Historically, there is a slight dispute over the first usage of the term “triple-double” in a basketball context – Philadelphia 76ers publicist Harvey Pollack stakes a claim, as does ex-Los Angeles Lakers PR man Bruce Jolesch. Fittingly, they are intertwined courtesy of the same player, Magic Johnson, who had seven triple-doubles the 1980-’81 season and would ultimately finish with 138 in his career.
That number was still 43 behind the career total of Oscar Robertson, who held the record for nearly half a century and had set his final total at 181, in 1974. That number stood until Monday night, when Russell Westbrook, now of the Washington Wizards, pulled down his tenth rebound against the Atlanta Hawks and, having already notched double-digit points and assists, broke the Big O’s record for career triple-doubles on his way to a 28-point, 13-rebound, 21-assist performance. Naturally, Westbrook barreled up the floor and promptly missed a three-pointer.
With Westbrook as the catalyst, the relative importance of the triple-double in the context of a team game. A mostly arbitrary statistical feat that most people have historically viewed as a novelty, albeit an impressive one, the triple-double went from an awe-inspiring, typically one-off affair to an expectation, with Westbrook largely to credit. While the Fat Levers and Ricky Davises of the world did their best before him, it was Russ who has made the triple-double commonplace in modern NBA vernacular.
Such has been the recent prevalence of the three-by-two that it now can inspire eyerolling and sanctimony, which, I mean – if you want to criticize a player for always doing the absolute most possible in a professional athletic competition, by all means, be my guest. For as inefficient a shooter as Russ has pretty much always been, you’re committing to a jester’s errand if you say he isn’t trying, or that he doesn’t care if his team loses. The man himself made that abundantly clear when addressing the condemnations of Stephen A. Smith, a man formerly paid to be performatively angry at the Knicks on television at all times, earlier this season.
Of the 2,800 or so total triple-doubles in NBA history, Westbrook now has sole possession of the largest share, a slight lead of 6.5% to Robertson’s 6.4%. Although the Wizards lost to Atlanta on Monday night 125-124, with All-Star Bradley Beal out due to a hamstring issue and in a game in which the Brodie had a not-altogether bad look at a game-winning three, Westbrook’s teams still win games in which he gets a triple-double at a rate of 74.7% according to ESPN’s Marc Stein.
Even the handwringing about stat-chasing, while somewhat less valid in the case of Westbrook or, say, Nikola Jokic than in that of Tyree Ricardo Davis up there, leaves at the door the context of a given play itself: there remain few more thrilling sights in all of sports than Westbrook corralling a rebound and launching into a fast break.
Steven Adams only out-rebounded Russ over the course of a single season that they played together in Oklahoma City, despite being a center and indisputably several inches taller, but that was because any team in transition is likely to draw mismatches from a confused defense, leading to better scoring opportunities. Especially in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure, that was what gave the Thunder the best chance at winning.
As players have become more athletically well-rounded, it makes sense that you would rather have Giannis Antetokounmpo or Luka Doncic start a free possession with the ball – that’s what they would be doing in half-court sets anyway. It just happens that they’re both much larger and longer than the Brodie, a 6’3” H-bomb whose passing acuity, by the way, only seems to be growing as he ages into his Analytic Cubism period.
While anyone who bothers to even have a single thought about what triple-doubles are supposed to represent or whatever has probably come to some conclusion on the personal legacy Westbrook will leave with them, it remains true that being the most and doing the most is what Russell Westbrook has always done, and that his vessel for that just happens to be a game in which he can do something that, now, literally nobody else has ever accomplished.
Russ hasn’t been all-caps THE MAN since he was in Oklahoma City, but he remains, and with Beal out for the time being, the Russ Show is getting a revival, complete with more toppled NBA records. The visceral thrill of Russell Westbrook endures, half a season after many wrote him off and one year after not averaging a triple-double during his only season with the Houston Rockets, while playing next to maybe the only guy who is more maximally himself at all times in James Harden.
A few months after being the single worst team in the NBA, the Wizards are fighting for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. Barring a string of injuries to top contenders that suddenly seems not completely out of the question, Washington probably isn’t getting farther than the second round of the playoffs.
No matter. With each remaining Wiz game arrives the possibility of a hyperspecific kind of magic, the fiercest in which you can choose to believe. More often than not recently, that belief is rewarded by a 32-year-old father of three from SoCal who simply wants to win. In so many ways – especially in remaining himself – he already has. And anyway, he can’t lose, not now.
 A note, directly from basketball-reference.com, on the tracking of the triple-double: “The NBA did not track Triple-Doubles until 1979-80 when Magic Johnson popularized the feat. Nonetheless, we can present this list of all known Triple-Doubles since 1950-51, when rebounds became an official statistic. A small number may yet be unaccounted for, but we’re confident in the completeness of the list.”