Right now, the Boston Celtics are at the same difficult crossroads that every veteran ball club eventually faces—whether it's better to keep trying to contend for a title or simply bite the bullet and enter rebuilding mode.
While the 2011-12 Celtics exceeded expectations by coming within one win of the NBA Finals, the 2012-13 squad posted a middling 41-40 regular-season record, suffering through injury after injury, and ultimately being ousted in the first round of the playoffs by the New York Knicks.
Obviously, some part of being a contender is luck, and Boston was as unlucky as any team this past season. But if Danny Ainge and the Celts' front office want to make a deeper playoff run, they clearly have to make some adjustments.
There is no doubt that sitting at home watching the second round on television is not what Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers want to be doing in May, so here are five steps Boston can take to get past the first round in the 2014 playoffs.
Step 1: Resist the Temptation to Blow Up the Roster
This won't come as a surprise to many, but no matter who Boston could snag in free agency it wouldn't enable them to go any deeper in the playoffs than they would with Pierce and Garnett still on the roster.
With Pierce in the final year of a contract that guarantees him just $5 million for 2013-14, enabling a possible buyout, and KG not looking as dominant in his last injury-plagued campaign, it is entirely possible that Ainge could look to end the "Big Three" era and begin the rebuild around Jeff Green and Rajon Rondo.
However, the free agency pool is stronger in 2014 than it is in 2013, and there is no guarantee the team could land a marquee free agent if they got rid of KG and Pierce.
In his 15th season with Boston, Pierce was stellar once again, averaging 18.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game while shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc. He had to do a significant amount of ball-handling when Rondo went down and looked sloppy against the Knicks, but he is still among the game's top small forwards.
Garnett notched 14.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks on 49.6 percent shooting despite battling an ankle injury, and he continued to be the defensive anchor the Celtics needed. He did not look for his shot much in the playoffs, but dominated the glass against the size-strapped Knicks, averaging 13.7 caroms per game.
Both are a ways past their primes, but they are the kind of fearless, battle-tested leaders that can win a team games in the playoffs. No matter how banged up Boston is, it is impossible to count out the Celtics as long as No. 34 and No. 5 are suiting up.
Even if the C's could land Josh Smith for Pierce, as they nearly did at the trade deadline according to Adrian Wojnarowski, they would not be in a better position to advance in the playoffs than they are now.
To put it simply, the first step to a deeper playoff run for Boston is keeping their veterans intact.
Step 2: Get Healthy
This has as much to do with luck as anything else, but a Celtics team as banged up as the 2012-13 one is not going to be doing anything in the playoffs.
When all was said and done, Boston had lost Rondo, Jared Sullinger and Leandro Barbosa for the season, and had a hobbled Kevin Garnett and a tired Paul Pierce when the regular season finally ended.
Health is something that has always been a concern for the Celtics due to their collective age, and Doc Rivers clearly tried to get some rest for Pierce, Jason Terry and KG down the stretch. It made a difference, as all three had to play much heavier minutes than they did during the regular season.
Beyond just the vets, the team needs to be careful not to rush Rondo back from his torn ACL. Although Ainge said recently to WEEI that Rondo "should be ready by training camp," it is crucial that the team does not rush him back before he is fully healed.
Not everyone is Adrian Peterson, and it took both Ricky Rubio and Iman Shumpert months after they returned before they were playing like their pre-injury selves.
Rondo will be expected to carry a tremendous burden on both ends of the floor, especially in the playoffs, and the team cannot rush him back for the sake of a few more regular-season wins.
Having Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee man the point wasn't always pretty, but if the C's want to improve on their 2013 postseason showing, it may be what they have to do.
Step 3: Trade a Combo Guard, Bolster the Bench in Free Agency
When Rondo hurt himself, it became abundantly clear that the Celtics really did not have another guard on the roster who could handle the ball and run the team's offense like a traditional point guard. Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley all have skills to bring to an NBA roster, but none of them can play the pass-first role with much success.
Now that the team has added Jordan Crawford, there are four combo guards and simply not enough minutes to go around once Rondo is back. With other, more pressing needs at positions like center and point guard, it would make sense for Boston to look to move at least one of the four in a trade during the offseason.
