With summer dragging on and on and on before the NBA tips off, we’ve decided to initiate a multipart series that will be the definitive look at the best players in the NBA today.

Over lunch at the Outback Steakhouse (word to Steve Irwin), your crack SLAMonline.com staff sat down and ranked the 50 best players in the NBA today. We realize that’s kind of ambiguous, but that’s how basketball is and that’s how we like it. Basically, though, we tried to list the 50 guys we think have the most value to their teams, right now, at this moment. This doesn’t mean they’ll never be traded, and it doesn’t mean they’re due tremendous contract extensions, but it does mean — since value is king in the NBA — that over the next month or so we’ll run down the 50 guys that we think are the 50 best players, right here, right now.

Before long it’ll be time for our annual NBA team previews. Right now it’s time for some law and order…

16. Andrei Kirilenko

By Sam Rubenstein

Andrei is the most unique player in the NBA. The fact that his initials are A.K., his number is 47, and his nationality is Russian, all adds up to him being one of a kind. Some people say he’s like an Octopus, Jerry Sloan says “He’s like a rope out there”, some people say he’s like a faster Ivan Drago. I say he’s the real life Omega Red.

In that magical 2004 season when the Jazz looked like a 12 win team on paper, Andrei was their best player as they became the Official Team of The Links. I suppose he should suffer on this list because of his injury problems, but Andrei stands out so much, we don’t have the heart to drop him down. He’s not a scorer, he’s not a rebounder, he’s not a passer, defender, or whatever. He just is. Utah was one of the best teams in the league two years ago until he got hurt, and then they became one of the worst without him. Now that’s value. He’s a small forward that is averaging 3.2 blocks per game and 2.0 steals for his career. Now that’s madness.

Last year the biggest news from Andrei land was that his wife, Russian pop star Masha Kirilenko, gives him a once a year pass to let Andrei get his groupie love. Then you look on his website’s “hobbies” page and are greeted with this gem “I like to go with my wife to all possible events, presentations, restaurants, clubs and concerts. The most important thing is that we are together. It’s true that during the NBA season it was not possible to spend as much time together as we would have liked.” Oh, I hear you Mr. Kirilenko. I hear you loud and clear. Wink wink. (Quick sidenote: Russian women scare me. I don’t mean to generalize here, but I see this same crew of three Russian girls on the train all the time and I’m pretty sure that they are assassins. They openly drink vodka on the train late at night. It’s like that show She Spies. Back to basketball.)

Last year was his first time on the all defensive team. Get used to that. And get used to him winning multiple defensive player of the years down the road. On offense, Andrei doesn’t take many shots, but he shoots a high percentage and still manages to score about 15 per game. His game is so unique to the NBA, I don’t think we understand it yet.

Personal TMI disclosure: Two and a half years ago, when I first got the job here, I thought I needed to have a hot throwback jersey just to be allowed in the building. The one I chose to purchase was a Kirilenko jersey wth the musical note on it. And within days/weeks the thowback trend was over and I have worn that jersey in public maybe twice. It’s the only intentional throwback I own, with the others being jerseys that were current at the time, such as the Tim Hardaway Golden State jersey I bought when I was in high school. AK-47. Possibly the best nickname in the league.