The reports have been out there since Christmas — James Harden could return to the Houston Rockets this offseason. Multiple sources have told NBC Sports that there was not just smoke but a real fire to that idea since before the All-Star break, and other reports echoing that idea continue to roll in from around the NBA.
Now comes the latest report along those same lines — this time from Philadelphia, where he played basketball this season. From Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who said that league executives expect Harden to go back to Texas:
The belief among NBA executives is that James Harden will rejoin the Houston Rockets this summer…
Sources have said his interest in returning to Houston is mutual and not a ploy to get a lucrative deal out of the Sixers. His mother still lives in the city. He has several business ventures there. And, as one source said, “he’s treated like a god in Houston.”
The family connections and his comfort level are the driving forces in any possible reunion, but there are a lot of questions to be answered, both in Houston and Philadelphia.
• How much are teams willing to pay Harden, at age 33, with his skills showing signs of decline (especially from his peak years last time he was in Houston)? The max the Rockets could offer is four years, around $201 million (an average of just more than $50 million a season), and they have the cap space to do that, but it would be an overpay for where his skills are now and are trending. Plus, that size contract would tie the Rockets’ hands for team building around him (especially with the new CBA). Harden will have to take less, either in Houston or Philadelphia, but what is that number (he is expected to opt out of $35.6 million to become a free agent and he’s not going to want to take a pay cut like he did a season ago)?
• Harden reportedly wants to play for a competitive team. The Rockets are not that coming off a 22-win season. With the cap space plus trades — maybe of the No. 4 pick in the June NBA Draft — plus the growth of young players such as Alperen Şengün and Jalen Green under new coach Ime Udoka, the Rockets can assemble a solid roster. Not a contender like in Philadelphia’s with MVP Joel Embiid and the improving Tyrese Maxey, but a solid one. And maybe the new Rockets roster would allow Harden more offensive freedom, something else he reportedly seeks.
• If Harden leaves, and with Doc Rivers fired as coach, what do the 76ers look like next season? Harden was central to what the 76ers did this season with the third-best record in the NBA, averaging 21 points per game, plus he led the league with 10.7 assists a night. Even if Harden walks the 76ers would not have cap space to get another star. A lot would be asked of Maxey. And you can be sure other teams would be circling, waiting to see if Embiid would grow frustrated and want a change of scenery.
It’s going to be a wild summer in Philadelphia and Houston.