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Report: Rockets ‘widely expected’ to pursue James Harden in free agency, hints of mutual interest abound

This isn’t really happening, is it?

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Houston Rockets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

When the 76ers traded Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and a pair of future first-round picks for James Harden (and Paul Millsap), many assumed they would work out a long-term deal that summer.

But if that was discussed at the time, Harden’s lackluster performance in the second round caused mostly by his hamstring issue, may have dampened the mood and the market around the three-time scoring champion.

We don’t know what type of deal the Sixers wanted to get him to sign last summer. My guess is they offered something in the realm of a max two-year deal with a player option for year three. But Harden instead opted for a two-year deal, with his option coming just 12 months later in 2023. That means, in all likelihood, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent for the second time in his career in a few months.

And the Houston Rockets, his former team, the team with the worst record in the NBA, sound like they really want a reunion.

Per a new report in The Athletic by Sam Amick and Kelly Iko, there’s more than a bit of smoke to this potential fire:

“Harden, sources with knowledge of the situation say, made it abundantly clear [back in 2020] the feeling [of wanting him to return expressed by Rockets’ owner Tilman Fertitta] was mutual. There were no promises made that day — on either side — but everyone who was part of those final Harden days in Houston knew there were strong indications he’d be back, specifically, in the summer of 2023.

Fast forward to the present day, and the whispers about a Harden-Rockets reunion are louder than ever....

This possibility, which was born out of those parting talks and first reported by ESPN in late December, is as strong now as ever. 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. 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.”

Amick and Iko note that despite the public perception of Harden forcing his way out, there was:

“ bad blood between the two parties, just a collective feeling of disappointment. Instead of having it turn into an arduous, drawn-out saga that absorbed most of the season, Harden’s exit was a streamlined process from start to finish....The sense was, in the closing moments of Harden’s time in Houston, that the door for a potential return was still open. Harden had to leave to try and achieve his dream of winning a championship but this was by no means a goodbye. It was more of a “see you later.”

Daryl Morey recently gave a Q & A with Sports Illustrated and expressed he wasn’t too concerned. This new report echoes that sentiment from the 76ers:

“Amid all the evidence Harden might be planning a return to Houston, here’s the part where his situation gets so fascinating: According to a high-ranking Sixers source with knowledge of the team’s operation, they are “unconcerned” about possibly losing him this summer. 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.”

The Sixers can offer the most money this summer of course, and the better chance to win between the two teams. Houston could try to cash in on some of the picks they acquired from the Nets and onboard some veteran help for him too, for what it’s worth.

So the report notes that the Sixers will have to shell out to keep him:

“As Harden tea leaves go, though, this much we know above all else: The money— to no one’s surprise — will matter a great deal. And if Harden is going to stay with the Sixers, one can safely assume he expects to be rewarded handsomely for his recent sacrifices both on and off the floor.”

Iko (who has estimated there is a 70 percent chance Harden returns) and Amick also note that this isn’t simply a standard leverage play either, there is real smoke to the idea Harden, who still owns a home in Houston, works out at their facility when in town, and has lots of family and ties to the area, is open to the idea.

But reading the above certainly furrows the brow too.

If I were James Harden’s agent, I’d want just one credible destination with cap space to offer my client a max, or something close to it. That would also open up the possibility that sign-and-trades from other contending teams becomes an avenue for new scenery.

Remember when the Sixers were truly worried that Jimmy Butler might leave for Los Angeles or New York? Knowing you could lose a star for nothing to cap space teams suddenly makes acquiring a player like Josh Richardson that much more “appealing” … or something.

If some clever team like the Clippers said “you may as well take Norman Powell, or James is going to take that offer from Houston” leaving you empty handed, now Philadelphia would consider that. And now Harden would have choices.

Harden may want as many options as he can get, so that his camp can say to Morey “you know this isn’t what we’d hoped it would be, we don’t love being second fiddle to Joel Embiid, we don’t love the coach who caters everything to Jo, the weather is cold, if you want James to stay, you need to offer a fifth year,” or something similar.

None of this is to suggest the report isn’t credible. Amick and Iko are excellent reporters. Amick dropped our now infamous list of 30 players Morey was targeting during the Ben Simmons saga. But if this was a leverage play to squeeze the Sixers, step one would be getting a big offer from a cap space team, and convincing the world your client would be very happy taking it.

For now, put me in this camp: what happens in the playoffs, what’s said after a possible elimination by teammates, and coaches, that stuff will all matter. But if the Sixers drop the most money on the table by a lot, they’ll have the inside track to retain their man. If they try to get cute, and don’t wind up offering as much as another team, or offer the exact same amount... well, mess around and find out, I guess.

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