Before the NBA season began, the parity police told us to prepare for six months of boredom and irrelevance. Kevin Durant had moved to Golden State, LeBron James had restored Cleveland’s self-confidence, and the regular season would be nothing more than a march to an inevitable NBA Finals matchup.
The groupthink was loud: Why watch when you know the ending?
Because Russell Westbrook hasn’t read the script. Neither has James Harden. And many others have been similarly defiant, delivering amazing statistical performances, shifting the attention away from a supposedly predetermined future and providing motivation for nightly fascination with the league.
Almost halfway through the 82-game season, the box score has been the biggest star in a league full of players having career years. On Tuesday night, Harden joined Michael Jordan, Pete Maravich and Westbrook as the only players in league history to post back-to-back 40-point triple-doubles. And that’s not even his greatest feat of the past two weeks. On New Year’s Eve, he collected 53 points, 17 assists and 16 rebounds, the league’s first triple-double with a player scoring at least 50 points, dishing 15 assists and grabbing 15 rebounds.
The numbers are impressive, but they aren’t enough to make Harden, who has 11 triple-doubles, the league leader in that category. That honor goes to Westbrook, who already has 17. Westbrook is averaging a triple-double (31.2 points, 10.6 rebounds and 10.4 assists). ESPN NBA Insider Kevin Pelton has created a projection system, and right now, he gives Westbrook a 39 percent chance of standing next to Oscar Robertson as the only NBA players to average a triple-double for an entire season.
Fourteen players have recorded a triple-double already, including Tim Frazier, Malcolm Brogdon and the recently benched Rajon Rondo. Six players have multiple triple-doubles.
The triple-dub watch could carry a half season of intrigue alone, but the statistical glory doesn’t stop there. Eight players have scored at least 50 points in a game, tying an NBA single-season record before the all-star break. And that’s without Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, James or Durant dropping 50.
In December, Klay Thompson scored 60 points in a performance that made stat geeks swoon. He did it in only 29 minutes, making him the first player in the shot-clock era to score 60 in such little court time. The master of the catch and shoot, Thompson held the ball for just 88.4 seconds, according to SportVU tracking data. He took a mere 11 dribbles.
“Welcome to the new NBA,” Wizards point guard John Wall said.
Since 2004, when the league finished making rule changes to reduce physical play and open up the game, the NBA has been building toward this season. The 2016-17 campaign may go down as the year in which player skill combined with coaching strategy and analytics to open the door to all the possibilities of a league that has gone finesse.
Wall, who scored a career-high 52 points in December, calls it the new NBA, but let’s define it even more. This is the age of basketball versatility. Size still matters, but skill is most important. Shooting is coveted. Players are free from positional restriction; the game is much more about putting the best five players on the court.
In this age of basketball versatility, the NBA all-star is capable of impacting the game in more ways than ever. The first half of the season is the most dramatic example of that.
“When the rule changes came in, there was a heavy emphasis on bringing more skill into the game,” Minnesota Coach Tom Thibodeau said. “If you look back to the ’90s, most of us were playing a power forward at the small forward position. So there were really three bigs on the floor for most teams, and it was more of a power, physical game, and defensively, you were bumping. You were hitting. There was a lot of hand-checking. And they wanted to open up the game.
“So with the rule changes that came, now you have a lot more small forwards playing power forward. So you have an added shooter. And I also think the next step has been the [centers] that can shoot threes. So it’s really opened up the floor. It’s more of, maybe, a transition game. And I think the way everyone is utilizing the three has really spread the floor throughout.”
In December, Harden’s Houston Rockets — now thriving under the direction of innovative offensive coach Mike D’Antoni — set an NBA record by making 24 three-pointers in a game. Nine NBA teams make at least 10 three-pointers per game. Twenty teams attempt at least 25 three-pointers. Thirteen teams shoot at least 36 percent from that distance. These are unfathomable statistics even for Wall, who is only 26.
“You see some teams shooting 60 threes in one game,” Wall said. “It used to be that you probably wouldn’t get that out of one team in 10 games. That’s the way the new NBA is.”
The new NBA is a league dominated by point guards and long-armed, multipositional phenoms who used to be confined to post play. For these players, spacing and restrictions on physical play have made them unguardable. Small ball also has allowed them to assume more responsibility in all phases of the game.
“This is a very athletic league, and with the game as open as it is now, if you’re a great athlete, it should translate into something more than scoring,” Thibodeau said. “If you’re tough and smart and skilled and can shoot, there don’t have to be holes in your game. There’s no role that’s just for one position. You can do a lot to impact the game.”
One night, 6-foot Chris Paul is collecting 20 points, 20 assists and zero turnovers with his sneaky, probing style of play. On another, 6-10 Anthony Davis is going for 50 points, 15 rebounds, five steals, five assists and four blocks . And then there’s the emergence of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks’ 6-11 point forward, who is an even bigger threat than Davis to achieve the rare 5x5 stat. That means recording at least five points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks in a game.
“The way the game is now, when you’re the star of your team and the ball is in your hands, it’s like you’re on an island,” Wall said. “There’s not a lot of help defense because there are four, sometimes five shooters on the floor. You’re playing small ball a lot, so the rim protection isn’t the same. You’re able to be as aggressive as you want to be. So you’re seeing video-game-type numbers.”
But are the players starting to make it look too easy? Should we be concerned that the game is too soft?
Thibodeau, the defensive guru who has adjusted to this style, laughs.
“Of course,” he says, “you always want what we don’t have.”
Let’s just enjoy the greatness.
“Our game, in general, is in a great place,” Thibodeau said. “Whether the game’s in the 90s or the 120s, whether there are 50-point scorers, triple-double guys or not, we all want to see great competition. And so I think we’re seeing that.”
Golden State and Cleveland have the best records in their respective conferences, but you shouldn’t be bored. You’re seeing entertainment nonetheless. You’re seeing historic numbers. You’re seeing a game in which great players are allowed to accentuate their greatness nightly.
It may not end with parity, but for a diversion, this is quite intriguing.