On Christmas day, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski published a story on James Harden’s interest in returning to the Houston Rockets. The story reported that if Harden did not re-sign with the Philadelphia 76ers, he would strongly consider the Houston Rockets, according to people close to Harden.
It was later reported by Kelly Iko of The Athletic that the Rockets, should Harden opt out of his contract as is expected, are intent on pursuing Harden in the summer of 2023. Iko also reported, much like Wojnarowski some two months earlier, the interest was mutual. Harden still spends portions of his offseason in Houston and has worked out with the Rockets' young core. He is reportedly intrigued by the group's talent and ultimate upside.
It should be noted, Iko reported members of the Sixers' front office are not concerned about a Harden departure as they can offer him the best chance to win and the most money. The Sixers' confidence and Iko and Wojnarowski's reporting imply that Philadelphia remains Harden's most likely destination.
The James Harden rumors remain curious
The trickling of Harden Rockets reunion rumors remains curious. The Sixers are one of the best teams in the league, and while still behind the Celtics and Bucks in the Eastern Conference, they have a strong case for the third-best team in the association. What purpose do these Harden rumors serve, even if they’re true?
NBA contenders try to keep non-basketball storylines to a minimum. And "James Harden is considering opting out and signing with the Rockets" is a storyline that does the Sixers and Harden very little good. It creates unnecessary questions and turmoil for both the player and the organization as they're trying to fight for a championship.
The most callous and cynical observers have suggested that Harden is leaking this information to ensure he receives the maximum payout from the Sixers. Such a maneuver makes plenty of sense after Harden effectively took a pay cut this season to help the Sixers round out their roster, but it could easily wait until the offseason.
Does Harden returning to Houston even make sense for the Rockets?
Personally, I don’t think Harden returning to Houston makes sense for either party. Harden would be walking into a team in the early stages of a rebuild when his best years would likely be at the front of his contract. By the time the Rockets’ core is ready to be a real playoff contender, there’s a chance Harden will be significantly diminished and on a hamstringing contract.
Maybe James Harden misses the city of Houston and wants to finish his career there. Maybe it’s as simple as that. But maybe there’s more to the story than is getting out. Time will tell, but at the moment, it still appears clear that the Sixers are the front runners for Harden in the summer of 2023, with the Rockets in second. How close they are, remains to be seen.