Remember when Breanna Stewart put up the best April of any basketball player, Stephen Curry’s historic 3-point barrage included? It was because of the European basketball structure that Stewart, Brittney Griner, Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Emma Meesseman of UMMC Ekaterinburg won the EuroLeague championship and 10 days later the domestic Russian Premier League championship. Stewart earned Finals MVP in each, adding to her 2020 WNBA title and Finals MVP.
It feels like ages ago. UMMC Ekaterinburg has since been kicked out of EuroLeague play following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Griner remains detained in Russia after customs officials allegedly found vape cartridges containing less than a gram of hashish oil in her luggage. And Meesseman signed in free agency to play for the Chicago Sky alongside Vandersloot and Quigley.
The Sky players have a similar chance at collecting hardware, though not as condensed as in Europe. When the Commissioner’s Cup details were announced ahead of last season, players equated it to overseas. And the way the contest is designed, it’s a potential preview of the WNBA Finals with the league’s best two teams taking the court in Chicago on Tuesday night. The Sky (20-6) already clinched the first 2022 playoff berth on Wednesday, and the Las Vegas Aces (19-8) trail by 1.5 games.
In the span of 11 months, the Sky could win two WNBA championships and a Commissioner's Cup title. That’s nice hardware and, crucially in the financials of the W, a nice payout. Champions earn $11,356 each and Cup winners take at least $30,000. That $30K is half the minimum for players with up to two years of experience. All included, it's $52,712 and that's no small change.
It’s a shrinking window for the Sky, the second-oldest team in the league at 30.1 years, to take advantage. They trail only the Phoenix Mercury (30.4) and the league average is 27.7. In contrast, the Aces are in the middle at 26.9 and have their core locked up in contracts. Four of Chicago’s five starters, plus a key bench player, are unrestricted free agents in 2023. And they could opt for retirement rather than a contract.
Chicago features two of the oldest (sorry Candace; most seasoned?) players in the league behind Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. Retirement is on the table for the 36-year-old Candace Parker, though she hasn’t committed to any details. Quigley, 36, has been in the retirement conversation. Vandersloot is 33.
Head coach and general manager James Wade did incredible work in free agency building out a well-rounded group after the title. No one is at the supermax and they signed Finals MVP Kahleah Copper, Vandersloot and Quigley at less than they could have drawn elsewhere.
Meesseman, the 2019 Finals MVP with the Washington Mystics, signed in Chicago after national team duties kept her away from the W in 2021. He traded for backup point guard Julie Allemand, who also stayed with Meesseman and their Belgian team last year. And he brought on overseas veteran Rebekah Gardner as a WNBA “rookie.”
Pick your category and this group is probably top-five in it. They lead in both offensive and defensive effective field-goal percentage. They rank second in offensive rating (104) and fourth in defensive rating (94.2), for a league-best net rating of 8.4. The only other team top-five in each is the Connecticut Sun (third at 102/94.2).
The Sky shocked their way to the title last year as No. 6 seed with Parker mincing no words in saying they “sucked” in the front end of the regular season. They know maybe better than anyone it’s a team game. It shows out in the individual stat database as their highest scorer (Copper at 14.7 ppg) ranks 20th in the league. Parker is 25th (13.4) and Meesseman 32nd (12.7). Six players average double digits and a seventh is 1.2 points away.
It’s the assists that Wade said the Sky, who lead the league at 24 apg, are always focused on. Vandersloot, the standard league-leader, is second at 6.2 and Parker is 11th (4.7). Their ability to find the better shot is their best asset.
“A win for one is a win for all with us,” Wade said on the Chicago State of Mind podcast out this week. “That’s how it is. Just like a 20-point game [by one player] is a 20-point game for all. And that’s how we looked at it. I’m telling you, those players deserve a lot of credit because they don’t have to be that way. But they are, because they all want to win so bad and they know that if you’re like that, that helps it.”
Parker lit up Wintrust Arena out of the All-Star break with 31 points leading a packed stat line to beat the Atlanta Dream. In accepting the custom-made WWE belt they were gifted for the 2021 championship, Parker showcased what could lead them to another trophy on Tuesday and maybe even a third in September.
“Our goal is not to lose back-to-back, right? And y’all took the L on Sunday,” Parker said, referencing Team Stewart and the Sky’s coaching staff at All-Star. “So I was like, man we gotta win. We can’t let James and Emma and Kah lose two in a row.”
Commissioner’s Cup breakdown
When: Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET on Amazon Prime
What's at stake: A title, but mostly money. The total prize pool is $500,000. The winning players receive at least $30,000 each, which is half the minimum year-long salary for a player with less than two years of experience. The runner-up player receive at least $10,000 each.
Charity of choice: The WNBA, WNBA Players Association (WNBPA) and teams selected organizations in each market that are tied to voting rights, registrations and advocacy. Those organizations received $2,000 if their team won a Commissioner's Cup game and $500 in loses. For the Cup championship, the organization of the winning team will receive $10,000 and that of the losing team will receive $5,000.
Previous Cup winners: The Storm won the first-ever rose gold Commissioner's Cup trophy with a 79-57 win over the Connecticut Sun. The game was the first WNBA game after the five-week Olympic break.
Play of the week
The Atlanta Dream are in a good spot to make the playoffs for the first time since 2018, when Renee Montgomery was on the court instead of the front office. That 92-76 win over the Aces early in the week was their most impressive victory to date.
Tiffany Hayes scored 31, Rhyne Howard added 24 and Aari McDonald had 11 off the bench. They shot 51% as a team and took advantage of a 36.6% clip by the Aces, not to mention a 40-29 edge on the boards.
The Dream's other win against a top-five squad was a 90-76 win against the Storm the week of the All-Star break. But it comes down to beating the teams you're supposed to beat to get into the playoffs and outside of one loss to the Liberty, they've done that.
The Dream have two left against the league's top-half of teams in the Storm (Sunday) and the Aces (Aug. 9). Atlanta concludes the season with two against the Liberty. They also have two left against the Lynx, a much different team than the one they defeated by four on June 1.
The Dream are currently at No. 7 in the standings, tied with the Wings, with the Sparks a half-game ahead, for the final two playoff spots. The Mercury trail Atlanta and Dallas by one game.
What you may have missed
Basketball for breakfast — Why are so many WNBA games so early? The noise is a hint.
The next generation — A'ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart are leading the way as their mentors retire. It's their league now.
Travel woes and league silence — Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve, with her team ensnared in a classic W travel nightmare, took issue with the "lack of support that we felt in terms of unresponsive messages to the league.”
WNBA TV schedule
Games on NBA TV are available on League Pass. All times ET. There are no games Monday through Wednesday for Commissioner's Cup scheduling. Here are the current WNBA standings. Game results can be found here.
Friday: Sun at Lynx (8 p.m., NBA TV), Wings at Sky (8 p.m., CBS Sports Network), Storm at Mercury (10 p.m., NBA TV)
Saturday: Sky at Liberty (7 p.m., NBA TV), Sparks at Aces (10 p.m., NBA TV)
Sunday: Wings at Fever (3 p.m., NBA TV), Dream at Storm (6 p.m., NBA TV), Sun at Lynx (7 p.m., Amazon Prime)