What do we really know as we turn the corner into the last month of the 2023-24 NBA season? Well, barring a catastrophe, the 51-14 Boston Celtics will have the league's best regular-season record. And after that... well... TBD! 

As of this writing, the top three teams in the Western Conference are separated by half of a game. Only three losses separate teams 6-10. The difference between hosting Game 1 of a first-round series and needing the play-in round in the Eastern Conference right now is two losses. The standings aren't quite as condensed as they were on opening night, but we haven't exactly achieved much in the five months that followed. Most teams are locked in a cluster right now. Where they fall within that cluster is going to come down to how the final month of the regular season plays out.

So let's try to sort through this mess and make some sense of the standings with one month of basketball left before the playoffs. Here are the five biggest questions facing the league as playoff basketball approaches.

1. Does the Western Conference have a fifth elite team?

I'm just going to leave some numbers on the counter. There's no pressure. Do with them what you will. Here are just a few markers since Dec. 1.

RecordOffensive ratingDefensive ratingNet ratingNet rating rank

Oklahoma City Thunder






Denver Nuggets






Minnesota Timberwolves






Los Angeles Clippers






New Orleans Pelicans






We've spent the season operating under the assumption that there are four elite teams in the Western Conference, except the numbers suggest that, for most of it, there have been five. The only team in the NBA with a better net rating than New Orleans since Dec. 1 is Boston. Only three teams have ranked in the top five in the NBA in both offense and defense in that span: the Celtics, Thunder and Pelicans. New Orleans came out of the gate slow, thanks to injuries to Trey Murphy and C.J. McCollum. They've been spectacular ever since.

There's no single factor explaining their jump. Neither Zion Williamson nor Brandin Ingram are having career-best seasons, though the recent move to put more of the offense in Williamson's hands has proven wise. The Pelicans just lead the league in good, NBA players. Trey Murphy is comically overqualified for a bench role. Jose Alvarado's bench defense is lethal in the smaller doses this roster allows it to be used in. Naji Marshall does everything. They still don't shoot enough 3's, but they make all of the ones they take. Herb Jones is a defense unto himself.

A top-three seed is probably out of the question for New Orleans. Jumping up to No. 4? That's feasible. The Pelicans trail the Clippers by only two games as of this writing. The Clippers have a slightly easier schedule. The Pelicans have two more home games. Kawhi Leonard is currently dealing with back spasms, and the Clippers are 7-8 in their past 15 games. Further complicating matters: the Clippers play on the road in New Orleans on Friday as the second half of a back-to-back. A Pelicans victory clinches the season series and the tiebreaker.

Denver's status as the conference favorite was etched in stone a year ago. Everyone else at the top of the West is relatively new. The Pelicans came to the party a month late, but that's really the only thing separating them from the Timberwolves, Clippers and Thunder.

2. What about the oldies at the bottom?

If the season ended today, either LeBron James or Stephen Curry would be out of the postseason after just a single game. There's still time for the Lakers and Warriors to climb, but they're currently slotted at No. 9 and No. 10 in the Western Conference. Both have solved their early-season problems to an extent. 

The Lakers, lacking two-way players anywhere on the roster, have shrugged and leaned more heavily into offense than ever before. The James-Anthony Davis-D'Angelo Russell-Austin Reaves-Rui Hachimura starting five is 10-3 and scoring nearly 117 points per 100 possessions. 

The Warriors are more balanced, but less consistent. They were bad with Draymond Green out. They're dealing with Stephen Curry's absence now. They've played at a roughly 49-win pace with both of them compared to a 27-win pace when either sits. The new starting five of Curry, Green, Andrew Wiggins, Jonathan Kuminga and Brandin Podziemski have outscored opponents by a staggering 66 points in 168 minutes. Of course, last year's Warriors dominated with their starters on the floor too. It didn't translate when they got matchup busted by Anthony Davis.

It took the Warriors and Lakers months to find themselves. The Suns have known exactly what they are all along; they just lacked the health to consistently show it. The Kevin Durant-Bradley Beal-Devin Booker trio has scorched opponents when they have all been on the floor. They just never are.

Health is going to be a concern for all three of these teams, but even at full strength, there are holes here. Anthony Davis destroyed the Warriors a year ago. Nikola Jokic is even scarier. The Suns can handle some bulk with Jusuf Nurkic, but he's going to get picked on in pick-and-roll by the West's faster guards. The Lakers are playing offense-first without Phoenix's firepower. There isn't a single player on that roster not named James or Davis that reliably contributes on both ends. Darvin Ham's roller-coaster season doesn't exactly inspire confidence when it comes to lineup alchemy.

The best teams are supposed to be matchup-proof. The Lakers, Warriors and Suns need the bracket to fall their way. The Lakers showed last year that a favorable set of matchups can take even a flawed team far. But all three of these teams will play more road games than home games in the postseason. Despite their reputations, all three should be underdogs in a series against a healthy team above them in the standings.

