics: There were 117 triple-doubles last season, which obliterated the previous record set in 1988-89 by 39 triple-doubles. That disparity is larger than the total amount of triple-doubles recorded in all of 2010-11. Ten different players scored 50-plus points, breaking the old record of eight split between 1989-90 … and 2015-16.
That was why Russell Westbrook was my pick for MVP last season. It was a culmination of the sweeping changes that the league has undergone in the past three years, changes that have been normalized in the long grind of an 82-game season but are startling when viewed from a macro perspective. In those three short years, an up-tempo, jump-shooting team won a championship; the Unicorn Age was given a name and many faces; and a windfall in individual statistics led to 2016-17 being the most efficient season in NBA history—a historic high in offensive rating and effective field goal percentage and a historic low in turnover rate.
The Thunder were only bit characters in the story of last season. In all honesty, so was Westbrook. He may have generated over a third of the league’s triple-doubles on the season, but his individual marks don’t explain how Tim Frazier, a diminutive backup point guard, got his. Nor do they explain how Ty Lawson, an even smaller burned-out star who isn’t even in the league this season, notched one of his own. This was the season that the oversaturation of triple-doubles forced many fans to reassess its value as anything more than an arbitrary designation. There was an undercurrent we were all in search of. It was the first season that the triple-double could be thought of not as an end, but as a symptom. The incredible individual performances of the 2016-17 season were the shockwaves stemming from a greater development. This was the season that the modern NBA broke the sound barrier.
According to Basketball-Reference’s pace numbers, which go back to the 1973-74 season, this season so far has been played at the fastest tempo in over 25 years. The game has sped up considerably in the past three seasons: Current 2017-18 figures have seen a 3.6 percent jump in pace compared to 2014-15, an unprecedented rate of increase in league history.
The relationship between pace and triple-doubles is obvious: More possessions mean more opportunities to accomplish things on the court. The ripple effects of an up-tempo league permeate nearly every other facet of play. Seasons with the highest assist averages across the league correlate with seasons that have the highest leaguewide pace. Offensive rebounding rate has fallen precipitously since the turn of the century (the 19 worst offensive rebounding seasons in NBA history all came in the past 19 seasons), but it’s gotten even steeper since 2014-15, when it had fallen to 25.1 percent. It’s at 22.2 this season.
Teams have never been more cognizant of transition defense than they are today, which means an emphasis on setting up on defense before the opponent can exploit any gaps. This, in turn, leaves plenty of defensive rebounds to be had completely uncontested. Enter Westbrook, James Harden, Ben Simmons, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and, yes, Chris Paul. In a league that’s playing the fastest it’s played in over a quarter century, every split second counts. Having the rebound go to your lead ball handler is not only effective, it will soon be the norm, if we haven’t already gotten to that point.
Should the current rate of increase hold, by 2020-21 leaguewide pace would enter the realm of ’80s NBA basketball (i.e., the fastest the game has ever been played in the 3-point era). What we’ve yet to discover is what that means when coupled with the league’s evergrowing reliance on shooting from behind the arc. From 1979-80 to 1988-89, teams averaged 285 3-point attempts per season; by the end of this season, 2017-18 alone will eclipse that entire decade’s output eightfold. At their current rate, the Rockets will make more 3s in 51 games than the average NBA team in the ’80s did through the entire decade. The NBA’s near future could be completely unrecognizable.
Thirty-one games into the season, Westbrook is on the cusp of once again averaging a triple-double: 23.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 9.7 assists. The Thunder, despite all the early-season tumult, are climbing the West standings. Westbrook is averaging a triple-double in December, and with his team working with a razor-thin margin for error, he will likely have to continue ramping up his usage to have any shot at postseason longevity.
Even if Westbrook does raise all of his averages to that perfect, round plateau, he will likely be on the outside looking in on the MVP discussion. The thrill of improbably rewriting history is gone. What’s left is a league and its observers wondering just how far the game can diverge from the norms established and reaffirmed over the past five decades. Westbrook’s play is both a product of his freedom and of the times. He has effectively broken the meaning of the numbers he’s accrued.
In 2017, we commemorated Westbrook’s feat with the highest individual honor, and then we dissected it to no end. Come tomorrow, maybe we’ll start finding new ways to future-proof our understanding of the game.