It was a long day in terms of James Harden rumors. They were flying fast and furious and it was nearly impossible to keep up with it all. Harden himself did not sound as if he has predetermined to leave Philadelphia in his post elimination game locker room appearance.
But maybe he simply wanted leverage or was trying to signal openness to returning in order to keep options open in case the Houston Rockets watched how he played in Game 7 and changed their minds.
There are enough swirling reports and rumors it’s hard to know what’s going to happen.
Let’s hop around.
The Rockets still sound hot to trot, despite Harden fading down the home stretch
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski kicked things off Monday by suggesting there’s a “very real possibility” Harden returns to the Rockets:
.@wojespn says there's "a very real possibility" that James Harden returns to Houston— Get Up (@GetUpESPN) May 15, 2023
"If [the Rockets] win the lottery ... and they're the ones who can draft Victor Wembanyama, my sense is that would not necessarily change the Rockets' intentions to pursue James Harden." pic.twitter.com/TvIXpkYxD3
Woj even speculated that if Houston wins the NBA Draft Lottery and selects Victor Wembanyama, that would “not necessarily change the Rockets’ intentions to pursue James Harden.”
Wow. If I were a Rockets fan, I don’t think I’d want James back from a championship pursuit standpoint. I’d much rather try to buy picks with my cap space. Would a team like the Brooklyn Nets like to part with assets to dump Ben Simmons? Would the Sixers give me picks/swaps to take on Tobias Harris? Do the asset rich Knicks need a place to dump Evan Fournier? That’s what I’d be thinking if I’m a Clutch City die hard.
But owner Tilman Fertitta may have watched those Games 1 and 4 performances and thought what Harden did there will put butts in seats, and Harden’s assist-king versatility could help this young core develop. Cha-ching.
The Rockets expect Harden to come, but analysts aren’t necessarily convinced yet
On the latest “The Lowe Post” pod Lowe calls James a “massive flight risk” for the Sixers and adds there is “no real cap room to replace him.”
When Lowe says he doesn’t know what Harden will do, MacMahon interjects confidently “the Rockets think he’s coming, but go on.” Lowe replies “I know the Rockets think he’s coming, I don’t know what he’s gonna do.”
Ironically, Lowe notes the Rockets are the one team who could fully absorb Tobias Harris’ (now expiring $39.2M) salary, so if Harden were to leave for his former club that would simultaneously eliminate Daryl Morey’s single clean “dump Tobias Harris” move. And so there would be few remaining ways to enhance the roster even without the Beard’s next contract on the books.
We got a Phoenix Suns rumor from Brian Geltzeiler of Sirius XM NBA Radio.
With free agency pending for James Harden, I’m hearing there is another team prominently on is radar in addition to Houston. That team is the Phoenix Suns.— Brian Geltzeiler (@BGeltzNBA) May 15, 2023
This idea is interesting for various reasons.
If Harden landed himself a cap-space team such as Houston to drop a max-level offer, and the Sixers believed James would accept it no matter what they did (Philly, limited by an odd age rule can only offer him $8M more in total than a rival team) it might open their minds to the possibility of sign-and-trade scenarios.
If they were to sign-and-trade Harden to a team like Phoenix for example, they might get a player in return at least; even if that was all facilitated by a third team.
Allow your minds to spin with potential Harden, Chris Paul, Player X monstrosity trades, guaranteed to inspire the most poetic sports writers to spin us delightful yarns about ghosts of hoops past, present and future. Harden and Durant united for a third time!
If Morey was not interested in Chris Paul, is there a younger player he might be able to wrangle out of Harden’s departure?
There is belief Harden will remain on South Broad
According to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps:
“Since ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Dec. 25 that Harden could entertain the possibility of returning to Houston this summer, the thought of it has clung to Harden and the franchise. Though multiple team sources admitted Houston is a viable option, there is a belief Harden will return to the 76ers.”
And if there is belief he will return, maybe that explains why both Harden and Joel Embiid sounded more than amenable to the idea as our Erin Grugan analyzed.
Doc vs. Beard?
ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne talked about the Sixers’ future, and pointed out that perhaps the idea of both Doc Rivers and James Harden returning isn’t the most likely scenario:
At the 7:50 mark of the clip above from her appearance on ESPN’s “NBA Today,” Shelburne says:
“They have to start with the decision. Do you want to move forward with James Harden and Joel Embiid as you’re pairing? Is this your superstar pairing moving forward? Because James Harden can become a free agent which means that you have to decide if you want to give him a four-year contract. You want to lock this in for the next four years and that decision from what I understand talking to people…also now becomes tied to the decision about Doc Rivers because James Harden was not all that supportive of Doc Rivers in his press conference yesterday. I think behind the scenes from I told that one person said it would be hard for me to see James wanting to come back and play for Doc again, this is going to be a situation where those two decisions are linked. As we go forward into this into this offseason and you have another second round exit, you have to decide if you want to lock in your future around those two guys, and then if you’re doing that, what does that mean for Doc Rivers because the decision seems to be linked.”
Making a decision on a coach in order to keep James Harden is honestly hilarious. Guy know shows 4 of 7 games in a series, sorry you lose coach picking responsibility. pic.twitter.com/56iFrHyvtd— Spike Eskin (@SpikeEskin) May 15, 2023
I know the idea of the team making any sort of sacrifice their MVP and possibly front office does not want to make all to appease Harden, while simultaneously dropping a max salary on him, after the way that series ended, is unappealing to say the least. It makes for #badculture. But this scenario is unique in that many of you also no doubt, would love to see the Sixers move on from Doc Rivers.
Chris Haynes fully expects them to part ways with Doc.
In that intriguing listen, Haynes (Senior NBA Insider for TNT & Bleacher Report) suggests former Suns’ coach Monty Williams as a “prime candidate” for Philadelphia adding “I’m saying this as if Doc Rivers is fired already - I’m pretty sure that’s the way it’s gonna go down.”
Rivers is still owed $16M over two years. That money is guaranteed, meaning the future Hall of Fame coach would actually be making more money in total by leaving and taking a job elsewhere (even if that was in broadcasting or the like).
Embiid offered glowing praise for the coach whose been at the helm for his two runner up MVPs and first MVP.
But it’s long been speculated that Morey might like to finally hire his own hand-picked coach. And with ring wearing names out there like Mike Budenholzer and Nick Nurse, plus another strong candidate in Williams, there’s a lot to ponder.
Rivers, for all his flaws, put this overmatched Sixers team in prime position to defeat the Boston Celtics, the best team remaining in the playoffs.
So he shouldn’t be too high on our playoff blame chart here. On the other hand, it seems like an easy call for the team to try to upgrade head coach if possible.
I’d have already placed calls to Budenholzer and Nurse, personally. But of course, you would need to check in with Joel about a move like that.
If you had Joel’s blessing to make a key change, maybe the move is to do it but not because it’s Harden’s preference.
What precisely Harden’s beef might be with Doc is worth wondering about too. Does he ultimately want something that Embiid would be hesitant to embrace? A new offensive or defensive scheme, for example? Is he irrationally blaming Doc for his own recent shortcomings? Could they make the right change for the wrong reasons?
That’s plenty for now.
All of this truly, truly stinks. I know some of you reading this are saying: fine, I don’t mind if Harden leaves! And to that I simply ask then what happens? How long could anyone reasonably expect Joel to want to stick around beyond the 2023-2024 season if he did?
There will be slop. Oh yes, there will be more NBA rumor slop. We’ve got you covered you poor unfortunate souls. We’re still in this together.