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…

29. Joe Johnson
by Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks Vice President and NBA Hall of Famer

You know what? Joe Johnson is a multi-dimensional player. He does a lot of different things. He’s one of those guys that can play two or three positions and play them all well. That’s what makes him so special, especially in today’s NBA, when it’s such a transitional game. Joe can go inside, he can go outside, he can put it on the floor, and he’s a perfect size at 6-7 or 6-8.

I think as far as his ability to handle the ball combined with his size, he kind of reminds me of Marques Johnson; he’s really that type of player, a guy who can play everything from the point forward to the two, and he definitely can play the three as well. And he can defend, too, he can defend, too.

by Steve Smith, 14-year NBA veteran, 2000 Olympic Gold Medalist, 2003 NBA Championship with San Antonio

Before Joe Johnson came to Atlanta, I really didn’t know how good he was, but I’ve learned that he’s the type of player I like to watch. There’s some guys who do a little of this or that, but I was the kind of guy who tried to do a little of everything. And when I saw Joe come out of college at his height with his handle, I knew the sky was the limit for him: You can play him at one, you can play him at two, you can play him at three.

In my era, some of the guys with size and the ability to handle the ball were guys like myself, Magic, Penny. And I’m not saying none of us played defense — well, Penny did more than us, because myself and Earvin were not trying to guard anyone — but Joe can actually guard point guards. You don’t want him to do it 48 minutes, but he can really do it.

And then he can shoot it, he’s strong, he can rebound, he has three point range, he can drive. Probably the only thing Joe doesn’t do is that he doesn’t just jump over people, but I was always a guy who thought you can play longer when you’re not relying on that. It’s hard to pick out a weakness in his game, because he can get around somebody and get anything he wants because of his IQ of the game.