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James Harden Rockets

(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Could James Harden possibly return to the Houston Rockets?

James Harden Rockets
(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Could James Harden possibly return to the Houston Rockets?

On Christmas Day, James Harden denied any speculation of possibly considering a return to the Houston Rockets, where he spent eight-and-a-half seasons from 2012-20, despite the end of his tenure ending on a sour note.

“I’m here, we’re playing very well and I don’t know where that report came from,” Harden said. “But I’m excited to be here and we’re playing well. We’re continuing to get better.”

While Harden unsurprisingly denied the rumors, when there’s smoke, there’s fire. And the smoke surrounding a possible Harden-Rockets reunion has been foggier than ever.

Sources told reporters Sam Amick and Kelly Iko of The Athletic published a report Wednesday that Houston is “widely expected” to pursue Harden, should he decline his upcoming $35.6 million player option, but the interest might also be mutual.

“Sources, who like all of the other sources in this story were granted anonymity so that they could speak freely, have told The Athletic Houston is widely expected to pursue the 13-year veteran point guard if, as is expected, he declines his player option for the 2023-24 season,” Amick and Iko wrote. “And even more surprisingly, sources with knowledge of Harden’s outlook say he’s as serious about a possible return now as he was when he left town.”

Harden opted out of his $47.4 million player option this last offseason with Philadelphia — the final year of his previous deal — so Philadelphia could sign P.J. Tucker to the full mid-level and Danuel House to the bi-annual while remaining below the $157.0 million hard-cap. Harden eventually signed a two-year, $68.6 million deal with a player option for 2023-24.

“According to a high-ranking Sixers source with knowledge of the team’s operation, they are ‘unconcerned’ about possibly losing him this summer,” Amick and Iko wrote. “This confidence, it seems, is rooted in the belief that only Philadelphia can provide the two things Harden holds most dear: A chance to contend for a title, and maximum earning potential.”

From a basketball and financial perspective, the Sixers rightfully shouldn’t feel a reason to be too concerned regarding a departure.

The 33-year-old guard’s averaging 21.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, an NBA-most 10.7 assists and 1.3 steals, shooting 45.0 percent and 39.3 percent from 3-point range. The Sixers have a perennial MVP candidate in Joel Embiid, the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, a quality supporting cast in Tucker, De’Anthony Melton, Jalen McDaniels, Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey, among others. As Jarrod’s previously pointed out, the Sixers are a contending team with a top-8 offense and a top-7 defense, even if they’re a tier below the aforementioned Celtics and Bucks.

The Rockets, meanwhile, have been a dumpster fire this season with no signs of improvement on the horizon.

Financially, Philadelphia would not be subject to the hard-cap next season (like they are now), should they not sign anyone beyond the projected $7.0 million taxpayer MLE or acquire anyone via sign-and-trade. Under those circumstances, if Harden opts out, the Sixers would be eligible to sign him to a five-year, $272 million extension starting at $46.9 million; Houston and others with max cap space would only be eligible to give him four years worth just north of $200 million, should the projected 2023-24 salary cap remain at $134 million.

Though a sour ending in the playoffs could all change Harden’s motives. Maybe he stays for one last shot, or maybe he decides to leave. Time will tell.

Amick and Iko note that sources, emotionally, with knowledge have told them that his “heart will always be in Houston.”

“For starters, it’s the city where he’s lived the longest in his adult life,” Amick and Iko wrote. “He continues to have strong ties to the community, in addition to his family and other extensive relationships throughout the area. His nonprofit, Impact 13, aims to improve the quality of life in areas like education and financial freedom for disenfranchised youth and women.

“As a businessman, he’s also intertwined with the city. He’s a part-owner of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo. He’s also the owner of Thirteen restaurant, one of the most vibrant and popular destinations in town. In a lot of ways, Harden is Houston. And Houston is home.

“To that end, sources say his relationship with Tilman Fertitta and his son, Patrick Fertitta, remains strong. Patrick has worked closely with his father as a liaison between ownership and management for years.”

Read full story here (behind paywall).

It’s all speculation right now. A lot can change between now and July, when free agency begins — but once again, when there’s smoke, there’s fire. This will be a situation to monitor from both perspectives over the next several months, and this almost certainly won’t be the last time we hear the two parties linked together before free agency.


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