Former Atlanta Hawks great and current VP of Basketball and Special Advisor to the CEO, Dominique Wilkins. Courtesy of nba.com.
The NBA is a tight-knit group, particularly when it comes to respected players who have retired from the game. The better a teammate and the more respected a former player is, the more likely they are to land a coaching job, like Luke Walton as the Head Coach of the Sacramento Kings, or a front office role, like Shaun Livingston as the Director of Player Affairs and Engagement for the Golden State Warriors.
In an NBA front office, no position seems to embody this mutual respect more than a Special Advisor. The role differs wildly by the organization, but is one that many teams use to retain talented basketball minds without the daily rigor of a role like a General Manager or a Scout. A well-known example of this position paying dividends for a front office is Jerry West, one of the best players in the history of the sport. Now a Consultant for the Los Angeles Clippers, West was an advisor to the Warriors from 2011 to 2017 and helped Golden State win its first championship in 40 years in 2015.
Here are five current special advisors with the most name recognition, public respect and power in the NBA.
Dominique Wilkins - Atlanta Hawks
A nine-time All-Star who is considered one of the best dunkers in league history, Dominique Wilkins played the first 11 seasons of his career in Atlanta before retiring from the game in 1999. He's worked in Atlanta's front office since 2004 and currently holds the title of VP of Basketball and Special Advisor to the CEO. In a multi-faceted role, he advises senior management on basketball-related issues, works in various management functions, and also works as the color analyst for Hawks' TV broadcasts.
Larry Bird - Indiana Pacers
Larry Bird played for the Boston Celtics from 1979 to 1992, where he won three NBA Championships and three Most Valuable Player awards. The 12-time All-Star is one of the best shooters ever and is largely credited, along with Magic Johnson, with revitalizing the sport in the 1980s.
After his playing career ended, "Larry Legend" worked in a variety of different basketball roles around the league, first as a special assistant in Boston. He then finished off the 1990s as the Head Coach of the Indiana Pacers, owned by Pacers Sports & Entertainment, and has since spent most of the last 20 years working for that front office as the President of Basketball Operations (2003-12, 2013-2017) and now as the team's Advisor to the President of Basketball Operations, Kevin Pritchard.
Bernie Bickerstaff - Cleveland Cavaliers
The man with perhaps more head coaching experience than anyone else in basketball, Bernie Bickerstaff has been a Head Coach for five different NBA franchises and an assistant coach for another four. His coaching career started in 1968 and his last experience at the helm was as the interim coach for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012.
In 2013, the Cleveland Cavaliers brought on Bickerstaff as an assitant coach before moving him into the front office as a special advisor the next season. He won an NBA Championship with the organization in 2016 and is now in the very rare position of working with his son, J.B. Bickerstaff, who is in his second season as the team's Head Coach.
William Wesley - New York Knicks
The only person on this list who has never played or coached in the NBA, the power broker known as “World Wide Wes” holds a mysterious role with the New York Knicks, owned by the Madison Square Garden Company. A consultant in the coaching division of talent agency CAA for 13 years, William Wesley was hired as an EVP, Senior Basketball Advisor in 2020 by Leon Rose, the team's new President and a former agent at CAA.
Wesley doesn't give interviews and his actual power within the league is relatively unknown to the public. He's best known for getting a young LeBron James to switch agents and sign with Rose in the early 2000s, but his day to day in New York remains unclear. It says something to Wesley's influence that his hiring caused several days worth of headlines in New York, though.
"If you look around the league, anybody who was having difficulty with somebody, you could probably call Wes and he can probably help you get through it,” former Knicks head coach Larry Brown said in a 2020 interview with the New York Daily News.
Toni Kukoč - Chicago Bulls
One of the first European big men to come to the NBA with a more perimeter-focused game, the 6-foot-11 Toni Kukoč won three NBA Championships with the Chicago Bulls in the 90s. His incredible career started in the Croatian League in 1985 and ended with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2006, and he's been a Special Advisor to President & COO Michael Reinsdorf since 2015.
Chicago has arguably the most well-known cadre of special advisors in the league. The team also employs former player and VP of Operations, John Paxson, former player and coach, Doug Collins, and former player, Horace Grant, in advisory roles.
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