Yes, the Rockets want James Harden, but is it mutual?

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Four
Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Four / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

The worst-kept secret in league circles has been the Houston Rockets' desire to reunite with Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden. Harden and the Sixers inked a two-year deal worth $68.6 million last summer, which has been viewed as a selfless move, as Harden willingly agreed to take less than the max, to help the team ink former Rockets P.J. Tucker, Danuel House, and De'Anthony Melton. 

The deal included an opt-out after the first season, which would allow Harden to hit the free agent market this summer, giving him an opportunity to tear up the contract and sign a new one. And with the Rockets slated to have $61 million in salary cap space this summer, not to mention the desire to make a splash move, the rumors have been ongoing. The latest person to ignite the flames is Marc Stein, the veteran NBA insider.

"The Houston Rockets' determination to make an offseason splash that vaults them up the Western Conference ladder continues to be a popular talking point across the league.

Even before Harden rumbled for 45 points in Philadelphia's Game 1 win at Boston — with the benefit of just four trips to the free-throw line — Houston had already convinced numerous rivals that it is serious about the plan to become a summertime bidder for The Beard."

Stein joins a bevy of other insiders who have reported the same thing, starting with ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski on Christmas Day. It's worth noting that much of what we've heard regarding a potential Harden-Rockets reunion has centered around the fact that the Rockets have interest in him.

Sure, the Rockets want James Harden, but is it mutual?

What's been unclear is whether he feels the same way about coming back to Houston. This is the important part because it would involve him leaving a formidable contender, anchored by an MVP in Joel Embiid, and his long-time running mate Daryl Morey.

Then there's the asking price. Harden surely knows the Rockets' financial situation and sees instant dollar signs when he envisions returning to the Space City. The Sixers could have trepidation as it pertains to giving Harden a full max (4 years $211 million if he remains in the City of Brotherly Love), and the Rockets, who are desperate to get back to contention, would be willing to pay that price to ink a marquee player (4 years $201 million if he comes to Houston).

Would a $10 million swing the balance for Harden? After all, that's just a little of $2 million for a guy who has made well over $300 million in his NBA career, not even including the endorsement deals.

Harden's play on the floor proves he can certainly still play at a high level, as he averaged 21 points and a league-leading 10.7 assists during the regular season. And the Rockets could certainly use his ability to facilitate, as they realized that Kevin Porter Jr. is better served on the wing and not at the point guard position.

In spite of that, giving the 34-year-old Harden a contract with an annual number of $50 million for four years could be dangerous, as we've already started to see signs of physical wear-and-tear on the former MVP (44 games played in 2020-21, 65 games played in 2021-22, and 58 games in 2022-23). 

And it will certainly take that to get his interest. If the Rockets seek to bring him in at a lower number, couldn't the Sixers just match it?

It'll be interesting to see how it shapes up this summer but something tells me this won't be the last time we hear about a potential Harden to Houston return, much to the chagrin of Philly fans.