Skip to main content
Menu
James Harden’s 60-Point Triple-Double Pushed The Boxscore To Its Limit

Was James Harden’s 60-point triple-double on Tuesday night — the first of its kind in NBA history — the greatest individual game ever?

Probably not. (Rest easy, Wilt Chamberlain.) According to Basketball-Reference.com’s Game Score metric, it was only the fifth-best game since the 1983-84 season. However, by one definition, it might have been among the most optimal games the NBA has ever seen.

Specifically, Harden’s performance is tied for the most Pareto-optimal game ever. What does that mean? We’ve written about it before, but Pareto optimality is helpful for thinking about how to get the most value in a situation that requires trade-offs. For example, if you’re buying a car and you want to maximize size and speed, you could start by ruling out any car that is both smaller and slower than at least one other car. The remaining cars would be maximized for size, maximized for speed, or have a balance of the two qualities, where the cars couldn’t get any bigger without also getting slower, or couldn’t get any faster without also getting smaller. When you can’t gain in one quality without sacrificing another, that’s called the Pareto frontier.

We can use the principle of Pareto optimality to analyze basketball players’ performance. Rather than thinking about size and speed, we can think about stats — specifically points, assists and rebounds. A player has a Pareto game if no other player has ever posted better numbers in all three stats in a single game. Certainly other players have scored more points than Harden in a single game, and some have done so with more assists or more rebounds. But no player has beaten him in all three categories at the same time.1

Harden’s performance is hardly the only Pareto game in NBA history. Using data compiled from Basketball-Reference.com and NBAStats.net, we were able to find at least2 125 such games since the 1946-47 season.

The key to having a Pareto game is either maxing out one category — think Scott Skiles’s 30-assist game from 1990 — or finding an unassailable mix of all three, like Harden did Tuesday. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the all-time master of both techniques is Chamberlain, who had 51 total Pareto games that ranged from his legendary 100-point outing to history’s only 20-20-20 triple-double and a 55-rebound game that also stands as the all-time single-game record for boards. (The sheer number of Pareto games that Chamberlain has to his name is especially impressive because a player who originally achieves a Pareto game can later lose that status if another player tops him in all three categories.)

All 125 Pareto-optimal NBA games since 1946

All games since the 1946-47 NBA season for which there was no other game with a superior combination of points, assists and rebounds

