Even teams with championship aspirations enter a new season with plenty of question marks that will dictate just how successful they will be. So while the Boston Celtics kept the core of their team intact this offseason, there's still a handful of new faces, and plenty to figure out at the onset of training camp.
Before the Celtics launch into their first official practice of the new season on Tuesday morning in Newport, R.I., here are 10 questions the team must answer early in the 2010-11 campaign:
1. Can coach Doc Rivers keep the circus in line?
This may be the question that ultimately defines this year's squad. The Celtics were not short on characters and egos last season, and have added a larger-than-life personality in Shaquille O'Neal, along with numerous proven players who will be asked to take reduced roles as part of a revamped roster.
Rivers, who nearly walked away at season's end, admitted he has already been kept up at night this summer trying to figure out how to manage this locker room and how to distribute minutes. He's hoping the latter will take care of itself, as winning has a way of helping sort that all out.
"Listen, if everybody is in it for the right reason, there's no problem," said Rivers. "If anyone is not in it for the right reasons, then there's always a problem. We'll find out if we have any of those. We're hoping we don't, and I don' think we do. But, honestly, I don't know. You don't know until -- everyone says the right thing in August.
"I could get the best player in the NBA and say, 'Hey, I'm going to play you 10 minutes,' and he'll agree in August. But when the ball flies up in the air, and you start playing, that's a whole different story."
Much of Boston's success the past three seasons has stemmed from the ability to have players buy into the "Ubuntu" team-first approach.
That absolutely must carry over this season if the Celtics are to achieve their championship aspirations.
2. Is there enough depth at the wing?
While the Celtics did a fantastic job addressing the lack of a true backup point guard -- something that surely hurt the team last season -- by retaining Nate Robinson, adding Delonte West and drafting Avery Bradley, there remains a lack of depth behind Paul Pierce at the swingman position.
The Celtics are set to lean on Marquis Daniels -- everyone from the front office to Shaquille O'Neal has said they expect Daniels to bounce back after an injury-detoured 2009-10 campaign. Still, his history of ailments leaves most wondering if it's only a matter of time until the Celtics are forced to look to the next layer of depth.
And there really isn't one at the moment, though Tony Gaffney should certainly challenge Von Wafer for a roster spot and would add a defensive-minded option at the 3 (which, considering the upgrades made offensively at other spots on the bench, might not be a bad thing).
Even Ainge admits the Celtics were forced to skimp a bit on the wing due to larger concerns (literally).
"Had we not had the [Kendrick Perkins knee] injury, maybe our focus would have been more on backup wings for Paul and Ray [Allen]," said Ainge. "Maybe we would have allocated dollars differently in the offseason. It was still a priority. After we got our center position filled, we filled in [the perimeter] by bringing in Delonte. Nate was huge, because it takes minutes off of Rondo. And Paul and Ray, we worried about those guys playing too many minutes -- it's a long season, but we have great depth, bringing Marquis back. He's good, he's healthy. I think with all those, we have a great deal of depth this season."
But it begs the follow-up question ...
3. Can Marquis Daniels stay healthy and be a steady contributor?
If he can stay on the floor, Daniels will benefit mightily this season from having a defined role. No longer will he be asked to run the offense as a backup point guard (due to the lack of any other serviceable option) and it's also unlikely he'll spend too much time backing up Ray Allen at the 2 (the addition of Delonte West ensures that). So Daniels is free to focus on being Pierce's primary backup with an emphasis on bringing the sort of lockdown defense that (1) he was regarded as bringing early in the 2009-10 season and (2) Tony Allen ultimately brought late in the year, relegating Daniels to the end of the rotation (Allen was a free agent after the season and signed with the Grizzlies).
"It didn't work out for [Daniels last year] and Tony got the minutes there," admitted Ainge. "Tony earned the minutes there, but coming out of training camp, Marquis had them. Marquis outplayed all of our bench through October, November and into December until his [thumb] injury.
"We know what Marquis is capable of doing. Last year, when he came back, we had brought in [Michael] Finley and Nate [Robinson] and it was tough for any of those guys to get in a full rhythm because they were all sharing minutes. We know [Daniels] can play."
