We have been hearing reports since the end of 2022 about the Houston Rockets being interested in a James Harden reunion. The 33-year-old guard is widely expected to opt out of his $35.64 million player option this offseason and test the market. In reporting today from Jake Fischer of Yahoo! Sports, the topic of bringing Harden back to Houston was prevalent in the Rockets’ conversations with head coaching candidates. Houston hired former Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka this week for the role. From Fischer:
“The Rockets did make it clear the organization was aiming for an experienced coach for its sideline, one who can hold young players accountable as the Rockets attempt to build from a lottery team into a playoff threat. Owner Tilman Fertitta has labeled this iteration of Houston’s construction as “Phase 2” of the team’s retooling from its past championship window starring James Harden. All three of Fertitta, Udoka and Rockets general manager Rafael Stone mentioned Houston’s bounty of cap space during Udoka’s introductory news conference on Wednesday, and it seems quite apparent the Rockets hold motivations to add significant talent this offseason.
Houston’s long-rumored potential reunion with Harden, the 76ers guard who holds a player option for 2023-24, in addition to the Rockets’ chances at landing other primary free agents and top-billing trade targets this offseason, were repeated themes throughout Houston’s conversations with coaching candidates, sources said. Middleton has been another potential target discussed throughout the Rockets’ coaching search, sources said. Udoka spent time with Harden as an assistant during the All-Star guard’s first season in Brooklyn. And Celtics All-Star Jaylen Brown, whom rival executives are closely monitoring as he becomes extension eligible this summer, has been one of Udoka’s most public supporters after Boston suspended the coach following an improper relationship with a Celtics staffer. The Rockets, sources said, also addressed the idea of including second-year guard Jalen Green, the No. 2 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, as part of a package for acquiring established star talent.”
First of all, it remains deeply funny that Plan A for Phase 2 of retooling after the championship window starring James Harden is...signing James Harden. It’s like Jack Shephard shouting, “We have to go back!”
From the Sixers’ perspective, though, it’s increasingly clear that the team will be unlikely to get Harden at a discount for the second offseason in a row. The Rockets look poised to drop the bag and offer their former star a max deal to help lift the organization back out of the cellar. As our Bryan Toporek wrote last month, the Over 38 rule largely eliminates the financial leverage the Sixers would have over another free agency suitor, despite having full Bird rights. So Harden’s decision will come down to other factors.
We know James still feels a strong connection with the city of Houston and would probably prefer to live there over other locations, all else being equal. The Sixers’ biggest advantage will be having Joel Embiid as a teammate and the on-court success that pairing and the rest of roster can bring.
The upcoming second-round series against Boston might be instrumental towards Harden’s decision. An exit at the hands of the Celtics and he might think, “Sure, we win more games here, but we still haven’t gotten out of the second round, so why wouldn’t I just live where I’m happiest off the court.” Of course, if the team receives a performance from The Beard like we saw at the end of the Miami series last year, many Sixers fans might think, “Good riddance.”
We’ll spill plenty more digital ink on this topic when the actual offseason arrives. For now, if the team wants to keep as many doors open as possible to retain James Harden, take a page out of Al Davis’ playbook: “Just win, baby.”