Dan Hughes isn’t quite sure what to make of the Commissioner’s Cup, the WNBA’s newly created in-season tournament that pits teams from each conference against each other while vying for $500,000 in prize money.
Every instinct the 66-year-old Storm coach has honed during his two decades in the WNBA says to treat the first road trip, which includes stops in Minnesota (0-2) on Thursday and Dallas (1-0) on Saturday, like any every other contest on the 32-game schedule.
However, the Storm’s next two outings are Cup games, which literally raises the stakes considering the members of the Cup’s winning team receive $30,000 per player, with the runner-up team getting $10,000 per player.
The game’s MVP picks up a $5,000 bonus.
That’s a hefty financial incentive for players, but Hughes is still trying to determine what’s in it for teams, which historically had been driven to win the WNBA championship at the end of the season.
And there’s no monetary reward for the coach who leads their team to a Commissioner’s Cup title.
“I want to make sure that I’m protecting the health of the players, especially the ones that are going to be involved in a lot of games,” Hughes said last week during a Zoom interview. “I understand the financial rewards, but I also understand if your mission is to be a champion, then that’s probably a higher calling than this.”
Eight of the 13 players on the Storm roster earn between $59,000-$70,000, so the chance to significantly enhance your salary is incredibly motivating.
“It’s already a competitive league, but when you have money involved it makes it even more competitive,” Storm rookie Kiana Williams said. “That’s a lot of money on the line. Obviously, you want to play hard and compete every night, but this just adds a little more fuel to the fire.”
Hughes isn’t necessarily knocking the Commissioner’s Cup, which was launched this year as the WNBA celebrates its 25th season.
The league is hoping to add more subplots, storylines and intrigue during a year interrupted by the Summer Olympics. Each of the league’s 12 teams will play 10 Cup games — the first home and road games against conference rivals — before the WNBA takes a break for the Tokyo Games starting on July 12.
The conference teams with the best winning percentage will participate in the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game on Aug. 12 at Phoenix Suns Arena and the WNBA regular season resumes three days later.
A sampling of league coaches suggests most are in favor of the in-season tournament while some don’t believe it’s going to significantly alter their day-to-day approach.
“When it’s all said in done, it’s going to come down to the best record out of those 10-11 games,” Chicago Sky coach James Wade said. “At the end, you just say ‘Hey each game is important.’ You recognize it and tell them this is a Commissioner’s Cup game and whatever happens, happens.
“Other than that, we can’t take away from what our main goal is and that’s to be better every game. We’re a self-motivated team to win games. The Commissioner’s Cup adds to it, but not to the point where it distracts you to focus on it.”
That’s a popular opinion at the early stages in the Cup race when it’s something of a philosophical debate.
Phoenix Mercury coach Sandy Brondello also adheres to the every-game-is-important belief, but admits she would go all-in if given the chance to advance to the Commissioner’s Cup Championship game
“If that final game came down to it, we’d be putting everything out there,” Brondello said. “There’s a lot of money on the line. The players will obviously be motivated.”
And there’s the potential dilemma.
Will teams prematurely ramp up to playoff-level intensity in May, June and July or continue with a time-honored tradition of building a championship contender that’s peaking heading into the postseason?
“In a perfect world where people are healthy and things are fine, it’s an opportunity for us to continue to work gamelike situations and meaningful situations and learn how to win important games because that will be an important game and there will be a lot of eyes on it,” Hughes said. “I view it that way. But I also understand that the realities of doing everything that you can for a championship.”
The Storm, which is 1-1 in the WNBA standings and 1-0 in the Cup race, could have as many as seven players participating in the Olympics, including Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, Katie Lou Samuelson for Team USA while Stephanie Talbot and Ezi Magbegor are vying to make the Australian national team.
Hughes is reticent about playing an extra game and having his stars log heavy minutes when potentially more than half of his team will participate in the Olympics.
“In a perfect world and everything is going good, if we’re fortunate to be in that game, good for the players,” he said. “I think it will draw some attention and conversation. I’m happy about that. As a coach, I just hope I can have a healthy team and not have decisions of if I play them in this game or not.”
- The Storm activated backup point guard Epiphanny Prince and reserve center Mercedes Russell, who missed the first two games. It also temporarily suspended forward Katie Lou Samuelson while she participates with Team USA in the FIBA 3×3 Olympic qualifying tournament in Graz, Austria.