“They don’t exist. They are basically kind of arbitrary categories that we toss players into without even thinking,” Alagappan, 23, said in a recent telephone interview while taking a break from studying for his finals.
Alagappan came to his theory as an intern two years ago at Ayasdi, a startup company based in Palo Alto, Calif., that uses topological data analysis for pharmaceutical research, to prevent acts of terror and to optimize oil drilling. Topology is the mathematical study of shapes and spaces.
On a whim, Alagappan, then a Stanford undergrad majoring in biomechanical engineering, asked if he could apply the company’s software to basketball stats. It quickly produced distinct patterns and color codes that led him to determine that basketball actually has at least 10 distinct positions; success comes from finding the appropriate blend.
“Everything in basketball is based around players, as if they were puzzle pieces,” Alagappan said. “If you want to do a certain offense, if you want to do a certain pick and roll, or if you want to defend a player a certain way, it’s all based on how does that player play? That was the goal with this analysis: Find positions that describe how players play. If we can do that, then we can start to talk about basketball in an entirely new way.”
Alagappan’s original 13 positions serve as more sophisticated descriptions of a player’s skill set as opposed to archaic roles based on height and weight. He came up with jump-shooting ballhandlers (Stephen Curry), role-playing ballhandlers (Arron Afflalo), scoring rebounders (Dirk Nowitzki), paint protectors (Tyson Chandler) and the rare two-way all-star (LeBron James).
Alagappan proposed his discovery in March 2012 at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, where he claimed first prize, and immediately attracted the attention of NBA executives. He also made Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” list of influential sports industry figures, along with James, Kevin Durant and Robert Griffin III. And while visiting Silicon Valley for a fundraiser earlier this month, President Obama became intrigued by the research and wrote a note to Alagappan and Ayasdi that read, “Great work!”
“It’s pretty inspiring and just a huge honor,” Alagappan said. “I’ve heard and I know he’s a big basketball fan and to get that kind of recognition from the most powerful person in the country is pretty good motivation to keep going.”
The Miami Heat, tied with the San Antonio Spurs at 2-2 in the NBA Finals, and the Portland Trail Blazers have both secured formal partnerships with Ayasdi. Alagappan said he has provided scouting report data throughout the postseason for the defending champion Heat, a team that has spent the entire season trying to play what Erik Spoelstra calls “positionless” basketball.