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…

35. Rip Hamilton
by Ben Osborne, SLAM magazine 

Remember when Jerry Stackhouse was traded for Richard Hamilton? The spin at the time was that the Pistons were only dealing Stack because his contract was coming up for renewal, and that Rip was the best they could get in return. As if the Wizards were getting over on the Pistons. Ha! I may have been a bit biased because at the time I had recently written a story about Rip talking about how overlooked in Washington he was and how he was ready to explode, but I really was confident that the Pistons killed the Wizards in that trade. I’m no Stack hater (far from it, actually), but that dude’s career was heading downhill while Rip’s was just starting.

And sure enough, Rip has gone on to be a centerpiece of one of the League’s top teams; he stays in tip-top shape, works his ass off on both ends of the floor and can score with anyone in the League. On another team, at this point in his development, 28-year-old Rip could average 24 a night, but he’d rather do what it takes to keep the Pistons winning. Just another reason no one would be so quick to trade him this time around.