I read today about Muthu Alagappan. Two years ago, Alagappan was an undergraduate intern at the Palo Alto data analysis startup Ayasdi and, using their innovative technology, showed that basketball actually has thirteen positions—not five.

Ayasdi is a leader in topological data analysis, which uses a branch of mathematics called topology to yield insights from very large data sets.

The vast majority of tools for data analysis today allow you to ask questions of the data and get answers. Yet, as data sets grow ever larger, the number of possible questions you can ask grows exponentially larger, making it impossible to ask all the questions that matter.

Topology is a branch of mathematics that deals with shapes and spaces. Ayasdi’s insight was that complex data sets are about relationships and that those relationships can be represented mathematically and, through topology, spatially. The spatial representation can then suggest areas that may be interesting to explore. This allows you to discover relationships you may have never thought to explore. 

As the CEO Gurjeet Singh said to me: "The entire history of BI, despite dramatic advances in visualization and the ability to handle larger and larger sets, has seen the same fundamental query-answer structure. But as the size of data sets increases, there are more interesting questions than you can even ask. Ayasdi allows you to get answers to the questions you would never even think to ask."

Alagappan applied Ayasdi’s technology to basketball statistics. He entered seven statistics (points, rebounds, assists, steals, turnovers, fouls, and blocks) for every NBA player, adjusted for playing time. 

This is what he ultimately came up with:

Instead of seeing five clusters, he saw thirteen. (Later work narrowed the thirteen down to the ten you see above.)

According to the Mercury News article, two teams have a formal partnership with Alagappan: the Portland Trail Blazers and the Miami Heat. And apparently, throughout the current playoffs, a Miami Heat representative has been in touch with Alagappan before each series to create a data-driven scouting report.