The Triple-Double Is Overrated, Kawhi Leonard Is Not
Monday night, Kawhi Leonard scored 39 points, added six rebounds, and five assists to lead the San Antonio Spurs to a 112-110 comeback win over the Houston Rockets.
Leonard closed the game in Jordanian fashion: scoring 17 points in the last eight minutes, including a go-ahead three with 25 seconds left, and preserved the lead with a spectacular block of a James Harden lay up. With the win, the Spurs are now six games better than the Rockets in the Western Conference standings.
And by the way, Leonard held the previously unstoppable Harden to 1-5 from the field over the last five minutes.
After a recent series of similar superior all-around performances—Leonard has averaged 30 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 2.4 steals in his last 11 games—he has entered the MVP conversation that has been dominated by Harden and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook.
Who is the best of these three superb players?
Westbrook has received enormous acclaim by averaging a triple-double this season, a feat that has been accomplished only once in NBA history—55 years ago by the all-time great Oscar Robertson. A New York Times reporter recently gushed that Westbrook’s triple-double run is “a performance as aberrant as anything any of the primordial basketball legends (Wilt, Oscar, Bill Russell, Pistol Pete) ever did.”
But while Westbrook certainly has played great, let’s not get carried away with this specific achievement: in reality, the triple-double is overrated.
Nothing magical happens with the tenth point, rebound or assist. As the ninth is simply one more than the eighth, the tenth is just one more than the ninth.
In that regard, Westbrook’s 32.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.0 assists per game barely differ from Harden’s 29 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 11.3 assists per game, and are not much more than Lebron James’s 26 points, 8.2 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game.
Why the fascination with the triple-double? Why the game-by-game Westbrook drumbeat?
Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim in "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games Are Won" explain the outsized allure of statistics like the triple-double: “we are slaves to round numbers.”
They cite examples outside of sports—this is a widespread phenomenon—but their most pertinent discussion concerns baseball’s .300 batting average. A .300 average is essentially the same as .299, yet the authors found that "in the last quarter century, no player hitting .299 has ever drawn a base on balls in his final plate appearance of the season.” Not once. These hitters expanded their strike zone in order to keep alive the chance of hitting .300.
Furthermore, players hitting .300 on the season’s last day are much more likely to take the day off (to ensure their .300 average) than are players hitting .299. (Memorably, Ted Williams played on the final day of the 1941 season despite entering the game with a .400 batting average. His willingness to risk falling short went down in baseball lore as testimony to his greatness and he ended up at .406.)
Most importantly for present purposes, players are paid more money after they hit .300 rather than .299 or hit 30 home runs rather than 29. We just love round numbers.
The triple-double is not alone in failing to adequately rank players. All basketball statistics, from basic numbers (points, rebounds, and assists totals) to advanced analytics, have significant limitations.
Ideally, any statistical evaluation would eliminate all variables other than the performance being measured. Unfortunately, basketball contains a myriad of important variables, including the considerable effects of the nine other players on the court, varied team paces and styles, different responsibilities assigned to players, and on and on. With a high degree of player interaction, basketball does not lend itself well to numerical assessments of individual players.
Context is key in evaluating players. For example, Kevin Durant’s exit led to the Thunder’s near-complete reliance on Westbrook, he now leads the NBA in “usage percentage.”
Westbrook’s career high in rebounds is owed in part to Durant and Serge Ibaka being replaced on the front line with poor rebounders. Westbrook deserves credit for everything he’s done this season—every last point, rebound, and assist—but he is not a better shooter, rebounder, or passer than last season.
He is simply attempting to fill every void and is doing so at a high cost—Westbrook is averaging a career high in turnovers while also having his worst shooting season in seven years.
Similarly, how much of Harden’s gaudy stats—more points, rebounds, and assists than Leonard—are thanks to the Rockets fast pace offense?
In the more egalitarian and far slower paced San Antonio system, Harden’s and Westbrook’s points, rebounds and assists would all decrease, their points and rebounds nearing or reaching Leonard’s current numbers (26.3 points and 6 rebounds per game).
Harden and Westbrook, as point guards, would still have more assists than Leonard, but also more missed shots and turnovers. Leonard shoots more efficiently than Harden and (especially) Westbrook. With these advantages cutting in both directions it would be hard to claim significant overall offensive superiority for any of the three over the others.
Variables and context plague measurements of defense even more. Defense is always team-schemed and it’s nearly impossible to isolate a single player’s contribution (even though more cameras, shot charts, and other sophisticated strategies have been brought to bear on the attempt.)
Consider the publicly available overall defensive evaluations, which fail in two critical ways. First, they do not distinguish adequately among players. Second, they too often yield plainly ridiculous results.
Fortunately, we can still make clear distinctions among the three simply by watching them play. You don’t need anything more than your eyes to know that the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year Leonard dominates the blooper film star Harden, even if Harden has improved somewhat.
Westbrook is a solid defender, but cannot match Leonard’s ability to guard anyone from point guards to power forwards. With Leonard’s defensive versatility and his extraordinary reach, he is probably the NBA’s best perimeter defender since Scottie Pippen.
The obvious defensive superiority trumps any fine distinction (statistical or otherwise) that can be made among the three at the offensive end.
Leonard doesn't have their flash. He has no triple-doubles. He likely won’t win MVP, either. Nevertheless, with his superb all-around play, I’d take Leonard over the round numbers of Westbrook and Harden.