Michael Wilbon: Cleveland's LeBron James Might Eventually Average a Triple-Double in a Season

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, April 2, 2009

We see all-court brilliance like this every 25 years or so, when a player is extraordinary in basketball's primary skills: scoring, rebounding and passing. Only Oscar Robertson, in 1962, has averaged double digits in those three categories over an entire season. Only Magic Johnson, in 1982, has come truly close since. It has been such an unreachable mark, like hitting .400 for an entire season or scoring 100 points in a single game, that it's now presumed to be unthinkable that a player would average a triple-double over a full NBA season.

Until now.

It's not that LeBron James's numbers this season -- 28.3 points, 7.7. rebounds and 7.3 assists -- are tantalizingly close. It's that James, who just turned 24, has so much room to grow as a player that if anybody dares to dream of doing it, he would be the one. There's one supreme expert on the topic of the triple-double, and it's Robertson, who said in a conversation on the topic yesterday: "Oh, I think LeBron has a real chance to do it. He'd have to play more minutes, though. I think I played 44 minutes a game that year, and LeBron is playing, what, 36, 37 minutes [actually 38] a game this year?"

Robertson, who isn't one to throw a lot of phony praise at today's players, said of James: "I am definitely impressed with LeBron. . . . [He's] so gifted in his abilities. He doesn't even know, yet, all of what he can do."

Told Robertson believes he has a shot, LeBron told me last night during a conversation for ABC that will air Sunday afternoon, "I understand that records are made to be broken but . . ." His voice trailed off. LeBron shook his head. He can't see it, can't see anybody averaging a triple-double and clearly sees Robertson as what he was, a basketball god.

Robertson smiles at all the triple-double talk now because there was no such designation in 1962 when he averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game for the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings). Two years later in 1964, he missed a triple-double by one-tenth of one rebound, or a total of seven rebounds for the season. "I keep hearing my name pop up in connection with the triple-double now," Robertson said, "but when I did that I didn't even know it . . . nor did the league tell me. [I became more aware of it] in the early 1980s when Bird and Magic were doing it. . . . Remember, the definition of an assist was changed. When I played, if a guy dribbled even once, there was no assist credited. Now, a guy can dribble five times and the passer will receive an assist. But to find my [triple-doubles], the league had to go back in the archives."

While the conversation has gathered steam in recent weeks, usually it's dismissed as fantasy, even for a player having as great a season as LeBron James is, for the simple reason that nobody has in 47 years. It's too damned difficult . . . more difficult even than winning baseball's triple crown, which hasn't been done since 1967. There are those who think LeBron could, if he decided it was a priority. But that isn't LeBron's personality, and he resists even though he said yesterday that his teammates come up to him after games, stat sheet in hand, and say: "You got nine rebounds. . . . If you hadn't been so lazy tonight, you could have gotten that extra rebound." It's a peek at the nicely evolved chemistry of the Cavaliers, who play the Wizards at Verizon Center tonight.

Even if LeBron wanted to go after the season-long triple-double it might be out of his reach because what Robertson did is the pre-steroid statistical equivalent of hitting .350, with 55 home runs and 160 runs batted in. You don't have to lead the league in any one category; you just have to be sublime in all three, enough so that you stay ahead of even a specialist who dominates one category.

Wilt Chamberlain had what might be considered an equally remarkable season, at the age of 31 in 1967-68, when he averaged 24.3 points per game, an unthinkable 23.8 rebounds and 8.6 assists during his last season in Philly before being traded to the Lakers. Wilt decided he was going to lead the league in assists, and did, but couldn't reach 10 per game.

Since then, a handful of players have come reasonably close, nobody closer than Magic Johnson, who in 1981-82 at the age of 22 averaged 18.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and 9.5 assists a game . . . a rounded-off triple-double. The very next season, Magic averaged 16.8 points, 10.5 assists and 8.6 rebounds. Two things, beyond Magic's own talents, stand out about his all-around excellence those two seasons. First, he didn't have to expend as much energy scoring as LeBron does because the Lakers had plenty of scorers. And second, while Magic is undoubtedly the greatest and most imaginative passer ever, a great many of his assists were piled up tossing the ball to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose sky hook was the single most unstoppable offensive weapon in basketball history. Magic also found a young, soaring James Worthy on the break in '83. LeBron, right now anyway, has no such options to pick up the 240 or so assists in a season he would need to average 10 per game. Cleveland would have to add a 20-point scorer, probably a low-post monster with great hands -- think Amare Stoudemire -- who could convert LeBron's passes into easy assists.

Since Magic in '83, nobody has come quite as close. Grant Hill, in his second NBA season, averaged 20 points, 9.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists. And in his third season, Hill averaged 21.4 points, 9 rebounds and 7.5 assists. Both Magic and Hill came closest in their early years, when they had limitless energy and the spring in their legs to put up their best rebounding numbers. LeBron is just 24, but having already played six seasons, he's amassing the kind of wear and tear that leads to a gradual decline in rebounding. Michael Jordan, for example, averaged eight rebounds a game his fifth season in the NBA, then never again. Jason Kidd did average 13 points, 8.2 rebounds and 9.2 assists just two years ago at the age of 33, but he's the great exception. One player few fans today even recognize, much less associate with triple-doubles, is Fat Lever, who, playing for Denver in the late 1980s, once averaged 19.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.9 assists. Again, it's the assists a player simply couldn't muster.

But when I asked Robertson about LeBron's greatest obstacle to triple-doubledom he said: "Rebounding. That's going to be more difficult simply because he's not under the basket very much."

He knows it's going to be difficult, but Robertson repeated that he believes LeBron has a chance.

That such a discussion even exists and that one of the five best all-around players in history has an open mind about LeBron doing it is one of the best arguments for him being MVP this season, ahead of Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, and the reason that LeBron James is worth stopping to watch not only tonight, but anytime he takes the court between now and, oh, the NBA Finals in June.

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