The New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces are living up to the preseason WNBA hype and will meet for the first time with a championship on the line when they play for the Commissioner's Cup title on Tuesday night.
The Aces were the preseason favorite to win the WNBA title, with the Liberty the second choice, and the budding rivals each hope to take home that trophy. The first-place Aces won both the Commissioner’s Cup — the league's in-season tournament — and the WNBA title last season.
“Winning the Commissioner’s Cup is continuing to have bragging rights. And (I saw) someone said that it would be one of the first pieces of hardware that we would take home as the Liberty," New York's Breanna Stewart said. “So using that as motivation and continuing to keep it in perspective, because ultimately our end goal is to win a WNBA championship.”
Each member of the winning team will receive around $30,000. Players on the losing squad each get about $10,000.
“It’s an opportunity to build chemistry, but also win money. It’s a big game, but we couldn’t focus on it ’til now,” Stewart said.
Liberty guard Courtney Vandersloot agreed.
“The money is big,” said Vandersloot, who lost in the Cup final to Las Vegas last season, when she played for Chicago. “It definitely adds an extra incentive to the game.”
An extra $30,000 is significant when the maximum base salary for a WNBA player is roughly $230,000. The NBA is starting its own in-season tournament this year with the winning team making $500,000 per player and $200,000 for second place.
The WNBA players aren't the only ones who benefit from the tournament.
There are also a couple of charities with vested interest; New York is playing for the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, which provides health care and related services targeted to New York’s LGBTQ communities. Las Vegas is playing for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Southern Nevada.
“The chance to impact someone else’s everyday life, that’s a special gift and a special mantle that we all have to uphold,” Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “Anytime we can pour money back into the community and make meaningful changes in people’s lives, I know myself and everyone in this organization will do what we can to make that possible.”
Everyone in the Aces and Liberty organizations will be very familiar with one another by the end of the month.
Tuesday's game will be the second of four meetings between the WNBA's top teams in August. There was hype around the two “super teams” coming into the season, and they have shown they are the best in the league. Las Vegas (27-3) holds a three-game lead over New York (24-6) for the top seed. While the Commissioner's Cup doesn't count in the standings, the teams will play a regular-season game at Las Vegas on Thursday.
“It definitely has the playoff feel to it that you play twice in a short period of time and can make adjustments,” Stewart said.
Both teams have already set franchise records for wins and the Aces are only the fourth team to win 27 of their first 30 games. Houston (1998) and Los Angeles (2000 and 2001) are the others to do it. The Comets won the title in ‘98 and the Sparks were champions in ’01.
To win the Cup, New York will have to do something that no team has been able to do this season: beat Las Vegas at home. The Aces are 15-0 on their home court. New York, which is riding a six-game winning streak, should have a lot of confidence after routing the Aces 99-61 on Aug. 6. The Aces rolled to an easy win in the teams' first meeting.
Here are a few other tidbits for the Commissioner's Cup:
Stewart and A'ja Wilson are the front-runners for MVP. They're the leaders on the best teams in the league and last week each had a 40-point game. Stewart became the first player to notch three of them in the same season. Wilson was the first player to do it without hitting a 3-pointer.
Both Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones lost in their first attempts to win the Commissioner's Cup title. Jones was on Connecticut when the team lost to Stewart's Seattle squad in the inaugural Cup in 2021. Vandersloot was coming off a concussion when she played against the Aces with Chicago last season. This time around she's healthy.
CHARTER FLIGHTS FOR THE CUP
Stewart smiled when discussing one of the perks of making the Commissioner's Cup finals — charter flights. The WNBA paid for the Liberty to charter from their game Sunday from Indianapolis to Las Vegas. It was their first private flight of the season.
With the team staying in Las Vegas to play the Aces again on Thursday, it was a one-way trip. New York will have another charter flight on Thursday, a short trip to Phoenix to play the Mercury on Friday night.
The WNBA is paying for charter flights for all teams that have back-to-back road games. The league also is paying for charters throughout the playoffs.
The Aces were already in town, having beaten Atlanta at home Sunday night.