Over the last few seasons, the Boston Celtics have positioned themselves as a perennial contender in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
A couple of seasons ago, the Celtics just missed out on a trip to the NBA Finals, losing to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games.
Then last season, they got demolished in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in five games by league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Celtics made wholesale changes this past offseason. In the 2019 NBA Draft, Boston selected Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, and Tremont Waters. They also signed center Tacko Fall as an undrafted free agent and converted his contract into a two-way deal.
After that, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford both declined their player options and became free agents. From there, Boston flipped backup point guard Terry Rozier in a sign-and-trade for All-Star point guard Kemba Walker.
The addition of Walker, along with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Gordon Hayward currently has the Celtics in third place in the East (41-18).
However, getting out of the East will not be an easy task this season or in the future with the Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors, and Bucks all looming in the foreground.
That being said, here are five keys to long-term contention for Boston:
1. Where Art Thou Romeo Langford?
As previously mentioned, the Celtics used one of three draft picks on guard Romeo Langford last summer.
Langford, who was selected with the No. 14 overall pick, spent only one season at Indiana University. In 32 games with the Hoosiers, the 6-foot-4 wing averaged 16.5 points and 5.4 rebounds in 34.1 minutes per game.
With that type of production in college, one would think that Langford would make an immediate impact as a rookie. However, that has not been the case due to nagging injuries.
But when healthy, he has shown flashes with the Maine Red Claws in the NBA G-League and Celtics. On Feb. 5, Langford made his first career NBA start against the Orlando Magic.
Then on Feb. 7, he scored a career-high 16 points on 5-of-11 shooting from the field and had three impressive blocks against the Atlanta Hawks.
2. The Maturation of Jaylen Brown
Back in October, the Celtics took some criticism for signing wing player Jaylen Brown to a massive four-year, $115 contract extension.
Last season, Brown averaged 13 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.4 assists in 25.9 minutes per game. He also shot 46.5-percent from the field and 34.4-percent from three-point range on 3.7 attempts per game.
However, the 23-year-old wing has proved the doubters wrong this season, turning in a borderline All-Star campaign. In 49 games, Brown is averaging 20.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.2 assists in 34 minutes per game.
If the former third overall pick can continue to work on his game and produced at a high-rate, then that might force Gordon Hayward’s hand for next season.
3. Gordon Hayward’s 2020-21 Decision
Just like this past offseason with Irving and Horford, Gordon Hayward will have to decide on if he will opt into the last year of his four-year, $128 million contract.
If Hayward decides to opt-in, he will make $34.2 million next season and then become a free agent in 2021. However, if he doesn’t pick up his player option, then the Celtics could use that money to upgrade their frontcourt significantly.
During the trade deadline, the team was reportedly interested in trading for Rockets center Clint Capela, who was ultimately sent to the Atlanta Hawks.
As things are constructed, Hayward is slotted as the team’s starting SF with Tatum listed as the starting PF. This season, he is averaging 17.1 points per game and shooting 38.2-percent from three-point range.
Before the deadline, Hayward was asked about his future with the Celtics and gave this response.
“It’s something for sure I’ll have to think about, but I’m not thinking about it at all right now,” he said (h/t Boston Herald). “I want to win a championship here. I mean, that’s what my goal is. That’s what my focus is. You know, after the season, you sit down and discuss things.”
4. Jayson Tatum Establishing Himself as a Top-10 Player
It’s only a matter of time before the discussions start taking place about where Jayson Tatum ranks among his NBA peers. Before this season began, Sports Illustrated ranked the former Duke standout 35th out of the top-100 NBA players.
However, one can make the case that Tatum is playing better than the other players ranked ahead of him — De’Aaron Fox (No. 33), CJ McCollum (No. 32), and DeMar DeRozan (No. 31).
Tatum is having an All-star season for the Celtics and one of the reasons why their title window should be open. He is averaging 23.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.9 steals, and 1.3 steals in 34.5 minutes per game.
This time next year, we should be talking about Tatum as a top 10-15 player in the association.
5. Add Andre Drummond or DeMarcus Cousins to Start at Center
For the Celtics to take that next step and possibly win an NBA title, they need a dominant center in their frontcourt. Before the trade deadline commenced, Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports reported that the Celtics were one of the teams that registered interest in Andre Drummond.
Drummond, who is a phenomenal rebounder and low post scorer, was ultimately traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But just like Hayward, he has a $28.7 million player option for next season.
Would Drummond opt-out to become a free agent this summer? Without a doubt, especially with certain teams possibly looking for a center. Boston could be on his shortlist, but they might not have cap space to sign him.
Therefore, a cheaper option for the Celtics could be DeMarcus Cousins, who tore his ACL back in August. Cousins signed a one-year deal with the Lakers but was waived late last month to free up a roster spot for Markieff Morris.