What is the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup now? — Aerial Powers talks Atlanta Dream

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, June 26, 2024

Happy Basketball Wednesday, presented by The BIG EAST Conference. The WNBA crowned a champion on Tuesday night in New York, and it was one you haven’t been hearing as much about, something Minnesota Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve was quick to point out both before and after the Lynx won the Commissioner’s Cup, 94-89. But what does it all mean?

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Not to get too esoteric on you, but the imbued value of anything is only as great as what, collectively, we choose to place on it. The WNBA championship is clearly defined as the winner of the league, the top of the mountain, but that is through a playoff system that doesn’t exist in, say, the Premier League in English soccer, where the regular-season champion is the winner who celebrates. Creating an in-season tournament, making it something that matters, is as much a psychological task as a challenge of scheduling.

So here in Year 4, what is the Commissioner’s Cup?

“It was brought to my attention that I believe the only teams that have participated in the Commissioner’s Cup have been in the [WNBA] Finals,” Reeve told me Tuesday night, ahead of the game. “So that’s exciting. It’s exciting for the Minnesota Lynx to be in the Commissioner’s Cup. And with that trend, what does it mean to our team? That means that, and I’ll share this with them tonight — we’re not even halfway yet. We got a long, long, long way to go, but I certainly like where we are.”

And among other things, the Commissioner’s Cup is clearly a measuring stick, a check-in for the top teams in the league early in the season. (Well, earlier this year, last year it was in August, but the Olympics scrambled a lot of the scheduling.) It is a useful way for the Lynx to point out in irrefutable ways that they are absolutely in the hunt for a championship this season. (It would be silly to write off the Liberty, incidentally — the loser of last year’s Commissioner’s Cup was, yes, the Las Vegas Aces.)

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Reeve repeatedly argued that the media preferred to talk about other teams to Minnesota, and I understand her point to a degree, amid all the Chicago-Indiana discourse and hype around newly-created rosters like Seattle and Phoenix this past offseason. But the conversation is evolving, as it must. I’ve talked about the continuity effect in this space, how Year 2 of it helps New York, but as Lynx star Napheesa Collier pointed out postgame, this is her sixth season in Minnesota. This is Kayla McBride‘s fourth season with the Lynx. Bridget Carleton, the best player on the floor in Tuesday night’s game, is a six-year vet in Minnesota. Alanna Smith is new but has fit in seamlessly, while Courtney Williams fills a pair of roles — enough of a playmaker to serve as point guard in the Minnesota attack, capable of hitting shots on broken plays when the team’s best-laid plans early in the shot clock fail to materialize.

This team fits together in ways that go beyond identifying one big name or another. And Reeve is leaning, hard, into the idea that the media is writing off the Lynx, something that will get more difficult in the weeks ahead. ESPN’s Michael Voepel, after all, had placed Minnesota first in his power rankings this week. And I couldn’t help but note that my book about Reeve, Rare Gems, sat in my Zoom background as I asked her questions on Tuesday night, the picture of Reeve staring back at her from the cover. Hell, here’s a plug while we’re at it.

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Incidentally, I did not make the trip to Long Island — I had COVID, it was a mild case, I am fine, just didn’t want to trigger a mass-casualty event of WNBA media and the league’s elite early-season teams. But another way to measure the impact of the Commissioner’s Cup is the lively group who made the trip as fans, with just over a week of advance sales and a good 16 miles from Barclays Center, north of 7,000 people attended, well below New York’s average 2024 attendance, but right around its average 2023 mark. (Also, just to clear it up: the game was 1,199 miles from Target Center, so this was not a neutral site.)

But if the decision to move the game was an unforced error, we should also note that the WNBA has done plenty to make this event matter. There’s the payday. There’s the fact that the players get to play for a team-selected charity, too, something almost unimaginable just a few years ago. I am old enough to remember Tamika Catchings, back in 2016, holding a media blackout to focus on gun violence in response to the league trying to shut down social justice protests from both the Fever and the Liberty. I asked Catchings on Monday whether the success and trajectory of the league now would even be possible if the WNBA hadn’t recognized, back then, that fining its players for proclaiming their conscience was an untenable path.

