Essays & articles on compelling topics

Imagining a 5-Player Triple-Double

The sports world is littered with possible, but unlikely milestones and records to be broken.

Some of the most famous are here, all of which involve someone creating a record that is unlikely to broken. But what about the seemingly possible things that have never been done before?

If you ever have played sports video games, you know winning the actual game is only a fraction of the fun. The real challenge is setting up arbitrary targets.

  • Can I eclipse Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 pt game?
  • Can I score in FIFA with every player touching the ball only once in one build-up?
  • Can I limit the opposing offense in Madden to negative yards?

I have one in mind: could an entire NBA starting five each individually record a triple-double*?


* A triple-double is when an individual basketball player records double digits in three separate categories in one game (the most common is 10+ points, 10+ rebounds, and 10+ assists. 

While you probably could conceivably engineer a five-person triple-double in a PlayStation game, I started to think about how possible it might be in real life. And, just as importantly, who you would need to do it.

If was ever going to happen, now would be the time. Players change more teams frequently in the search of an elusive championship, so you could assemble a team specifically for this purpose.

The Golden State Warriors made common the idea of flexible positionality and ball movement which means that any of the 5 players could easily be in a position to rebound or assist. Finally, triple-doubles themselves are on the rise (last year’s total was the highest in history and also 48% higher than the season with the second highest).

It is, however, highly unlikely. In the history of the NBA, there has only been a maximum of two triple-doubles in a game (3 involving two teammates and 10 involving opponents). No instance of 3 triple-doubles and certainly no examples of five.

The biggest hurdle is assists. There are just unlikely to be enough of those to go around. For an incredibly tidy 5-man triple-double (i.e. 50 assists), you would have to score at least 100 points and include an assist on every play. Considering this is approaching the league average (which is currently for 17-18 105.5), that’s nearly impossible. There are plenty of common ways to score that do not involve assists (free throws, one-man fast breaks, offensive rebound putbacks, and just standard isolation plays). Points would not be an issue (there are many instances of 5 players on a team scoring 10 points or more) and rebounds would be tough because of distribution, but not scarcity (many teams reach 50 rebounds per game).

Indeed, the most assists ever recorded by one team in a game is 53. I’ve yet to find another case of over 50. So, to put it lightly, the game would have to be a statistical anomaly.

And yet! Perhaps this is because no team has actively attempted to accomplish this feat. It seems like it is remotely possible if your only goal is to accomplish it.

How would you do it?

First, you would want to pick the right game. The opposing team needs to have a few favorable elements: high pace of play (some teams shoot quicker and more often – teams that hold the ball as long as possible limit your # of possessions and opportunities for rebounds and assists), poor rebounds rates (more opportunities for your players), low-field-goal percentage (more opportunities for rebounds) and a very terrible free throw shooter (it is a tactic sometimes deployed to immediately foul a terrible free throw shooter because they are statistically unlikely to make the shots – and therefore you gamble on them missing both free throws, which likely gives the ball back to you). Most of these stats are available here.  Good candidates are Brooklyn and Atlanta.

It Has to be Home: Unless rules have changed very recently, the home team keeps the official scores. There is some ambiguity in the official scoring on rebounds (whether person A intentionally or unintentionally tips a rebound to a teammate determines who gets credit) and assists (the verbiage is purposefully vague), and having the official scorer adjudicate based on needs is a great safety net.

Time-Outs: You would not want anyone to know what you’re doing until it was too late. They’d try to stop it because it makes a mockery of the game. So you couldn’t openly discuss anything during the game. Come up with code words for structural approaches and space out your timeouts to sit everyone down and let them know their stats, so they know what they need to be doing. You would move players around based on what they individually needed to accomplish.

Hacks: Obviously, first would be to not score on anything that could not potentially have an assist. I admit this is very hard to do without everyone knowing it, but you could pretend any potential opponent near a fast break could be a threat, so you can hold the ball and wait for a streaking player. You should try to tip balls to your teammate on rebounds and hope the score-keeper acts favorably to whoever has the highest deficit in that stat category. You should purposefully miss the 2nd free throw to attempt to get the rebound. Leave players open for threes.

Play Calls: Nothing but pick-and-rolls. If the roll isn’t there, reset. Or potentially drive and kick to the three.

Lineup: You would be forgiven for thinking you should only play the five players you want to complete the triple-double for 48 minutes straight. But that’s not true. You should rotate in those five and play other players who are not to accumulate any stats. Their roles are just as important. Ideally, they play in the corner as to draw away a potential defensive rebounder. They need to foul the worst free throw shooters on the other team in order to keep up the pace of play.

It is too facile to look at the list of top triple-doubles last year and just pick the top 5. For reference, that would be:

Russell Westbrook (42), James Harden (22), Lebron James (13), Nikola Jokic (6), and Draymond Green (5)

You can’t really argue with that, especially because each person naturally fits into a specific position
PG: Harden (I think Harden is the best distributor, don’t @ me)
SG: Westbrook
SF: James
PF: Green
C: Jokic

However, if I were building a team specifically for this purpose, I might prefer Marc Gasol over Jokic), but not sure I would change anything else.

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