Why the 2021 NBA Draft lottery could help league's long-term balance

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Draft lottery could have a major effect on league's future originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Anyone who has paid attention to the NBA this century has probably noticed a fairly significant imbalance between conferences, with the West dominating the East essentially ever since Michael Jordan retired the second time with the Chicago Bulls, back in 1998. Since then, 15 of the 22 NBA titles have been won by Western Conference teams.

But it hasn't only been uneven at the top, the depth has also stood out. It's generally much harder to make the playoffs in the West than it is in the East. It's why you see discrepancies like in the 2013-14 season, when the 38-win Hawks made the playoffs in the East, while the 48-win Suns missed the cut in the West.

What has perhaps gone a bit understated is how teams in the West have continued to position themselves to rule the league for many years to come. You have seen it in free agency with guys like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard heading West, affecting the short-term, and you have also seen it in the draft lottery, affecting the long-term.

That was until Tuesday night when the East landed four of the top-5 picks in what is shaping up to be an unusually talented draft class, at least at the top. The Pistons, Cavaliers, Raptors and Magic all landed top-5 selections, with the Houston Rockets the lone team from the West. They will pick second overall.

Related: NBA Mock Draft 5.0

This is a major shift that could have longstanding effects on the NBA's balance. The Pistons, in fact, are the first team from the East with a top-2 pick since 2017. After three straight years where the West swept the top-2 picks in the lottery, the West still has seven of the last eight top-2 picks.

That included last year when Anthony Edwards went first to the Timberwolves and James Wiseman went second to the Warriors. The year before landed top pick Zion Williamson on the Pelicans and Ja Morant at No. 2 on the Grizzlies. Those two already look like high-level stars.

In the last five years there have been 25 top-5 picks, of which 15 have gone to the Western Conference. Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton were among them.

That influx of young talent will boost a conference that is already star-heavy. This season, four of the five All-NBA first-team players came from the West. Seven of the 10 players on first- or second-team were from the West and nine of the 15 All-NBA players overall were from the Western Conference.

Maybe this draft class can help change that someaday. There are 4-to-5 players many evaluators project confidently as stars and the majority of them will be in the Eastern Conference. Those players would include Cade Cunningham (Oklahama St.), Evan Mobley (USC), Jalen Suggs (Gonzaga), Jalen Green (G-League) and Jonathan Kuminga (G-League).

As many years have shown, picking high doesn't guarantee a team will land a major difference maker. But odds are this year's draft will make the Eastern Conference better in the long-term and maybe someday it will help them catch up to the West.