What's at Stake in Groundbreaking WNBA Commissioner's Cup?

Jackie Powell@@classicjpowContributor IAugust 12, 2021

Can Breanna Stewart, left, or Jonquel Jones, right, use the Commissioner's Cup to help her MVP case?
Can Breanna Stewart, left, or Jonquel Jones, right, use the Commissioner's Cup to help her MVP case?Joshua Huston/Getty Images

Jonquel Jones appreciates when the WNBA is the first to do something. It gives her a sense of pride. "It's funny because I always feel like in our league, we do things first and then you see something on ESPN like, 'Oh the NBA is thinking of doing the in-season tournament.' I'm just like, 'Yeah, I've been there, done that.'"

After Thursday night, Jones will actually be able to say "been there, done that" when she and her Connecticut Sun take on the Seattle Storm at 9 p.m. ET streamed on Amazon Prime in the inaugural WNBA Commissioner's Cup, the first in-season tournament in American professional basketball.

The Cup was designed with dual purposes.

The first was to re-engage the conversation around divisional rivalries, something the league has missed since it altered its playoff format in 2016 to eliminate seeding within conferences and instead determine playoff seeding regardless of Eastern or Western conference affiliation.

Secondly, the Cup was a part of the league's promise to the players as a part of the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, which guaranteed increased player compensation via special competitions. The total compensation tops out at $500,000, with the winning team making around $30,000 per player and the game's MVP taking home an additional $5,000. On the opposing team, players will earn $10,000 each.

So, how did the Sun and the Storm get here? Each team won the most Cup games, which were the first home and away matchups against conference opponents during the first half of the WNBA season.

Besides the obvious of some of the younger players earning half of their yearly compensation, a beautiful-looking golden trophy and an update on social justice initiatives broadcasted on the WNBA's YouTube channel, why does the first-ever Commissioner's Cup matter?

Revival of East Coast vs. West Coast 

The Cup means the return of the East Coast facing off against the West Coast, which happened annually for WNBA's first 20 postseasons.

For Hall of Famer and two-time WNBA champion Lisa Leslie, who will be on the call for the Cup, this is a return to form. For her, East vs. West was part of the original fabric of the WNBA. She sees value in more games meaning something different.

"When you say East vs. West, it kind of makes you look at your schedule in two ways," she said during a call with media before the Cup. "Yes, you want to be at the top, you want to be at the top of the WNBA. You're obviously trying to get to the playoffs. You want to be one of those possibilities that you can get some type of home-court advantage, but then you're also checking on the East or just to see if you're in the West, kind of like where you land, in terms of, you know, eventually getting to this Commissioner's Cup."

And with the 25th anniversary of the league still a storyline in tow, Jones appreciates the homage to the past along with the commitment to the expanding future of the W. "I feel like it kind of pays a little bit of respect to the way that things were done in the past in terms of East vs. West, having, you know, the best from those conferences coming and playing," she said Monday. "Kind of puts a little bit more validity on games if you do play your conference and it's leading up to something. I mean, all games matter, but having a Commissioner's Cup just gives you that little extra umph," she said.

Who Will Make Their MVP Case Stronger?

Speaking of some extra umph, that's what the Commissioner's Cup gives the MVP race this year: more juice on the court and more opportunity for fans and media members to make the case for either Breanna Stewart or Jones.

After willing Team USA to the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics alongside A'ja Wilson, could Stewart play fewer minutes than usual? Storm head coach Noelle Quinn ought to preserve her star for the rest of the season, pot of money or not. If that is the case, and the Storm struggle without her, Stewart's case as the Most Valuable Player increases. While Stewart had an MVP-caliber season in 2020, she had more talent around her while her challenger and the eventual 2020 MVP Wilson was the engine behind an injury-riddled Las Vegas Aces squad.

According to Stathead (h/t FiveThirtyEight), Jones trails both Stewart and Wilson in win shares this season by less than 0.5, but her singular impact is far greater on a team that has lost three of five games without her.

What Is Next-Gen Tracking Technology?

Another first besides the Cup itself is the use of Next-Gen Tracking Technology during the Amazon broadcast. Players will be wearing trackers that allow for more in-depth statistical reporting.

When Leslie and play-by-play broadcaster Lisa Byington addressed reporters Wednesday, they explained how that's going to be "part of the fun of it." It's going to be just as new for both Leslie and Byington as it will for fans. What the pair wants to accomplish is to portray more of the "athletic nuances of the game" of basketball.

"We really feel like this could be some of the future for some of the basketball telecasts across the board," Byington said.  "And not only to showcasing the greatness of some of the players that you'll see on the court, but maybe just connecting fans in a different way and, and showing them basketball in a different way."

Players will be wearing Kinexon Wearables in their uniform shorts that will allow for data points to be tracked such as how fast players sprint, how often they jump and how quickly they change direction. Hawk- Eye's optical tracking devices will create 3D immersive highlights, which could educate fans on a player's shooting accuracy and efficiency. Both of these new technologies are predicted to produce around a total of 50 million data points during the 2021 Commissioner's Cup.

In addition to imagining what it would have been like if Leslie herself could have played while wearing these tracking devices, she hopes this is only the beginning for these types of broadcasts during all forms of women's basketball.


Could This Be a WNBA Finals Preview?

Both teams have something to prove in the inaugural Commissioner's Cup final heading into the second half of the season. I am not sold on Seattle's defensive prowess nor how well its second unit can match up against other deeper teams. While the Sun lost 90-87 to the Storm in overtime when Jones was on the floor in May, the Sun center put up a 28-point, 13-rebound double-double. Seattle's second unit had no answer for her.

But if the Storm's role players can prove they worked diligently on their weaknesses while their stars were off in Tokyo, the Sun and the rest of the league might be in trouble against the defending champions. On Monday, Quinn noted that Katie Lou Samuelson, who had to miss the Olympics because she tested positive for COVID-19, "has put her heart, mind and soul" into her WNBA team.

For the Sun, the focus will be whether they have been able to temper their weaknesses such as playing with the slowest pace in the league and having the joint-second-worst turnover rate in the league.

While Leslie believes the team boasting the triumphant Olympians has the advantage because of her own experience playing after an Olympics, the Cup final is bound to be competitive throughout four quarters.

"Nobody really knew exactly what was on the line and what took place, so it's actually not until we made the Cup game and it was like, 'OK, you get this, this and this and this,'" Sun G/F DeWanna Bonner said Monday. "So that's when I think the extra motivation came. 'So, OK, let's try to win this thing. Let's go out and give it everything we have.'"