James Harden's affinity for the Houston Rockets led to a endless dosage of speculation regarding his potential return to the franchise throughout the 2022-23 season. Fans that had suffered through three years of dismal play became excited about the possibility of the home-grown superstar lifting the team back into contention.
The dream didn’t last long, as reports surfaced before the start of free agency that the Rockets were planning to heavily pursue Fred VanVleet to be the franchise’s next floor general, instead of The Beard.
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith reported that newly-hired Rockets coach Ime Udoka ultimately decided against bringing in Harden after meeting with him and determining that Harden’s style of play wouldn’t quite be best suited for his philosophy (prioritization on defense and ball movement on offense). Smith further stated that Harden left the Rockets feeling as if he wanted to reclaim his status as the league’s top scorer.
All of this was merely speculation until Monday when Harden addressed his exit from the Sixers and his rumored interest in rejoining the Rockets. As it turns out, the Rockets probably wish Harden wouldn’t have said anything, as Harden’s comments will certainly draw the ire of league commissioner Adam Silver.
Harden confirmed that there was, in fact, a meeting with Udoka and the Rockets’ brass. Harden also added that the topic of his playing style did come up (while denying Smith’s account that he wanted to be the league’s top-scorer again).
There’s one glaring issue with this: Harden was never a free agent.
James Harden's latest comments could mean trouble for the Rockets.
In fact, he was under contract after exercising his player option of $35.6 million in 2023-24.
Harden merely confirming that a meeting did exist despite him being under contract is the literal definition of tampering, which the league has been trying to crack down on lately. The Phoenix Suns were docked a second-round pick this past summer for tampering with Drew Eubanks less than two months ago.
The Miami Heat were docked a second-round pick for violating the league’s tampering rules in their pursuit of Kyle Lowry in 2021. The Bulls Chicago Bulls were also docked a second-round pick for violating the league’s tampering rules in their pursuit of Lonzo Ball.
Speaking with players before the official free agency period (which is what Harden states happened) will surely result in the loss of a second-round pick for any team, including the Rockets.
The Rockets would also have a hard time getting the benefit of the doubt here, as Harden shared social media posts last season of him training in the Toyota Center (the Rockets’ facility) while he was still a member of the Philadelphia 76ers. Harden had to have been in contact with someone within the franchise to make that possible (which could also be tampering, depending on who he was directly communicating with).
Fortunately for the Rockets, they have three total second-round picks in 2024 (two unprotected) and four additional second-rounders through 2027, so losing one pick won't be too bad. Just be ready for it.