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Thursday, September 6, 2012
Updated: September 7, 11:55 AM ET
No. 04: Indiana Pacers

By Max Klinger
ESPN The Magazine

Last year's rank: 48
Title track: 66
Ownership: 18
Coaching: 25
Players: 16
Fan relations: 20
Affordability: 3
Stadium experience: 15
Bang for the buck: 3

The lockout meant a lot of things to a lot of people, but for the Pacers the resulting collective bargaining agreement was the reaffirmation of a specific management philosophy. In light of the CBA changes, the Pacers' brand of small ball suddenly seemed less like a toss of the dice and more like the strategy of the future for small-market clubs. It's a simple strategy but not easily duplicated: precise draft picks (Granger, Hibbert, George), prudent trades (Barbosa) and prescient free agent signings (West). That's how the Pacers created the kind of chemistry that took them to the Eastern Conference semifinals (their first since 2005) with the third-lowest payroll in the league. With a smaller front office and less money, they simply can't afford the toe-tapping free agent games that other big-market teams can, and what has resulted is a finely calibrated personnel strategy. The Pacers could be the Eastern Conference version of the Thunder, only leaner, cheaper and more efficient (the Thunder have the 14th-lowest payroll; the Pacers have the 28th). And this homespun management style has caught on well with the plainspoken basketball fans of Indiana. It helps that the Pacers were voted the most affordable team in the NBA. It also means that categories like ownership, coaching and players received 40-plus point boosts in our poll. With the new CBA set to start showing its teeth in the years to come, the Pacers are set up to be the franchise of the future.