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…

37. Jason Terry
by Lang Whitaker

To be completely honest, there was a time, even as recently as three or four years ago, where I suspected that Jason Terry did not belong on this list. Sure, he’d proven he could get buckets in the NBA, averaging 19.7 and 19.3 ppg his second and third years with Atlanta. His second year he started the season at point guard, and the Hawks started 0-7. Suddenly Lon “Guarantee” Kruger slid Jason in as the starting two guard. Against Milwaukee, JT hung 30 on Ray Allen. 17 and 23 back-to-back on Eddie Jones. 32 versus Cleveland. Then, at Sacto, on TNT, JT dropped 38. That summer he made the USA’s Goodwill Games team, where Flip Saunders buried him on the bench.

But in Dallas, as a Maverick, JT has found has found his stride. I could regurgitate it here, but it’s probably easier if you just go here and read what I wrote about JT this summer. As the point guard for the Mavs, JT has embraced the game like never before. He and Avery Johnson have the tightest of relationships, frequently eating breakfast together while the team’s on the road, and JT has become the second coming of the Little General, although with a better jump shot.

After JT’s second season in the NBA, he held a charity game in Atlanta. Plenty of big names showed up for the game, but when JT entered the arena, his left eye was reddened. I asked what had happened, and he gave me a polite no comment, but word circulated that there had been a minor scuffle late the previous evening at a party. Even though JT supposedly wasn’t involved, a stray elbow had met his face, the story went.

The point here isn’t that JT allegedly stayed out too late the night before his charity game. It was summer, guys were having fun, whatever. The point is that since then, his profile off the floor has been lower than low. He’s tried to promote a record label (featuring the greatest name for a group in recent memory: West Cosa Nostra), and there was that whole thing in the Western Conference Finals with Michael Finley and his groin, but for the most part JT has been solid, of mind and body.

And now, he’s about to hit his prime. He’s 28 years old, just signed a six-year deal with the Mavs, and, more than anything, now he doesn’t seem to care as much about being famous. JT’s ready to get some rings. And the Mavs are going to do whatever they can to help him get there.