ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In basketball, an NBA superstar is chasing an old record - the number of triple-doubles in a season. That means the number of games in which a single player reaches double digits in three categories, typically points scored, rebounds and assists. And let's get one thing straight. The record set in 1961-62 by Oscar Robertson, who did it 41 times for the Cincinnati Royals, was achieved at a time when nobody knew what the phrase triple-double meant.
Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder has 33 triple-doubles with 15 games left to play in the regular season. And right now, he, like Robertson in that season all those years ago, is averaging a triple-double. How important is all this? We're going to ask Kevin Arnovitz, who covers the NBA for ESPN. Hi.
KEVIN ARNOVITZ: Hi.
SIEGEL: Put this in perspective for our listeners. How impressive is Russell Westbrook's season?
ARNOVITZ: OK, so the triple-double is basketball's great novelty. And it's quite common on a given night to see a player somewhere in the league record a triple-double for a single game, but to sustain that average over the duration of an 82-game season is rare. And as you said, it hasn't been done since Oscar Robertson in '61, '62.
SIEGEL: Without knowing the phrase triple-double in those days, we did know - those of us of a certain age - that Oscar Robertson was the best all-around player in the NBA. Can we say as much of Russell Westbrook?
ARNOVITZ: That is a great debate. And one of the nice things this has been doing - this development in his chasing this triple-double average - is sort of to debate, does this make him the best player in the NBA? Is he better than LeBron James by virtue of hitting these arbitrary endpoints? Is he better than James Harden, his former teammate with the Houston Rockets? Is he better than Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs who's a much better defensive player?
SIEGEL: You've already mentioned more names in competition for that best player in basketball than we could have named back in 1960. Maybe Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor were the only other two people - Bill Russell - and we could throw in that conversation. How different do you think is the game now than it was 50 years ago?
ARNOVITZ: It was very interesting because one thing the Robertson skeptics - and actually you would say the Westbrook champions - have pointed out is the game was much faster back then. It was easier to record some of these gaudy statistics because there were far more possessions in a game. We often imagine older basketball to be slower and not as high-octane, but actually that particular era - they played at a much faster pace.
SIEGEL: Given that he's so close to a record, do you think it affects the way Westbrook plays? That is, does he see to it to get in there and grab more rebounds or make more assists because he wants to have triple-doubles?
ARNOVITZ: I think he's very conscious of the achievement. He's such an electric player with so much stage presence. And, like, from the moment he struts into the arena, usually in this outrageous outfit, he has this sneer on his face. He's an athlete that likes to play angry. And you get the sense if he didn't, it might even compromise his production.
SIEGEL: Let's just point out that this is someone who is challenging a record set by a man who never dunked the ball in his career in the NBA. It was said in part because he thought it was showing off.
ARNOVITZ: And Westbrook could not be more different. He is the ultimate showman. I mean Robertson is an interesting character because he's what we call today a basketball unicorn. You know, one of the things that makes the triple-double really unusual is it demands in some ways a skill of a big man with the finesse and distribution powers of a point guard. And Westbrook is this guy who embodies it all.
SIEGEL: Although, you know, not to play favorites here at all, but do you know that he plays almost 10 minutes less per game than Oscar Robertson played in 1961-'62?
ARNOVITZ: Yeah, and rest and recovery has become a big theme in the NBA. I don't know that we'll ever see a superstar average the kind of minutes that Robertson logged...
ARNOVITZ: ...Back in the early '60s.
SIEGEL: Westbrook isn't quite there yet, but given the number of games left, do you think he'll do it?
ARNOVITZ: I think he's got a good chance. The one caveat is it is customary to rest superstars and get them ready for the long playoff slog. I think on balance he's absolutely capable of doing it. I do think there are extenuating circumstances like that that might prevent him. And what'll be very interesting to see is if he lobbies behind the scenes to go chase the record.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) Yeah. Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN, thanks for talking with us.
ARNOVITZ: Thanks for having me.
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