ESPN analysts warn Rockets against making familiar mistake

Philadelphia 76ers v Atlanta Hawks
Philadelphia 76ers v Atlanta Hawks / Todd Kirkland/GettyImages

The Houston Rockets' desire to contend in 2023-24 has been well-documented by just about anyone who covers the team. The Rockets will have to pay the credit bill from the Russell Westbrook trade in 2019, meaning their 2024 first-round draft pick will go back to the Oklahoma City Thunder (although it's top-4 protected).

This means the Rockets don't have any incentive to tank, like they have in recent years (although the Basketball Gods were on their side during the draft lottery in 2021). The Rockets have been loading up to go big-game hunting, across several fronts, and with the Rockets projected to have $61 million in cap space this summer, they're known to be targeting a reunion with franchise icon James Harden of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Harden surely misses the place he calls home, but has very little reason basketball-wise to leave the City of Brotherly Love for the Space City. 

Harden is playing next to Joel Embiid, a walking MVP finalist and multi scoring champ (much like what Harden used to be in his younger days) and is working alongside former Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who once said Harden was better than Michael Jordan. He surely doesn't want to leave that, and especially if he's not getting the max, which would start at $46.9 million and go upwards yearly.

ESPN analysts offer Rockets advice in James Harden pursuit

But is that a number that the Rockets (or Sixers) should balk at? According to ESPN's Michael Wilbon and Stephen A. Smith, the answer is a demonstrable yes, which the two stated during ESPN's NBA Countdown Playoff Preview.

Wilbon began.

"We aren't talking about the 29-year-old former MVP James Harden. The window is closing on him."

Smith followed suit, in agreement, but much more emphatic.

"I'm not giving James Harden no 40 or 50 million dollars. It's not happening. I'm not doing that.

He's not what he used to be. He's still good. Very good. But I am not giving him that money over a long-term deal. The answer is unequivocally and clearly hell no. No."

The only reason Harden would leave Philly is if the team were to decide against giving him his max, as the two are suggesting. It gets tricky there also, because of the Over-38 rule, which covers any contract spanning four or more years, one of which slated to begin following the player's 38th birthday.

This means Harden wouldn't be eligible for a five-year max with the Sixers.

They'd essentially be able to offer the same number of years as the Rockets: four. Harden's years of service (14, to be exact) make him eligible for the starting point on any deal to be 35 percent of the salary cap (which is set to be $134 million), reaching the aforementioned $46.9 million starting point.

In the years that follow, Harden could receive yearly increases of five percent if he signs in Houston, as opposed to eight percent if he signs in Philly. All told, Houston could offer Harden a four-year deal worth roughly $201 million, whereas Philly could offer him a four-year deal worth approximately $210 million.

When you factor in state tax differences (which Texas doesn't have), the money is essentially the same. It's safe to say, if the Rockets take Smith and Wilbon's advice, they won't be getting Harden's services. 

But with the cap space they'll have this summer, they'd likely bite the bullet for a top guard posting averages of 21 points, a league-leading 10.7 assists, while shooting 38.5 percent from deep.