Player
date
Team
Vs.
PTS.
Assists
REB
James Harden 1/30/18 HOU ORL 60 11 10
Rajon Rondo 12/27/17 NO BKN 2 25 7
James Harden 11/5/17 HOU UTAH 56 13 2
Russell Westbrook 3/29/17 OKC ORL 57 11 13
Devin Booker 3/24/17 PHX BOS 70 6 8
James Harden 12/31/16 HOU NY 53 17 16
Russell Westbrook 12/17/16 OKC PHX 26 22 11
Rajon Rondo 1/5/11 BOS SA 12 23 10
Rajon Rondo 10/29/10 BOS NY 10 24 10
Ramon Sessions 4/14/08 MIL CHI 20 24 8
Kobe Bryant 1/22/06 LAL TOR 81 2 6
Steve Nash 1/2/06 PHX NY 28 22 5
Jamaal Tinsley 11/22/01 IND WSH 19 23 11
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf 11/15/95 DEN PHX 30 20 8
David Robinson 4/24/94 SA LAC 71 5 14
Sherman Douglas 4/3/94 BOS PHI 27 22 8
Scott Skiles 12/30/90 ORL DEN 22 30 6
Michael Jordan 3/28/90 CHI CLE 69 6 18
Magic Johnson 1/9/90 LAL PHX 24 24 6
Magic Johnson 11/17/89 LAL DEN 24 24 8
Magic Johnson 4/23/89 LAL SEA 29 21 9
Fat Lever 4/21/89 DEN GS 15 23 13
Magic Johnson 4/18/89 LAL DEN 24 17 17
Michael Jordan 1/21/89 CHI PHX 53 8 14
Magic Johnson 11/28/88 LAL PHI 32 20 11
Magic Johnson 4/20/88 LAL DAL 8 23 10
Magic Johnson 3/22/87 LAL SAC 33 19 12
Nate McMillan 2/23/87 SEA LAC 8 25 8
Magic Johnson 5/7/85 LAL POR 34 19 9
Isiah Thomas 2/13/85 DET DAL 23 25 5
Isiah Thomas 2/7/85 DET WSH 25 24 10
Magic Johnson 12/18/84 LAL ATL 25 20 14
Isiah Thomas 12/13/83 DET DEN 47 17 5
Magic Johnson 1/15/83 LAL ATL 13 21 17
Magic Johnson 1/5/83 LAL PHI 23 20 12
Magic Johnson 3/29/81 LAL DEN 33 17 15
Micheal Ray Richardson 3/21/81 NY CLE 27 19 15
Kevin Porter 2/27/79 DET CHI 32 22 5
Phil Ford 2/21/79 KCK MIL 26 22 5
David Thompson 4/9/78 DEN DET 73 2 7
Pete Maravich 2/25/77 NOJ NY 68 6 6
Pete Maravich 1/17/75 NOJ SEA 42 17 10
Rick Barry 3/26/74 GS POR 64 9 10
Ernie DiGregorio 1/1/74 BUF POR 20 25 9
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 2/18/72 MIL PHI 53 9 13
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 2/9/72 MIL CLE 53 8 14
Wilt Chamberlain 2/9/69 LAL PHX 66 4 27
Wilt Chamberlain 3/19/68 PHI CIN 22 19 27
Wilt Chamberlain 3/18/68 PHI LAL 53 14 32
Wilt Chamberlain 3/5/68 PHI SDR 31 15 21
Wilt Chamberlain 2/23/68 PHI DET 31 12 32
Wilt Chamberlain 2/14/68 PHI SEA 35 15 24
Wilt Chamberlain 2/4/68 PHI SFW 19 16 27
Wilt Chamberlain 2/2/68 PHI DET 22 21 25
Wilt Chamberlain 12/20/67 PHI SEA 53 6 38
Wilt Chamberlain 12/16/67 PHI CHI 68 2 34
Wilt Chamberlain 4/16/67 PHI SFW 10 10 38
Wilt Chamberlain 4/11/67 PHI BOS 29 13 36
Wilt Chamberlain 4/5/67 PHI BOS 20 9 41
Wilt Chamberlain 3/31/67 PHI BOS 24 13 32
Wilt Chamberlain 3/24/67 PHI CIN 16 19 30
Wilt Chamberlain 3/2/67 PHI SFW 24 13 38
Wilt Chamberlain 2/28/67 PHI CIN 28 9 36
Wilt Chamberlain 12/26/66 PHI CIN 38 10 32
Wilt Chamberlain 12/23/66 PHI LAL 24 14 26
Wilt Chamberlain 11/26/66 PHI DET 26 15 24
Wilt Chamberlain 11/11/66 PHI CHI 37 7 33
Oscar Robertson 3/5/66 CIN NY 44 22 8
Wilt Chamberlain 3/3/66 PHI SFW 62 3 37
Wilt Chamberlain 2/7/66 PHI LAL 65 2 29
Wilt Chamberlain 1/14/66 PHI BOS 37 6 42
Wilt Chamberlain 12/28/65 PHI BOS 31 6 40
Wilt Chamberlain 4/6/65 PHI BOS 30 8 39
Bill Russell 3/11/65 BOS DET 27 6 49
Wilt Chamberlain 3/6/65 PHI BOS 27 8 43
Oscar Robertson 1/6/65 CIN NY 28 16 20
Oscar Robertson 12/28/64 CIN SFW 35 20 8
Oscar Robertson 12/18/64 CIN LAL 56 12 9
Wilt Chamberlain 11/26/64 SFW PHI 63 3 32
Wilt Chamberlain 3/18/64 SFW PHI 36 8 33
Wilt Chamberlain 3/14/64 SFW LAL 55 8 14
Oscar Robertson 3/5/64 CIN BOS 27 17 15
Oscar Robertson 2/14/64 CIN NY 29 21 11
Oscar Robertson 2/12/64 CIN DET 38 14 18
Wilt Chamberlain 1/28/64 SFW PHI 59 9 13
Wilt Chamberlain 3/10/63 SFW SYR 70 3 18
Wilt Chamberlain 3/3/63 SFW CIN 45 10 33
Oscar Robertson 2/19/63 CIN BOS 35 17 17
Wilt Chamberlain 2/19/63 SFW LAL 39 7 36
Wilt Chamberlain 11/9/62 SFW CHI 54 7 27
Wilt Chamberlain 10/30/62 SFW NY 59 6 35
Guy Rodgers 10/26/62 SFW DET 23 17 20
Wilt Chamberlain 3/4/62 PHI NY 58 4 35
Wilt Chamberlain 3/2/62 PHI NY 100 2 25
Oscar Robertson 2/20/62 CIN SLH 31 16 20
Oscar Robertson 2/17/62 CIN DET 30 18 15
Wilt Chamberlain 2/17/62 PHI SLH 67 2 28
Oscar Robertson 2/13/62 CIN PHI 42 18 15
Wilt Chamberlain 2/13/62 PHI CIN 65 4 22
Oscar Robertson 2/10/62 CIN SLH 32 16 21
Oscar Robertson 1/11/62 CIN PHI 38 19 12
Oscar Robertson 12/11/61 CIN CHI 32 20 15
Elgin Baylor 12/8/61 LAL PHI 63 7 31
Wilt Chamberlain 12/8/61 PHI LAL 78 1 43
Oscar Robertson 11/21/61 CIN PHI 25 18 16
Wilt Chamberlain 11/21/61 PHI CIN 45 6 34
Oscar Robertson 10/29/61 CIN SYR 26 22 11
Elgin Baylor 2/22/61 LAL BOS 38 14 24
Oscar Robertson 2/22/61 CIN PHI 39 18 15
Oscar Robertson 2/19/61 CIN LAL 43 20 9
Wilt Chamberlain 1/21/61 PHI LAL 56 0 45
Wilt Chamberlain 1/3/61 PHI DET 46 6 33
Wilt Chamberlain 11/29/60 PHI LAL 44 7 38
Wilt Chamberlain 11/24/60 PHI BOS 34 4 55
Elgin Baylor 11/15/60 LAL NY 71 1 25
Wilt Chamberlain 2/6/60 PHI SYR 44 3 45
Bill Russell 2/5/60 BOS SYR 23 5 51
Wilt Chamberlain 1/25/60 PHI DET 58 4 42
Wilt Chamberlain 1/15/60 PHI BOS 44 2 43
Wilt Chamberlain 1/13/60 PHI SYR 42 5 39
Wilt Chamberlain 11/10/59 PHI NY 39 4 43
Elgin Baylor 11/8/59 MIN BOS 64 8 17
Bob Cousy 2/27/59 BOS MIN 31 28 5
Bill Russell 11/16/57 BOS PHI 28 4 49
Maurice Stokes 1/14/56 ROC SYR 26 12 38

