Over the weekend I made the point that one important thing holding LeBron James back from ever averaging a triple-double in one season is that the game is played at a much slower pace today. Unfortunately, since I don’t work at a basketball think tank I wasn’t able to get anyone to do any rigorous research on pace-adjusting his stats for this year. But Neil Paine at Basketball-Reference has the goods:
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.
As is well known from basically all sports arguments, these comparisons across long spreads of time are problematic in a large number of ways. But suffice it to say that the main factor making it impossible for Robertson’s achievement to be replicated today is that there aren’t enough possessions per game anymore. Robertson’s rate of rebounding, assists, and scoring would be very impressive today but they’re not off-the-charts relative to what today’s best players are doing. Also — LeBron James is really good basketball player, but you probably already knew that.