The style of play in the WNBA may very well be the issue
I find myself utterly fascinated by the fact that Candace Parker compiled the sixth triple double in WNBA history on Friday. This is the 21st year of the WNBA, and, assuming twelve teams playing a 34 game schedule every year like last year, that would mean that there have been 4284 games in league history. Assume about twenty players appear in each game, and you come up with over 85,000 opportunities to get a triple double. And there have been six. For a math geek, that fact cries out for an explanation.
In the NBA, by contrast, there were 1230 games last season, which means there were about 25,000 opportunities to get a triple double. Mathematically, if triple doubles were achieved at the same rate in both leagues, there would have been about two triple doubles in the NBA last year. Well, since NBA games are twenty per cent longer than WNBA games, let’s pad that a little and say three.
Even if you’ve never heard the name Russell Westbrook, you probably know there were more than three triple doubles in the NBA last year. In fact, there were 117. That’s right, a triple double is almost seventy times more likely to occur in the NBA than in the WNBA. Why in the world would that be true?
Statistically, the universe of players capable of getting a triple double is limited. You have to be able to do three things at a nearly elite level, and there are All-Star caliber players who simply can’t do that. Isaiah Thomas will probably never get a triple double. In the last three years, I found one game where he had as many as eight rebounds, and very few with more than five. Similarly, Andre Drummond’s high mark for assists last season was four.
Still, it seems like that type of player should be randomly distributed at the same ratio in both leagues. So I looked at the style of play to see where the difference was. An NBA team attempts 1.78 shots per minute, compared to 1.71 for the WNBA. The men shoot slightly better (45.5% vs 43.4%), but the women compensate for much of that by assisting on a higher percentage of baskets (60.1% vs 57.3%).
So there’s a lot of little incremental things: fewer teams, shorter seasons, shorter games, less offense. Add all that together, and there should be about seven or eight times as many triple doubles in an NBA season as in a WNBA season. Instead, they happen once every three years in the WNBA and every week or so in the NBA. Granted, thanks to Westbrook and James Harden we are in a peak period for triple doubles, but going back as far as Magic Johnson there has always been a handful of players capable of getting a triple double. Fat Lever did it almost as often as Magic, and Jason Kidd and Grant Hill did it regularly in the 90s and the early years of this century. LeBron James has three seasons with as many triple doubles as the WNBA has in its history.
The length of the game might be the most important factor. One thing that sticks out from Westbrook’s 42 triple doubles last year is that he just barely squeaked by, meaning that he totaled ten or eleven in one of the three categories, 27 times. Theoretically, if Westbrook had played ten minute quarters like the WNBA, most of those 27 games would not have been triple doubles – although, in reality, Westbrook only averaged 34.6 minutes per game, which is only a minute or two more than most star WNBA players log per game.
For whatever reason, the WNBA simply does not produce as many players with the diversity of skills needed to make triple doubles likely. Consider that in the current season there are only two players in the WNBA – Parker and Alyssa Thomas – who are averaging more than four rebounds and four assists per game. In the NBA last season, there were 26. Statistically speaking, a player who averages four rebounds or assists is performing several standard deviations outside of their norm if they get ten. To do it in two categories on the same night is exponentially less likely. Put more simply, it ain’t happening.
Does this matter? In and of itself, no. But it does emphasize the fact that there are fewer elite players in the WNBA because part of compiling extraordinary stats is having teammates that don’t, as Westbrook demonstrated repeatedly this year. Looked at from another angle, though, that is a good thing. One of the issues that has dogged women’s basketball from its beginnings is the fact that a couple of players or teams were so superior to everyone else that the games were simply not interesting. If that were still the case, it stands to reason that triple doubles would be happening with some frequency, simply because a few players would be dominant enough to stuff the stat sheet the way Westbrook has. Looked at from that perspective, the lack of triple doubles is indicative that the WNBA has achieved some level of competitive balance. Whether that makes it more or less exciting depends on how you think that balance was achieved.