Sources: Basketball-Reference.com, NBAStats.net

Among active players, nobody comes especially close to Wilt’s Pareto record. (That’s actually a colossal understatement.) But Harden is tied with Rajon Rondo for the active lead with three Pareto games apiece, while Russell Westbrook is close behind with two in his career. In fact, Harden’s picked up two this year already: He also recorded one on Nov. 5, when he had 56 points, 13 assists and 2 rebounds against the Utah Jazz. Rondo also notched his third career Pareto game this season, with 25 assists, 7 boards and 2 points (!) against Brooklyn on Dec. 27.

We’re not necessarily saying a Pareto game is the best kind of game; certainly there are other important considerations — such as shooting efficiency, turnovers and defense — that aren’t reflected in a player’s basic point, rebound and assist tallies. But as far as basketball’s traditional bedrock stats go, it’s really valuable when somebody maxes out all three categories at once. And moreover, it’s just flat-out cool to watch a player post a statistical combo that nobody’s ever produced before, which is what Harden treated us stat nerds to this week.

Footnotes

  1. Since a game technically has to be topped in all three categories to be excluded from Pareto status, that means we are counting ties. For example, Harden’s game was 60-11-10. If another player got 59-11-10, it could still be a Pareto game because it wouldn’t be outright beaten in every category by any other game.

  2. Since older NBA boxscore data is incomplete for assists and rebounds, it may be the case that some Pareto games happened without leaving a statistical trace. We treated games for which two of the three stats are available as Pareto-eligible, but we set the value of the missing stat to zero.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Andrea Jones-Rooy is FiveThirtyEight’s quantitative researcher.

Comments