4. What can the Celtics expect from Kevin Garnett?
Garnett can't be introduced into conversation without a teammate, coach or general manager noting that he should be that much better this season, another year removed from knee surgery.
There's no disputing that Garnett looked a step slow at times early last season and again in the new calendar year after he endured a hyperextension from being kicked in the knee during a West Coast road trip after Christmas.
Garnett clearly started moving better in the postseason, and those in the Celtics organization remain steadfast that his upward trajectory will continue into the new season. But he'll also turn 35 during the playoffs -- the same age of Rasheed Wallace last season.
"I think Kevin needed some rest, some time off, and he took it, but he's ready for camp," said Ainge. "He's in much better shape than he was last year in training camp. I think that KG got better as the year went on last season, and we saw him moving much better in the playoffs than in the regular season."
Maybe more than anything, the Celtics need Garnett to get his timing back, something he admitted plagued his rebounding numbers (which have tumbled from 12.8 per game in his final season in Minnesota to 7.3 per game for the Celtics last season, the lowest since his rookie campaign).
Speaking of rebounds ...
5. Will the Celtics rebound better than last season?
There's no denying the obvious: The Celtics were awful at rebounding during the regular season (29th in rebounds per game, 38.6; 25th in rebound differential, minus-9.65). While they certainly improved during the postseason, an inability to control the glass may have ultimately spelled their demise against the Lakers in the Finals.
As noted earlier, the team put much of its offseason resources into solidifying the frontcourt, particularly due to Perkins' injury, but also because it was one of the few glaring weaknesses this team exhibited last season.
Ainge does stress that rebounding might not have been exactly what sank the C's in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
"Last year, our rebounding wasn't good in the regular season, but in the playoffs, it was very good," said Ainge. "We got outrebounded bad in Game 7 [vs. the Lakers] but it wasn't always the bigs. The Lakers put three guys on the offensive glass and, particularly in that game, [Ron] Artest really hurt us. I don't think it's necessarily because we didn't have Perk. By the way, we were outrebounded by 10 in the first quarter and we were ahead by 10 points, so we were shooting the ball extremely well. There's other ways to win."
Rivers thinks both O'Neals (Shaq and Jermaine) will help fill the void of Perkins' absence on the glass. But Rivers believes the guards might ultimately be responsible for the team improving its rebounding overall.
"Listen, we're not going to have Perk for a while, so we went out and we got the O'Neal brothers," said Rivers. "I think [size is] an area we've addressed -- on paper. But I think Rondo and Paul, I think all those guys have to rebound better than they did last year, as well. I thought if you looked at our numbers, everyone's numbers were down. Not just the bigs, the guards' numbers were down on defensive rebounding."
Indeed, Pierce averaged a total of 1.7 rebounds less than his career average (4.4 per game vs. 6.1 per game for his career), with nearly all of that coming on the defensive glass. Boston thrived in the playoffs when he attacked the glass and helped get the team in transition. Rondo was likewise down 0.8 rebounds per game from the previous season.
6. How do the Celtics adjust to teams running pick-and-roll against Shaq?
Rivers is already sick of hearing about this one, but it's the first thing his coaching brethren bring up.
"We've thought about it every day," he admitted. "It's not like that goes away. I was just with all the NBA head coaches [last Monday] in Chicago. We had our little thing and every coach said, 'Hey, you're going to see a lot of pick-and-rolls this year.' So we will, and that's fine. We knew that when we [signed Shaq] and we're going to try to be the team that solves it."
The key might simply be to put the best defenders around O'Neal and hope that helps mask his deficiencies. Surrounding him with NBA All-Defense players like Garnett and Rondo will make any center better.
But the larger question might be: How do the Celtics replace Perkins' defensive intensity?
"Listen, they're not going to be able to do some of the things that Perk does, and some of the things that they do, I don't know if Perk can do," said Rivers. "So it's never a perfect substitution. Perk, verbally, we're not going to get that. And that's going to hurt us defensively. I thought him and Kevin were the two loudest guys on defense, and I don't know Shaq or Jermaine well enough to know if they're that verbal. My guess is that they're not. There's no way they are. There's no way they're on the same page that Perk and Kevin are. But that's what camp is for and that's what we're going to work to try to get it to."
