Posted by Neil Paine on February 24, 2009
Last weekend, I watched the greatest PG of all time sit down for an interview with LeBron James, and Magic eventually got around to asking LBJ whether he thought he could average a triple-double for an entire season, the way Oscar Robertson did in his mythical 1961-62 campaign (30.8 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 11.4 APG). The King responded by saying something like, well, of course he'd like to do that, but it seems like a record that will never be broken, and maybe it's not even meant to be broken. Then they moved on to talking about more important things, like how much LBJ weighs.
1962, if you recall, was not only the year Oscar averaged a triple-double, but also the season Wilt Chamberlain did all sorts of ludicrous things, like scoring 100 points in a game and averaging 50.4 per. He also averaged 26 rebounds a night; Bill Russell averaged 24. The stat-stuffing that went on that year truly boggles the mind.
One time when I was a kid, my mom bought me the Official NBA Encyclopedia, and it was sort of my first formal introduction to NBA stats. Before reading it, I had a vague idea of who the best players were, based on things like my dad's opinions and stuff I heard during games on TV: Larry Bird = Great; Magic = Great; Michael Jordan = The greatest ever?; Chamberlain = Great; Russell = Better than Chamberlain; Charles Barkley = Loudmouth... You get the idea.
But after cracking open that book, a lot changed. I suddenly had actual numbers to back up (or in some cases, refute) what I had heard my whole life. Jordan was the all-time leading PPG scorer in NBA history, so I guessed he could have been the greatest of all time... But then I went through a brief spell where I staunchly believed Wilt had to be better than anyone else, simply by virtue of the insane stats he put up during his prime -- I mean, 50.4 PPG? Are you kidding me? Jordan never averaged more than 37.1. How could he have been better than The Big Dipper?
But then Jordan went on to do some pretty epic things in the Finals, culminating in a beautiful quasi-pushoff of Bryon Russell to swish what was, at the time (and honestly should have been), his Last Shot Ever. So I could rationalize that Mike's 6 rings somehow offset Wilt's monstrous scoring and rebounding feats. Besides, I argued, Wilt may have been ridiculously dominant, but what would you expect from a 7'1"/275 athletic freak in a league where the average player was 6'5" and 65% of the players were white? So I also believed that Wilt dominated competition that was far weaker than what he'd see today, and the fact that a 6'9" center was able to (some would say greatly) reduce his effectiveness was another clue that he wouldn't put up Jordanesque numbers (much less Wilt-esque ones) in the 90s.
But that was all conjecture, as it turns out, nothing more, nothing less. What's fact, however, is something that never occurred to me until I discovered APBRmetrics much later. Bear with me for a moment while I explain: Okay, so you've all seen Wilt and Oscar's numbers from 1962... but have you ever sat down and looked at the league averages that year? In '62, the average team took 107.7 shots per game. By comparison, this year the average team takes 80.2 FGA/G. If we use a regression to estimate turnovers & offensive rebounds, the league pace factor for 1962 was 125.5 possessions/48 minutes, whereas this year it's 91.7. Oscar's Royals averaged 124.7 poss/48, while Wilt's Warriors put up a staggering 129.7 (the highest mark in the league). On the other hand, the 2009 Cavs are averaging a mere 89.2 poss/48. It turns out that the simplest explanation for the crazy statistical feats of 1961-62 (and the early sixties in general) is just that the league was playing at a much faster tempo in those days, with more possessions affording players more opportunities to amass gaudy counting statistics.
Let's say LeBron '09 could switch paces (note that I didn't say "places", which is another argument entirely) with Oscar '62... That means we would have to scale down the Big O's per-game numbers by multiplying them by .715, giving Robertson a far more reasonable line of 22.0 PPG, 8.9 RPG, & 8.1 APG -- which are still really good numbers, to be sure, but not as crazy as they looked at the breakneck pace of '62. By contrast, we have to multiply LBJ's stats by a factor of 1.4 if we want to see what they would look like if he played at a 1962-style pace. The results: 40.1 PPG, 10.3 RPG, & 10.0 APG!! As you can see, those 35.5 extra possessions per game really make a huge difference when comparing the two players' stats.
So, no, LeBron probably will never average an Oscar-esque triple-double in today's NBA... but it's more a consequence of the league's pace than any failing on his part. Just like we wouldn't say a .400 hitter in the 1894 NL (league BA: .309) was as impressive as Ted Williams hitting .406 in the 1941 AL (league BA: .266), basketball fans should keep in mind that the league's pace factor has gone down steadily since its inception, and with those fewer possessions come fewer chances to put up monster stat totals. This isn't meant to denigrate Oscar and Wilt in any way, but it does mean that their eye-popping stats from back then are, in reality, not quite as impressive as they appear at first glance.