James Harden was dealt to the Philadelphia 76ers from the Brooklyn Nets after another turbulent departure from a team, but it hasn’t even been two full years. Already, rumors are circulating that he may join another team. The Athletic’s Sam Amick and Kelly Iko say that Harden is “serious” about a potential return to the Houston Rockets, the team with which he spent nine seasons. In this scenario, though, it would be like reuniting with an old buddy.
When Harden was first said to be “considering” a return to Houston this summer, the story first broke in December, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Harden’s well-documented affection for Houston at the time seemed to be the origin of what at the time seemed to be a flimsy curiosity. But right now, it seems to be on the verge of becoming a reality.
The Athletic claims:
“If, as anticipated, the 13-year veteran point guard rejects his player option for the 2023–24 season, Houston is widely anticipated to pursue him. Even more unexpectedly, individuals familiar with Harden’s mindset claim that he is still as serious about a potential comeback as he was when he left town.”
About this hypothetical reunion, Sam Quinn wrote in December that it didn’t make sense from the Rockets’ point of view. With a core of youthful talent that includes Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., Alperen Sengun, and Kevin Porter Jr., Houston is steadily rebuilding. In addition to all the future draft cash they acquired from the initial Harden trade that sent him to Brooklyn, they are also well-positioned to acquire a high lottery pick this summer. The addition of Harden would probably hinder the growth of those young players and hasten the process by 10 times until Houston is ready to compete in the Western Conference, which is usually congested.
At most, Houston could use the Nets’ draft capital to sign another star to complement Harden and instantly move into the running for a playoff spot. But that’s a difficult road to go, particularly with an aging Harden who would almost certainly demand a maximum contract from Houston, a deal that might not hold up well over time.
Given his widespread admiration for Houston, Harden doesn’t find it odd that he would like to move back there. Only a month ago, when talking about his time with the Nets, which he labeled “frustrating,” the former league MVP praised Houston.
In Houston, I was in a pretty good position, Harden claimed. “We obviously had little chance of winning a title, but I felt good. It was therefore for a cause that I decided to uproot myself from my family and all the things I had built there, moving to Brooklyn for a year and a half to try to just get up and leave.”
The Rockets are able to provide him the maximum contract he’s likely seeking, whereas the Sixers may not be as keen to do so even if they can offer the most money and an additional year to the deal. This is true even though Houston isn’t currently suited to compete for a championship. Despite all the speculations that Harden may be considering a return to Houston, The Athletic reports that the Sixers are apparently “unconcerned” about the prospect of losing him in the offseason. Philadelphia is banking on its ability to give Harden a maximum contract and its chance to claim a championship.
With Joel Embiid enjoying a career year and once again being in the MVP debate, it is true that the Sixers appear to be title contenders on par with any other team. Harden is leading the league in assists and shooting the ball more effectively than he did during his MVP season, but not performing at the same level as his heavy usage MVP days. The Sixers are third in the Eastern Conference thanks to the partnership of Embiid and Harden, and they are well-positioned to advance far in the postseason.
Nevertheless, even though Philadelphia appears to be in a fantastic scenario from a standpoint of winning, that doesn’t always imply a player wants to stay. Despite making the NBA Finals three years in a row and taking home two championships, Kevin Durant left the Golden State Warriors. Perhaps Harden prefers the lifestyle Houston offers to the pursuit of a championship, or perhaps he believes both are achievable with the Rockets following a roster overhaul. Despite the reason, Houston is “confident,” according to The Athletic, that they will meet with their former player this summer.
All of this may be smoke and mirrors to gain power with Philadelphia, but other celebrities have left win-win situations for factors unrelated to success. The Sixers should be anxious about losing Harden for nothing if there is even the slightest potential that he will leave Philadelphia.