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
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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.