“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.
Spoelstra changed his starting lineup before Game 3, going with a lineup that featured James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller instead of usual power forward Udonis Haslem.
James has given Spoelstra the ability to experiment, with Heat forward Shane Battier describing the four-time most valuable player as “the skeleton key” that can open all doors.
“We have a team of basketball players,” Battier said. “That’s what it boils down to. And it’s Spo’s job to put basketball players in positions where they can use their skills and I think that’s the way the NBA is going. It’s a little less traditional.
“The data that’s come out in the last five years, teams understand what wins and what loses,” Battier said. “Traditionalists say ‘Oh, the numbers can’t tell a guys heart and psychology, and that’s true. The numbers aren’t everything but what the numbers can do is mitigate risk and they make your margin of error a little smaller.”
Battier came to Miami from Houston, where General Manager Darryl Morey has helped set off a popular trend of basketball hires that place a high value on analytics. The Memphis Grizzlies recently hired former ESPN writer and analytical guru John Hollinger as vice president of basketball operations and Morey’s former assistant Sam Hinkie, a Stanford alum, took over as general manager for the Philadelphia 76ers last month.
Growing up in Houston, Alagappan said he has an appreciation for Morey, who has encouraged him to find another way to be around basketball. “I realized I didn’t have to be 6-foot-6 and super athletic to have an impact on the game. Maybe I can use what I’ve learned in the classroom and my creativity and a new idea and try to impact the game that way,” said Alagappan, who still doesn’t know if he’ll pick a career in basketball or a career in medicine when he’s done at Stanford. “So far, I haven’t had to choose. I think the day will come when I will, and I’m not sure. I really enjoy both and I’m going to keep trying to do both for as long as I can.”
Alagappan said his opinions have been met with some resistance, but he remains hopeful that people will eventually come around. “It will be come, but I don’t think it’s close, because the NBA is a big sport, it’s global, and it takes a lot of time to think about. But we think we’re on to something and we’ve seen enough people to agree that I think it’s worth fighting for.”