The 2021 trade that sent James Harden from the Houston Rockets to the Brooklyn Nets was truly the end of an era for Rockets fans. Harden had been the franchise's greatest player in recent memory and he lifted the franchise into the postseason for eight consecutive seasons.
Harden made it clear that he was open to returning to the Rockets down the road, much like LeBron James did after leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. Harden tried his hand at winning a championship while playing alongside MVPs, both in Brooklyn and with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Eventually Harden missed home and wanted to rejoin the Rockets. We first heard on Christmas Day that Harden was open to playing in Houston once more, when ESPN's senior NBA writer Adrian Wojnarowski dropped the bombshell ahead of Philly's Christmas Day matchup with the New York Knicks.
What followed was months and months of speculation regarding a Harden return to Houston, leaving many to assume that it was a foregone conclusion that he was coming back home.
Well, as it turns out, it nearly happened, were it not for Harden himself. According to ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, Harden met with newly-hired Rockets coach Ime Udoka and the rest of the Rockets' brass and turned them off during the meeting, as he expressed his desire to return to the three-time scoring champ that he became earlier in his career.
Why James Harden bears blame for failed Rockets reunion
Smith explained the nature of the Rockets' meeting with Harden on ESPN's First Take.
"James Harden actually talked himself out of a max deal because he went in there talking about how he wanted to return to being that scoring champion and Ime Udoka and them were like 'Nah, we ain't trying to have that here. We're building something a little bit different.' Had he come in there and said the right things, they would have given him a max four-year deal. He talked himself out of his own max deal."
As is always the case with Smith, we don't know who his sources are (or if he even has sources, for that matter), but it's been well-reported that Udoka squashed any possibility of Harden rejoining the franchise. And rightfully so, if Harden's focus was strictly on returning to the superstar version of himself.
The Rockets ultimately shelled out $130 million over three years for the 2019 NBA champion, who possesses leadership skills superior to Harden, which has already been on display in the three months since he signed with the Rockets. Based on that, the Rockets made the right decision.
Even if they were forced by Harden to pivot to a Plan B.