“We go back to 2016 when people were saying don’t speak up, just play basketball,” Catchings said. “And as a choice with the players. We were like, ;No, that’s not what we need, we need to speak up about issues that are affecting majority of the WNBA… I think the inclusiveness of the whole league and being able to support it — it wasn’t just the African-American players. It was everybody all together.” Catchings said by the time of the Wubble season of 2020, it was “more of a partnership” with the league. And now?

“You’re still seeing the effect of 2016 and 2020, ’21 and beyond,” Catchings concluded. Minnesota’s win was a win, literally, for Gender Justice. It’s a continuation of the work the Lynx did on the social justice front in that pivotal year of 2016 as well, something Catchings was quick to credit that team for spurring.

So in all the measurable ways, Tuesday night mattered. And when it was over, the Lynx gathered at center court, jumping up and down. The Liberty were downcast in ways that looked more significant than simply losing a game in June. The Commissioner’s Cup has liftoff.

And so do the Lynx. This is the league’s best defense. There are parallels to those 2010s teams, and I’d argue that winning a title is not necessarily easier or harder with this group than the super team of Reeve’s first four championships — and make no mistake, that Sylvia FowlesRebekkah BrunsonMaya MooreSeimone AugustusLindsay Whalen grouping was a super team before the phrase really took hold — but the commonality of buy-in, of elite defense and rebounding, of intentionality of offensive movement is eerily familiar to anyone paying attention who was around back then. Holding Jonquel Jones to three shot attempts, weeks after holding her to five, is a direct echo of the way Reeve teams at their best simply take away things their opponents value most.

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“What do we have to do before you guys really start to believe in us?”, Reeve said postgame, relishing the moment. “And we don’t really care what you think, except for right now, right? Where we get to say to you, you’ve got to talk about us now. You’ve got to say, ‘Okay, we just beat a super team. Now, that is hard to do, because you guys love your super teams, man, you love your super teams. That’s all you want to talk about your super teams, right? We just beat a super team. Let’s talk about it.”

Ugh, okay, fine. We’ll talk about the fact that while the second-longest tenured coach in the WNBA, Noelle Quinn, was hired in May 2021, Cheryl Reeve was hired in 2009, just weeks after the Detroit Shock moved to Tulsa. Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese were each seven years old. Long way to go, as she said, but what’s on the table for her legacy now is almost unfathomable — nearly a decade after winning her fourth WNBA title, she rebuilt a team as GM, now President of Basketball Operations, that could give her a chance at a fifth title the same year she could win gold coaching USA Basketball at the Olympics.

Very well then. We’ll steel ourselves, here in the media, where we all decide on storylines collectively, for a pleasant summer into fall of trips to Minneapolis to amplify the Hall of Fame work being done by Napheesa Collier, sixth in win shares since entering the league in 2019 and younger than the five players ahead of her, the career year Kayla McBride is enjoying in Year 11, the MIP campaigns from Carleton and Alanna Smith, and remind folks once again that Reeve’s staff is an awfully good place to look for head coaching hires, from giving Katie Smith another opportunity (this time for a franchise that hadn’t been left by the side of the road) or Brunson her first chance.

Yes, I can readily see how the media covering the WNBA is going to hate every minute of that. But the Lynx made sure last night that we’ll all have to endure it. And in the process, another WNBA tentpole event got some history behind it, and some gravitas going forward. A pretty good night in Elmont, all things considered.

Stathead Stat of the Week

A’ja Wilson has 540 points through the first 20 games of the season. That’s the most points any WNBA player has scored in the first 20 games of any season.

Stathead is your all-access pass to the Basketball and College Basketball Reference databases. Our discovery tools are built for women’s basketball fans like you. Answer your questions in a matter of seconds.

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Love this from Maitreyi on WHY Angel Reese is such an elite rebounder. 

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Oh look it’s the media talking about the Lynx.

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Five at The IX: Aerial Powers, Atlanta Dream

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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.