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3. Will the real Milwaukee Bucks please stand up?

Doc Rivers has plucked the low-hanging fruit here. Adrian Griffin emphasized offensive rebounding over transition defense. Doc Rivers has historically gone as far in the opposite direction as possible. Since his arrival, the Bucks rank 29th in offensive rebounding rate and fourth in fewest fast-break points allowed. The result has predictably been a better defense and a worse offense.

This plan only works if Milwaukee reaches the elite half-court offensive ceiling the Damian Lillard trade gave it. We're seeing it for stretches. Rivers is forcing the issue on the Lillard-Giannis Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll to largely positive results. But the absence of Khris Middleton stifles that two-man action. Nobody is going to guard Jae Crowder at the expense of sending help against those two.

Patrick Beverley offers at least token resistance at the point of attack, but it's not as though the Bucks are playing especially strong team defense with him on the floor. Antetokounmpo can handle some of the tougher forward matchups in the East if need be. He's certainly voiced his desire to guard Jimmy Butler in the past, and Jayson Tatum is well within his skill set. There's no good answer for guards, and the Bucks will almost certainly have Donovan Mitchell and the Cavaliers waiting for them in the second round.

There hasn't been a single sustained stretch this season in which the Bucks actually looked like the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference we expected them to be. It's coming in bits and pieces. That's fine in December. It's rare that teams find themselves this late in the season. We're in now-or-never territory with the Bucks right now.

4. Who is our Eastern Conference surprise team?

We're supposed to expect it to be the Heat again because what is dead may never die. There's just no version of this team that can score well enough to realistically compete. Pick a lineup filter and you keep coming up with the same answer. They're average offensively when Tyler Herro plays. They're average offensively when Terry Rozier plays or when they play together. The same is true for Duncan Robinson. They get up to a little better than average when Robinson and Jimmy Butler play together. Playoff offenses look at Robinson like a starving wolf looks at a raw ribeye. Maybe they wind up mucking things up like they always do. It's the Heat, after all. But the depth they lost over the summer has taken a toll. This is a good defensive team, but doesn't have the tools it did last spring.

If you're looking for a "muck it up" team, it's the Knicks. They're sporting a totally normal nothing to see here plus-25.8 net rating during OG Anunoby's 529 total minutes in blue and orange. Let's put that number into perspective. There are only 30 players in basketball with a better season-long plus-minus than Anunoby as a Knick this season. They've all played at least 42 games. Anunoby has played 15 as a Knick.

Yes, we're waiting on the possible returns of Julius Randle (feels likelier than not!) and Mitchell Robinson (less clear), but the Knicks are so deep with players designed in a lab to generate playoff upsets that it almost doesn't matter. Jalen Brunson proved pretty emphatically last postseason that he can singlehandedly keep an offense afloat. Who wants to see Anunoby in April? Or Josh Hart? Or Isaiah Hartenstein, the most underrated defender in the NBA? The Knicks are deep, they have an identity and they have a coach who knows how to make anyone uncomfortable. That's the team nobody wants to see in the postseason.

5. Does anyone, anywhere have a solution for Nikola Jokic?

Nikola Jokic scored only 12 points against the Miami Heat on Wednesday, yet it doesn't feel fully fair to say they "held" him to 12. Miami's defense was spectacular. It helps to have an All-Defense-caliber center in Bam Adebayo to throw at him, and Erik Spoelstra mixes schemes constantly. But Jokic just averaged 30 against the Heat in the Finals nine months ago. Jokic's numbers fluctuate on a game-to-game basis but it rarely feels as though the defense is responsible for it. Sometimes he's just content to let his gravity create better looks for everyone else. On Wednesday, it was Michael Porter Jr. If Miami had some secret approach to stopping Jokic, it would have done better against him in the Finals.

Denver's recent win against Boston was a bit more instructive. The Celtics haven't found some key to slowing him down, but they've succeeded in attacking him on defense. When he's defended Kristaps Porzingis, Boston has very intentionally had him launch 3's to keep Jokic away from the basket and, therefore, chances at rebounds and football passes. The Nuggets countered by letting him guard Jrue Holiday for stretches in the fourth quarter. Holiday sensed it, attacked him off the dribble and jacked up his own deep 3's when Jokic gave him too much slack.

The Nuggets won that game. They win most games. They're the best team in the NBA. But Boston has played Denver close twice now, and the key has been emphasizing what happens on the other end. Jokic is by no means a bad defender. He's quite good in certain contexts, and the system behind him is airtight. But he has limitations, and tiring him out defensively will have value on the other end. Denver isn't scared of any opposing big man who thinks it can defend Jokic near the rim. But teams like the Suns and Thunder that might not give him easy hiding spots and want to win shootouts? That's the next frontier on the "how to beat Jokic" front. You can't defend him. You have to outscore him.