Muthu Alagappan arrived at Stanford University with his heart set on attending medical school, and he still hopes to become a doctor someday. Revolutionizing the NBA is just his hobby. Somehow, though, goofing around with basketball stats after work one day led to a discovery that has made Alagappan, 23, a cult figure in the growing field of sports analytics. “If Moneyball revolutionized baseball,” GQ Magazine wrote, ‘Muthuball’ could mark a new frontier for the NBA.” Two years ago, Alagappan was an intern at Ayasdi, a Palo Alto-based startup company, using the company’s proprietary software to tackle complex problems such as cancer research and accelerated drug discovery.
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His discovery has opened up a whole new basketball debate — a Pandora’s Box-and-One, if you will. Alagappan argues that basketball’s traditional five positions are as outmoded as James Naismith’s peach basket, insisting instead that there are at least 10 distinct positions. And he has the topological data analysis to prove it. “The positions are kind of the alphabet by which everything around basketball revolves,” Alagappan said. “If we can redefine the alphabet in terms of these 10 or 13 positions, then we can hopefully change all of the strategy that the game is built on.”
Alagappan likes to open with a parable about medicine, noting that almost two thousand years ago the Roman physician Galen theorized that all illnesses could be classified under one of four bodily fluids. As science evolved, doctors grew to understand that diseases and their cures were much more complex. And so it is now with basketball, Alagappan says, arguing that the oversimplified constructs of point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center should be replaced by a more sophisticated list of positions as varied as “low-usage ball-handlers,” like Trevor Ariza and Courtney Lee, to “mid-range big men” like Brandon Bass and Glenn Davis.
Alagappan resists trying to explain the Warriors’ playoff success, warning that the sample size is too small. But asked to explain how the team could withstand the loss of All-Star power forward David Lee, he speculated that giving the bulk of Lee’s minutes to small forward Draymond Green, a three-point shooting threat, may have opened up the floor and allowed the Warriors to capitalize on penetration and ball movement. Lee, he said, would be classified as a “scoring rebounder,” a position the Warriors already had in abundance with Andrew Bogut and Carl Landry. As Alagappan wrote in an e-mail: “Thus, a combination of spreading the floor, increasing shot selection versatility, and reducing positional redundancy are likely reasons for the Warriors improved play.”