7. Can the second unit find offensive consistency?
The Celtics won't have the benefit of allowing their second unit to build immediate chemistry, at least not in the form of a familiar rotation. West will start the season on a 10-game delay due to the suspension stemming from his off-the-court trouble, while one of the O'Neals will occupy Perkins' starting role.
Individually, Boston's bench players must embrace whatever their roles emerge as. Robinson must build off a strong postseason and find that balance between running the second-team offense and still providing a familiar scoring punch; Daniels must embrace the role of defensive stopper behind Pierce; Glen Davis has to continue to emerge in the role as energy player, while improving his scoring around the rim; and the team must figure out how the O'Neals will factor into the second unit both at the start of the year and after Perkins' return.
The Celtics saw just how valuable a strong second unit can be during the postseason as "Shrek & Donkey" were born during a Game 4 triumph over the Lakers in which the reserves played much of the fourth quarter.
8. Can the rookies contribute this season?
In the Big Three era, rookies have hardly had much opportunity to emerge as impact players, but Boston has never been quite as high on a group of first-year players as they are with Bradley, Luke Harangody and Semih Erden.
Bradley is Boston's highest pick (19th overall) to make the roster since Gerald Green and his defensive abilities make him a candidate to sneak into the rotation once his ankle injury is fully healed (Ainge said last week he expects Bradley to miss the start of camp).
Harangody will be hard-pressed to find minutes in a beefed-up frontcourt, but showed a scrappy style of play at summer league that, coupled with unexpected NBA 3-point range, could allow him to carve out a role on a veteran team.
Ainge continues to gush about Erden, who impressed while helping Turkey earn silver at the FIBA World Championship this month. Once again, frontcourt depth will allow the team to bring him along slowly, but he's got enough raw talent to step in if the Celtics become thinned by injuries, particularly at the start of the season with Perkins out.
9. Can Nate Robinson emerge as the backup at point guard?
Robinson admitted last week that he might have overthought his position at times after being acquired by the Celtics at the trade deadline. Rivers wanted Robinson to be the backup ball handler, but didn't want that designation to take away from Robinson's ability to score. But that's what happened.
Robinson looked tentative at times during the regular season, especially as he first digested the playbook. He got caught thinking pass-first too often and seemed to settle for perimeter looks instead of getting to (and converting at) the rim like he had in New York.
That should change this season.
"Coming in, knowing the plays, getting in good with the different guys on the team and just playing," Robinson said when asked about what starting the season in Boston will afford him. "I love the game of basketball. That's why I'm at training camp early; it'll help me out with what Doc wants me to do, where to play, and help me get in a lot better with the guys. I'm not trying to do too much, just play my game."
Increased depth at guard with West and Bradley gives the Celtics some depth if Robinson falters, but if the NBA Finals were an indication, Robinson could emerge as much more of an impact player this season than he showed in an abbreviated 2009-10 stint with Boston.
10. Can this team handle lofty expectations with a limited window of opportunity?
The Heat face lofty expectations after assembling their own Miami Thrice. But they also have the luxury of a six-year window in which to operate. The Celtics aren't quite so lucky.
By keeping the core intact this offseason, Ainge ensured his own Big Three will get at least one more opportunity to net a second world title. The wholesale roster overhaul isn't scheduled for two more seasons, so the Celtics are focused on the here and now.
"We'll enjoy the two seasons while we have them," said Ainge. "Take them one season at a time. But right now we're doing all we can to win a championship right now. Our focus is just this year and we'll worry about the following year next summer."
And for the added pressure?
"I don't know if it's added pressure. I think those guys know where they are in their careers. And they know their window is short. They all know what opportunity lies ahead and there's not a lot left of them."
Echoed Rivers: "I haven't had a meeting [to emphasize the small window], I think they can do the math. I think they have to understand that each year can be their last one."
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.