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Stanford student gaining cult status for rethinking NBA philosophy

Posted June 21, 2013

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.

On a lark, he asked his boss if he could see what the software would do with basketball stats. Within an hour, the program spit out clusters of color-coded notes that Alagappan now calls “the true positions of the NBA.”

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 first proposed his discovery at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2012. The presentation captured first prize, as well as the attention of NBA executives and the national media.

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