2. LeBron James

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…

2. LeBron James

By Ryan Jones
Here is a list of all the possible criticisms I could think of regarding Cleveland Cavaliers fourth-year forward LeBron James:

LeBron James is not a bad defensive player, but he sometimes gets exposed by smaller, quicker guards, and he doesn’t yet have the possession-by-possession lockdown mentality that defines truly great defenders.

There are stretches in most games in which LeBron James doesn’t assert himself offensively as much as he could, which seems to be done in the interest of getting/keeping his teammates involved, but too often leaves the Cavs looking temporarily inept without his direct involvement.

LeBron James sometimes settles for outside shots when he’d probably be better off driving to the basket, where he’d almost definitely score or go to the line.

That said, LeBron James still has stretches of maddening inconsistency at the free throw line. He’s not a bad foul shooter overall, but he can get better.

LeBron James cheats a lot in the passing lanes, which often leads to breakaway dunks but sometimes leaves his teammates shorthanded defensively.

LeBron James travels a lot, which, with the NBA’s crackdown on seemingly minor rules violations this season, could get him into trouble in key situations.

With so many marketing and promotional responsbilities, LeBron James has been accused by some of spending too much time on non-basketball distractions.

And then I ran out. LeBron James is No. 2 on the Slamonline.com list of the 50 best players in the NBA, and that’s fine. There’s more than 300 players in the League, so coming in second when you’re the same age as a lot of college seniors and still four or five years away from your prime isn’t really too bad. Coming in second to Kobe Bryant, he of the 81-point game and three rings and fairly convincing Jordan mimicry, is nothing at all to be ashamed of. Coming in second when an eight or 10-year run of coming in first is just around the corner isn’t bad at all.

That said, I didn’t get invited to lunch at Outback Steakhouse on that fateful day a few months back, both because this was primarily an online venture that Lang and Sam rightfully did on their own, and because the smell of a Bloomin’ Onion makes me nauseous… so I had no input on this list. If I had, I would’ve put LeBron James at No. 1.

I would’ve put LeBron James at No. 1 because he’s a f*cking incredible basketball player.

I would’ve put LeBron James at No. 1 because he’s only 21 and only going to keep getting better for the next seven or eight years, which is a stunning thing to comprehend.

I would’ve put LeBron James at No. 1 because contrary to overzealous critics, he doesn’t actually have any real weaknesses; there’s nothing he’s actually NOT GOOD at, only things he’s moderately good at but not yet great at. “Yet” being the key word there, because he will be, and soon.

I would’ve put LeBron James at No. 1 because, accounting for ALL possible factors on AND off the court, there is not another player I’d take ahead of him right now — for this year, for next year, for five and 10 years from now.

Or, put it like this: Sometimes the marketing is on-point. Witness? Yup. You’re watching history with this one, and you will tell your kids about him. I promise.