In free agency, the Celtics do not need to hit any home runs, but they do need to revamp their bench, which struggled so mightily in the playoffs.
Among the bargain free agents they could sign are veterans like Will Bynum, CJ Watson, Eric Maynor and Shaun Livingston. All of these guards are more natural facilitators than the guards on Boston's current bench and could slide in behind Rondo.
For the team's frontcourt issues, instead of breaking the bank to try and bring in an Al Jefferson or a Nikola Pekovic, which might not even be feasible, they could throw offers at the likes of DeJuan Blair, Samuel Dalembert or even a Timofey Mozgov, who could provide some much-needed muscle and rebounding off the pine.
They could also target players like Earl Clark or Al-Farouq Aminu to give them some more athleticism and rebounding—two things these Celtics can never really have enough of.
Step 4: Revise the Offensive Strategy
Let's be honest, the Doc Rivers Celtics are never going to put up 105 points per game, and they are never going to play like the Denver Nuggets, but they need to improve upon their often dismal offensive play from this season.
The team finished the year ranked 18th in the league in points per game at 96.5 despite shooting 46 percent from the floor, which was good for sixth in the NBA.
Despite their relatively high shooting percentage, the team relied too heavily on individual contributions—first from Rondo and then Pierce.
Rondo had the best season of his career statistically, posting 13.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 11.1 assists per game on 48.4 percent shooting. But the ball often stuck in his hands too much, and at times he forced passes where he could have scored himself. Rondo also posted a career-high 3.9 turnovers per game, and his fiery temper was a serious problem at times.
Pierce stepped up as much as he could, performing well in the point-forward role but averaging an uncharacteristically high 5.3 turnovers per game in the playoffs and shooting a mere 36.8 percent from the field. He is still an elite offensive player, but cannot be expected to handle the ball as much as he did in the latter part of 2012-13.
Jeff Green was huge for Boston down the stretch, averaging 17.3 points, 5 rebounds and 2.7 assists on 49.3 percent shooting after the All-Star break. His spot-up shooting ability and off-the-dribble game need to be integrated more heavily into the C's offense going forward.
Underachieving veterans like Brandon Bass and Jason Terry also need to step up. Bass did not look for his shot consistently and averaged just 8.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, while Terry showed some spark during the playoffs but averaged just 10.1 points and 2.5 assists during the regular season.
Boston averaged just 82.3 points in the playoffs, last among the 16 qualified teams, and the C's need to get back to the motion-based offense Rivers employed during the team's seven-game winning streak leading into the All-Star break.
Despite the fact that Pierce and Garnett will hopefully be back for the 2013-14 season, Rivers and company must look to push the pace more and have the Celts' young guns run the floor for fast-break opportunities.
A defense-first team like Boston needs to create as many easy scoring opportunities as possible.
Step 5: Limit the Unforced Errors
Beyond just their inability to make open shots and their difficulty creating interior scoring opportunities, the Celtics' loss to the Knicks had a lot to do with their apparent desire to just hand the ball over to New York.
The Celts averaged 17.3 turnovers per game in the playoffs, the highest among playoff teams, and more than the 13.9 they averaged in the regular season.
Particularly during Game 1, Boston made avoidable mistakes like forcing passes and not handling the ball carefully, and that allowed the Knicks to come up with easy steals to ignite their fast break offense.
In the playoffs, when the game slows down, turnovers and empty possessions are magnified because of the slower pace. During the regular season, a team can get away with turning the ball over on consecutive possessions, but that is something that could haunt a team in the postseason.
The Celtics were able to keep the series with New York fairly competitive because the Knicks are not a fast break-oriented team. But against some of the younger, more athletic teams in the Eastern Conference, Boston's carelessness could be the difference between a close win and a blowout loss.
The errors go beyond just turnovers, as Boston was hammered on the offensive glass in part because players failed to box out and secure the rebound after a solid defensive possession.
For a veteran team there is nothing more frustrating than losing a game because of unforced mistakes, and if the Celtics want to progress further in the playoffs, they must be vigilant about this.