Applying 'Moneyball' Methods To The NBA

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Miami Heat's LeBron James (6) looks to move past Boston Celtics' Paul Pierce (34) in the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Monday, March 18, 2013. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
Muthu Alagappan classifies Miami Heat's LeBron James (6) a hybrid player — a cross between a "Two-way All star" and a "Scoring Rebounder." (Michael Dwyer/AP)

You’re probably familiar with the Brad Pitt movie, “Moneyball” — or the book it was based on by Michael Lewis. The financially strapped Oakland A’s, unable to afford the best players, put together a successful team using data analysis.

Houston native and Rockets fan Muthu Alagappan is trying to do the same for basketball.

He's a Stanford medical student and a math whiz with a dramatic argument: If you run the numbers, they show that the five basic positions in basketball don't reflect how the game is played.

Both the Miami Heat and the Portland Trail Blazers have brought Alagappan on as a consultant, and Forbes puts him in the list of the 30 most influential people under age 30 in sports, along with the likes of six-time Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt and Heat forward LeBron James.

Statistical map of 10 of the 13 basketball positions, courtesy of Ayasdi and Muthu Alagappan.
Statistical map of 10 basketball positions, courtesy of Ayasdi and Muthu Alagappan.

Muthu Alagappan's 10 basketball positions

  1. Jump Shooting Ball-handler (Stephen Curry) Handles the ball while being a focal point of the offense through deadly jump shooting.
  2. Two-way All-star (Kobe Bryant) Elite offensive and defensive player, who can dominate the game on both ends of the court.
  3. Inside Outside Scorer (Chandler Parsons) Avoids the mid-range but scores often in the paint and from the three-point line.
  4. Mid-range Big-man (Al Jefferson) Skilled rebounder and paint defender who also has midrange jump shooting ability.
  5. Defensive Ball-handler (Kyle Lowry) Ballhandler that applies defensive pressure and looks to get his teammates involved on offense.
  6. 3-Point Ball-handler (Klay Thompson) Ballhandler who features an offensive arsenal highlighted by 3-point shooting.
  7. 3-Point Specialist (Shane Battier) Role player who's offensive role is almost solely to shoot 3-pointers.
  8. Low-usage Ball-handler (Courtney Lee) Ball-handler who can fit in to various roles on a team but lacks a clear identity.
  9. Paint Protector (Larry Sanders) Menacing interior defender that protects the rim and deters opponents from driving to the basket.
  10. Scoring Rebounders (Tim Duncan) Big man who serves as a team's primary scorer and also rebounds with consistency.


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Slate "As someone who grew up on Bill James, I love statistical analysis, but such analysis is only valuable when it tells us something new and true about the game in question. If there is such illumination to be found in  'From 5 to 13,' I haven’t seen it."

Mercury News "Khosla said that Obama was particularly intrigued that their proposed redefinition of positions underscored why it worked fine when, say, two traditional small forwards were on the floor at the same time."

This segment aired on July 3, 2013.


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