The Minnesota Lynx have dominated the WNBA this season, as they have much of the last half-decade. The team has reached the finals in five of the past six seasons, including this one. And since Cheryl Reeve was hired as head coach in 2009, the Lynx have won three WNBA titles. They entered this year’s postseason as the top seed, with a 28-6 record, quickly dismantled the Phoenix Mercury in the semifinals, and now face the Los Angeles Sparks, a team the Lynx went 2-1 against during the regular season. The two play for the title tonight in a winner-take-all Game 5.
The engines of this success are obvious: Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles both ranked in the league’s top five for Player Impact Estimate,1 a statistic that measures a player’s overall importance to her team’s success when on the court, and Moore’s offensive rating (1.11 points per possession) led the league.2 Fowles has had double-doubles in three of four games in the finals, and Moore scored 31 points on 9-17 shooting to take Game 4.
But for all of Minnesota’s obvious weaponry, it has a secret one as well: Paul Swanson — the reclusive, in-house statistician for the Lynx and Timberwolves who is integrated seamlessly into the Lynx coaching staff. “Swanny has this unique ability to provide us with stats I wouldn’t think to ask for,” said Reeve, who carries around pieces of paper full of what the coaching staff calls “Swanny Stats.” “There isn’t another team in the WNBA that has the resources to employ someone like him.”
Just as the Lynx aren’t any ordinary pro franchise, Swanson isn’t any ordinary stat geek. He entered analytical lore as the unofficial creator of the net plus-minus formula, which he unveiled in 2003 to demonstrate the legitimacy of Kevin Garnett’s MVP candidacy (which he lost to Tim Duncan). And since the beginnings of the WNBA, he’s been one of the few people breaking down and logging the advanced stats of an WNBA team and the league as a whole.
To hear it from the coaches and others within the WNBA statistical community, Swanson’s input has helped shape coaching decisions during the team’s title runs. But his effect on the game extends even further: His meticulously curated stats site (which, though publicly accessible, is buried on Google) was a beacon for those who were disappointed by the WNBA’s output.
“For a long time, Paul was virtually the only person providing these sorts of advanced stats,” said Richard Cohen of WNBAlien.com, who has corresponded with Swanson over email for years. “This season is the first time the WNBA has actually provided decent stats, but for a long time, his site was the only place you could get anything of value.”
Kevin Pelton knows about the league’s statistical desert first-hand. Before joining ESPN, Pelton worked for the Seattle Storm as its advanced stats guru. “There were more independent resources in the NBA that were stepping in to fill that void whereas that never really existed in the WNBA,” Pelton said. “It’s up to Paul.”
Not that you’ll hear any of this from Swanson, who wouldn’t comment for this article and has next to no web presence. Other than his frequent postings on the women’s basketball forum RebKell and a handful of mentions by longtime Lynx assistant Jim Petersen (“I try to mention his name and give him shout-outs anytime I can,” he said. “I call him the Great Paul Swanson.”), Swanson is a ghost.
There are conflicting accounts of when Swanson began working for the Lynx and the Timberwolves. According to Ashley Carlson, the Lynx’s PR manager, Swanson has been employed as the statistician for both franchises since their inceptions (the Wolves began operations in 1989, the Lynx in 1999). But both Reeve and Petersen said Swanson was a freelancer until the 2000s, when his position became more solidified within the organization. “It’s evolved as a whole from being an independent contractor to now a full-time position,” Reeve said.
Initially, it was Swanson’s meticulous game notes that drew attention. He would stay up all night after a game compiling and then updating not only the standard box sheet, but also the so-called “advanced” basketball stats that focused on per-possession numbers.
“He was putting out the best game notes in the NBA,” said Petersen, who doubles as an announcer for Timberwolves games. He was one of Swanson’s early converts: “I just looked at it as rebounding numbers and never thought about if a team played fast or played slow and how that impacts the number of shots that go up,” Petersen told MinnPost in 2012.
The analytical community didn’t take notice of Swanson until 2002 or 2003, around the time he started including net plus-minus in his game notes. “We didn’t understand how to use it because obviously there are a lot of limitations to just looking at raw plus-minus and that one player only has so much control over what happens on the court,” Pelton said.
What kicked things off was when Petersen repeated a few of Swanson’s per-48-minute computations during several Timberwolves broadcasts. Those stats found their way to the Association for Professional Basketball Research message boards — an early petri dish for basketball analytics — and incited a vigorous debate. According to Pelton, there were many skeptics, but because he had access to the game notes, he knew the stats were legit. “Paul was the first I saw to present the argument, ‘Let’s physically compare how a team does with a specific player on the court versus how they do with a specific player off the court,’” Pelton said.
But while Swanson’s ideas were clever and gaining steam in the mathier circles, it took longer for them to take hold in the WNBA. “A lot of coaches had learned to work without it and weren’t searching for it,” Pelton said.
That meant there was opportunity for the Lynx. “No one in the WNBA was crunching the per possession numbers, and we had access to, but didn’t use, efficiency stats that were unprecedented for the league,” Petersen said. “When Cheryl came in, I told her what Swanny could do for us in terms of advanced stats.” Swanson’s role slowly began to evolve. “He would come to practice, and you don’t ever really think about him,” Reeve said. “I was told he was a fabric of the organization, so I started him off with small tasks, like charting practice.”
Those charts, which Reeve refers to as “heat zones,” formed the basis of the Lynx’s defensive philosophy when the coach first arrived in Minnesota. “We were really interested in what our opponents shot at different spots on the court,” she said. Eventually, Swanson began charting the Lynx’s own shots, which Reeve said helped the coaching staff better formulate the team’s offensive execution. “If we really know something, and we want to highlight it, we’ll support it with the stats that bear it out,” Reeve said. “That resonates more with our players, rather than just saying we watched game video.”
Two years ago, Reeve extended Swanson an invitation to the daily coaches meetings — an uncommon situation for a statistician. Although both Petersen and Reeve declined to go into detail about Swanson’s specific contributions — “I don’t want to give people ideas of what we do,” Reeve said — the coaches’ conversations with Swanson help shape their game prep and decision making. “We formulate scouting reports based on his information,” Reeve said. “And we’ll use his analysis to put together lineups, whether it is whole lineups or just post pairs and perimeter trios. If Swanny said it, then it is so.”
If the Lynx win tonight, they’ll tie the Houston Comets’ record for WNBA titles with four. But whatever the outcome, their sustained run of excellence over the past few years is, from a certain angle, proof of the value of having information and having the good sense to put it to use in a league that’s starved for it.