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Report lends more smoke to a James Harden Houston return

Reports are making it sound like James Harden really misses living in Houston. So the Sixers may have to pony up if they want to keep him around beyond 2023.

Philadelphia 76ers v Houston Rockets Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports reported more about the developing James Harden situation on Christmas Day. Lost in our delight about beating the Knicks on national television, we’re catching up on some of the biggest news stories in our orbit.

Somehow, someway, we’re always talking about No 13, aren’t we?

Recall, on Christmas Day, we got A Grinchy Christmas Woj bomb: Harden is ‘seriously considering’ return to Rockets, from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Woj splashed some funky eggnog on our breakfast when he reported:

“His future with the 76ers remains a fluid proposition, one that has been buoyed with eight straight victories, including a 119-112 win over the New York Knicks on Christmas. Harden is on a productive roll with All-NBA center Joel Embiid, and the state of that partnership and the Sixers’ postseason success could well be telltale factors in how Harden proceeds past this season. Experiencing a deep playoff run in a rabid, hungry Philadelphia marketplace could positively impact his thinking — just as the fallout of an early exit could, too.”

As soon as I read it, I knew we needed to wait to see what Fischer had to add. Fischer was the very best source of Harden news last winter, when the 10-time All-Star first became disgruntled in Brooklyn. Fischer was the one to break that story, even when it had seemed as if things were pretty... good...enough in Brooklyn. Among Harden’s reasons for wanting out, Fischer wrote at the time, were seeing Joel Embiid dominate and yearning for his first ring, frustration with Kyrie Irving’s being out of the lineup or a part-time player, issues with Steve Nash’s rotations, and missing a feeling of being a “central magnate” in Houston. After the fact we learned there had been tension between him and Kevin Durant for some time too.

So if you were hoping for this story to go away, unfortunately, for Sixers fans, Fischer has done little to put on our fire. And make no mistake, it kind of is a fire. Our Bryan Toporek has calculated many of the very grim realities if No. 13 were to walk. So if any part of you were thinking “good riddance, he’s not who he once was” you may want to picture a world where you’re competing with five teams for a name like Harrison Barnes and three min-level-salaried players instead of Harden, in addition to Georges Niang, Shake Milton, and Paul Reed. Because you’d have to move on from James and multiple talented reserves to muster up near MLE money, that up to half the league might be able to offer too. The team is definitively better with The Beard around beyond 2023, even if they have to “overpay.”

And that’s what makes this especially uncomfortable for fans.

First things first, go read the piece linked above in full if you haven’t yet. Don’t overreact. Don’t rely on the bits that I pull here. Just see everything it has to say and stay as zen as Georges Niang when lining up a clutch triple in the Garden on National TV, OK?

But here’s a couple bits that jumped out to me.

  • the idea that Harden may want to return to Houston at some point “dates back to before he requested a trade out of Brooklyn, league sources told Yahoo Sports.”
  • “By all accounts, the city of Houston and his foothold in the Rockets organization are something Harden missed the moment he left the franchise....Yet Philadelphia is also not Harden’s city. He still routinely finds opportunities to venture out and spend additional time in Houston amid his ongoing Sixers tenure.”
  • “sources said Harden also longed for the familiarity of Houston, where he rose into a central magnate of the area’s popular culture and entertainment industry. You were someone in Houston if you knew Harden.”
  • “Harden’s apparent interest in rejoining the Rockets resurfaced among league personnel during his contract negotiations with Philadelphia this offseason.”
  • And here is, perhaps, the toughest bit to read. “Harden’s agreement to remain in Philadelphia is a one-year deal plus another option for the 2023-24 season. It is no secret his partnership with Embiid may not last beyond that.”

When you read both the Woj Bomb and this, it’s too difficult to do what I tried doing when I first saw the Grinchy Woj bomb, and that is to dismiss it as simply a dude hoping for a max out of Josh Harris come July. Harden is not eligible for an in-season extension, so this is all a summer play, surely, right?

But there’s just enough smoke from just enough of the top media voices to put Daryl Morey, Elton Brand on high alert. (And I’m probably not doing them any favors if they’re in some high level negotiations with Harden’s camp, reminding everyone of the urgency of this situation, am I?)

My gut of all guts says this and I’ll use block quotes to lend it an air of authority it in no way deserves. Per this humble writer’s dyspeptic gut:

“A story like this was inevitable, Harden needs Josh Harris and Daryl Morey to believe he’ll leave them for nothing (or leave them pursuing measly Josh Richardson-esque sign-and-trades). He just wants a max and won’t give them a discount. But also, the timing of this stinks and something behind the scenes has made him feel a bit disrespected, something we’ll probably never learn. And if the Sixers offer half of what Houston offers, he’ll be on his way ‘cause he just loves it there.”

An eight-game winning streak, Harden and Embiid absolutely balling out, stacking wins over the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and we’re reading he wants to go retire back to Houston? (I know, I know folks made this joke about Jimmy Butler in Miami and it’s still too soon to revisit that). But forgive me for being a little emotional.

Where is Michael Rubin to swoop in and make sure that Harden feels like a Central Magnate in the Delaware Valley and Hamptons? Can’t they throw another huge party with Harden as the star DJ? C’mon, people!

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