Three Aces banners hang in the rafters of Michelob Ultra Arena. The first is Becky Hammon’s No. 25, the only retired number in the franchise’s history. The second honors the Aces’ 2022 WNBA Championship, a white banner with the Aces logo in the middle and the names of the championship players on the border.
“It matters,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said. “With the charity aspect, the money aspect, the pride aspect of it all kind of wrapped into one, it matters.”
The Aces and the New York Liberty will play the 2023 Commissioner’s Cup Championship at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Michelob Ultra Arena. It’s the third iteration of the in-season tournament, and the Aces have a chance to become the first repeat winners of the competition.
“We’re competitors,” Plum said. “We want to win.”
The Commissioner’s Cup will be the third meeting between the Aces and Liberty this season. While the reigning champions refuse to call it a rivalry and consistently disregard the idea of superteams, the Aces will need a rebound performance Tuesday.
New York thrashed the Aces during their most recent meeting, a 99-61 Liberty victory in Brooklyn, New York Aug. 6. The 38-point deficit is the Aces’ biggest margin of defeat since moving to Las Vegas in 2018. Coach Becky Hammon’s team scored just 17 points in the second half.
However, the Aces struck the first blow June 29, dismantling the Liberty 98-81. Plum had 23 points, A’ja Wilson added 21 and the Aces led by 27 before Hammon put in her reserves.
The Aces and Liberty will play two more times in August following Tuesday’s game. They play at Michelob Ultra Arena two days later on Thursday, then finish their season series in Brooklyn Aug. 28.
“We have to come out and show a lot more of who we are,” Plum said. “This is an opportunity to do that.”
A new banner, another trophy and a rivalry win aren’t the only things on the line during the Commissioner’s Cup. Along with the $500,000 purse for the winners, the Aces have a chance to win some money for a local nonprofit.
Each WNBA team selects a charity to represent during the Commissioner’s Cup and wins money for their chosen nonprofit as the tournament progresses. This year, the Aces have partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Southern Nevada chapter.
“We know how much mental illness affects, not just some people, but everyone,” Plum said. “Our team has been passionate about that.”
The Aces have already won $18,500 after going 9-1 during the team’s 10 in-season Cup games. They can raise an additional $10,000 if they beat the Liberty Tuesday.
Trinh Dang is the executive director of NAMI Southern Nevada. She said the Aces reached out to them about creating a partnership for the Commissioner’s Cup, and said the two organizations have bonded well over their shared principles and values.
Dang praised the Aces’ players for using their platform to stress the importance of mental health. She said there can be a stigma around certain people, including professional athletes, discussing mental health. Having the Aces partner with the NAMI Southern Nevada is a good reminder that everyone — regardless of race, religion, gender, education and socio-economic status — has to take care of their mental health.
“We all have mental health like how we have dental health or vision health or physical health,” Dang said. “Mental health is just another component.”
NAMI is a national organization, but the Southern Nevada chapter faces specific challenges. Mental Health America, another nonprofit focused on mental health, ranked Nevada No. 42 out of 51 states and regions (including the District of Columbia) for the prevalence of mental illness among adults, access to care and substance use disorder, among other factors.
Dang said the funds generated by the Aces will help NAMI Southern Nevada pay for additional educational curricula for their mental health training sessions and compensate some of the volunteers who help lead their support groups, as all of NAMI Southern Nevada’s services are cost free for participants.
“We’re proud to be able to represent that well,” Plum said. “And hopefully we can finish that strong.”
What is the WNBA’s Commissioner’s Cup?
Now entering its third season, it is an in-season tournament. Each team plays 10 designated Cup games — the first home and away game against each conference opponent.
The team with the best record in the East and the West advance to the Commissioner’s Cup Championship, which will be played Tuesday at Michelob Ultra Arena. The game brings back the regionality which used to define the WNBA Finals until the playoff format changed in 2015 to simply seed all 12 WNBA teams regardless of conference.
“I liked the format of east-west,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said.
There are a few different motivators for the players. First off, the winning team gets $500,000, with $30,000 going to each player on the winning team and an extra $5,000 awarded to the MVP of the Commissioner’s Cup Championship. Players on the losing team receive $10,000.
Additionally, each team selects a charity and receives $2,000 for each Commissioner’s Cup win and $500 for each loss. The winner of the Commissioner’s Cup earns their charity an extra $10,000, while the loser’s charity gets $5,000.
The Aces won $28,500 for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada during the 2022 Commissioner’s Cup campaign.
The Seattle Storm won the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup during the 2021 season, beating the Connecticut Sun 79-57. The Aces won their first Cup title in 2022, beating the Chicago Sky 93-83 in Chicago. Point guard Chelsea Gray was named 2022 Commissioner’s Cup Championship MVP.
A similar competition is coming to the NBA, too. The event, announced July 8, is currently called the NBA In-Season Tournament and will involve a group stage followed by a knockout round. The semifinals and championship will be played in Las Vegas at T-Mobile Arena Dec. 7 and Dec. 9, respectively.