Is Aces-Liberty Commissioner's Cup a preview of WNBA Finals?

ByM.A. Voepel ESPN logo
Wednesday, August 16, 2023

The Las Vegas Aces meet the New York Liberty in Tuesday's Commissioner's Cup championship (9 p.m. ET), a matchup many expect to be a preview of the WNBA Finals. The teams are 1-2 in the WNBA standings and will meet twice this week at Las Vegas' Michelob Ultra Arena, first for the Cup and then in a regular-season game Thursday.

But what does the Commissioner's Cup, which began in 2021, really mean to WNBA players?

"It's still very new," said forward A'ja Wilson, whose Aces won the Cup last year. "Even when it comes to Cup games throughout the season, for me it doesn't register until the end."

The most significant aspect of the Cup, actually, is cold, hard cash. The final has a prize pool of $500,000 for the players -- the winning team's players receive $30,000 each and the losing team's players get $10,000 -- with at least $165,000 in charitable donations made on behalf of all 12 teams throughout this season series. The Aces play for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Southern Nevada, and the Liberty for the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, which provides services for New York's LGBTQIA+ community.

"What I think it means to us is really a game to win some money," New York forward Breanna Stewart said after a victory Sunday, "and continue to build chemistry at the same time. It's a big game, but we couldn't focus on it until now. And we'll focus on it for the next few days, try to go win some money."

Wilson seconded that: "It's an honor to play in it, because it's an opportunity to win some money and raise money for our charities."

Cathy Engelbert, the commissioner who introduced the Cup, wouldn't be upset to know how much money is a motivation. She introduced the event for that reason -- to give the players another opportunity to earn more -- and broadcasting the Cup championship game is also key to the WNBA's Amazon Prime television deal.

This year, the Commissioner's Cup in the WNBA will be followed by the NBA Cup. It's a new in-season tournament starting in 2023-24, with the NBA divided into six five-team groups. It's an idea that had been floating around the NBA for several years before coming to fruition.

Aces coach Becky Hammon, who spent eight years as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame this past weekend, said she's not sure how the NBA players will react to their Cup event.

"Overseas, they've been doing this a long time," Hammon said of in-season cup competitions for men's and women's leagues. "Most people have bonuses written into their contracts overseas for those games.

"I love that the players get an extra chunk of money, and especially in our league, that's a big deal. In the men's league ... what incentivizes these guys to go out and play? They make a lot of money; that's already there. So how are you going to make it that much more interesting? I'll be curious to see how it plays out."

With the WNBA's 40-game regular season only half as long as the NBA's (82), a separate in-season tournament isn't practical. Instead, the Cup competition is incorporated into the WNBA's season, adding the final as an extra game.

All WNBA teams have 10 regular-season games against others from their conference designated as "Commissioner's Cup games," with the top teams in the Eastern and Western conferences then facing off in the final. It's a way to bring back some semblance of East vs. West rivalry. That used to be how the league's standings and playoffs were divided, but in 2016 the playoffs moved to the top eight teams being seeded for the postseason, regardless of conference.

In 2021, the Cup final was held at a predetermined site -- Phoenix -- and the Seattle Storm beat the Connecticut Sun 79-57 for the title soon after the Summer Olympics ended. Last year, the game was moved to the site of the contestant with the best overall record, the Chicago Sky, and the Aces won 93-83. That ended up being a predictor of both the WNBA title, which Las Vegas won over Connecticut, and the Finals MVP, as Chelsea Gray won the honor in the Cup championship game, too.

This year, Las Vegas went 9-1 in Commissioner's Cup play, easily winning the West. New York and Connecticut both went 7-3 in the East, but the Liberty were 2-0 against the Sun to get the tiebreaker.

The Aces and Liberty have split their two meetings in 2023. The Aces won 98-81 in Las Vegas on June 29, and the Liberty won 99-61 on Aug. 6 in New York. Along with the two games this week, they play once more, on Aug. 28 in New York.

"It is about tactics," New York guard Courtney Vandersloot said of the multiple games against the Aces in August. "It's about making adjustments from Game 1 to Game 2 to Game 3. We can't just expect the same game plan that helped us in Game 2 beat them in Game 3. They're just too good."

Vandersloot has played extensively overseas, including in some in-season cup competitions. And she played for the Sky in last year's Commissioner's Cup final. She likened these types of games to being somewhat like an early-round playoff game.

"It's competitive, you know you're playing for something, but there's not quite the pressure of a Finals series," Vandersloot said. "But you are going into this game with much more focus than, I would say, a regular game. I don't know if that's the Commissioner's Cup as much as playing another best team. This is one of our goals; it's a good stepping stone for us."

The Aces said it was great winning the Commissioner's Cup title last year, but obviously not the ultimate goal. They went on to achieve that with a 3-1 WNBA Finals victory. Meanwhile, the Liberty are still looking for their first championship dating to the league's start in 1997.

New York forward Jonquel Jones said when media members first asked what it would mean to bring the Commissioner's Cup "hardware" to the Liberty, it didn't register with her how big that would be. After some thought, it hit her.

"It kind of put it into perspective a little bit more," said Jones, who was with the Sun when they lost in the 2021 Commissioner's Cup final. "I think that would be cool to have that first here in a New York Liberty jersey."

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