ESPN's NBA Future Rankings

The Bulls, Thunder, Heat, Lakers, Spurs, and Knicks were the only other teams ahead of the Pacers on this list. Enjoy....

7. Indiana Pacers | Future Power Rating: 581

207 (14th) 106 (13th) 173 (1st) 38 (21st) 57 (13th)

The Pacers continue, improbably, to fly up our rankings, despite being little more than a .400 team.

In August, the team jumped a whopping nine spots from No. 26 to No. 17 in our rankings. In December, they rose six more spots to No. 11. This time they leapfrog a few more teams, all the way up to No. 7. Yes, we're saying the Pacers have the seventh-brightest future, ahead of teams like the Celtics, Magic and Mavericks.

Really? Really. Let us explain.

In our ratings, the Pacers excel in only one category: Money, which is defined as "projected salary-cap situation [and] ability and willingness to exceed cap and pay luxury tax." While we don't know how the new collective bargaining agreement will affect the Pacers' ability to spend, on paper they are in great shape.

Pacers executives Larry Bird and David Morway have set this team up for future success by drafting well, building depth and staying away from bad contracts. Owner Herb Simon is considered one of the best in the business -- despite an unfavorable market and financial situation, he has remained committed to spending the money it takes to be competitive.

Going into the summer of 2011, the Pacers have the second-most salary cap space, behind only Sacramento, even though the Pacers aren't likely to lose any core players. Among the team's unrestricted free agents-to-be, T.J. Ford has been benched, Mike Dunleavy has been injured often, and only Jeff Foster (who just turned 34) and Josh McRoberts have played consistent roles in the second half of the season. On the downside, the Pacers might lose former lottery pick Brandon Rush, who has fallen out of favor, and must sign big man Roy Hibbert to an extension.

Meanwhile, the Pacers have several promising young players still on their rookie contracts. Rookie Paul George has star ability and looks like the steal of the 2010 draft this year, Tyler Hansbrough has come on strong under coach Frank Vogel, and Darren Collison has given the Pacers a boost at point guard.

At the moment, the Pacers are barely hanging on to their playoff spot, but they should be a more legitimate factor in the next three seasons. With the right additions and the development of George, Hibbert, Hansbrough and Collison, Indiana has a shot at being one of the better teams in the East for the next half-decade.

(Previous rank: 11)

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