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…

49. Darko Milicic, Orlando Magic
by Shoals, from FreeDarko.com

As a spokesperson for a website called “FreeDarko,” I’ve been asked numerous times to justify the career of Darko Milicic. Almost all of these times, I’ve had to come up with something totally implausible and thunderously pretend that it was true. On the cusp of the ’06-07 campaign, though, I can finally stand tall and talk real on the subject.

Darko is a twenty-two year-old seven footer whose shot-blocking could soon become the stuff of jazzy narco-ballads. He’s coming off a delightful run at the Worlds, where a storied Serbian program looked to him for late-game assurance. And the older he gets, the more we’re seeing that “mean streak in the post” that was his surname in June 2003.

But the real reason that Darko is off of fate’s pinwheel is his situation in Orlando. For the next decade, he’ll share a frontcourt with Young Dwight, a behemoth on the verge of demanding triple-teams. That’s two very young, very active, very legit big men of the revolution standing arm-in-arm when the whistle sounds. One of them, the Christian with braces, will very likely begin to write his name into history this coming season. And just as Marvin Harrison allowed for the emergence of Reggie Wayne, Howard’s presence means that Darko can shine in the shadows, sneakily piling up numbers and mottos without the burden of extremes.

No longer a lonely boom-or-bust scenario, the partnership with DH makes Darko redundant but not irrelevant; Darko will be the echo, and the sound will be immortality.