Everybody is always talking about James Harden. So why stop now?
There has been a whole pile of Harden rumors over the last handful of days. Let’s dive in.
If the Sixers ran it back but— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) June 11, 2023
-the Bucks lost lopez
-Miami lost a couple undrafted studs
-ny waited til ‘25
-Boston did something odd
Nick Nurse teases Harden clues on new ESPN podcast
The former Raptors, ring-donning coach, may have dropped clues about how close to a title he feels this Philadelphia team is. Nurse joined Brian Windhorst & The Hoop Collective and had this to say about coaching the Sixers next season:
“I think they’re very, very close...it’s probably wrinkles and tweaks and gotta dig into it a little more before I figure out what some of that stuff is, but I think a lot of it’s just gonna be a vision of trying to get where everybody wants to go and then a plan that aligns with that vision.”
(Yes NN used present not past tense). They’re close. Very, very close.
Hearing him say things like that, certainly does not make it sound as if the Sixers believe Harden leaving is any foregone conclusion, does it?
Chris Haynes and Marc Stein
Next up in the podosphere was the latest edition of “#thisleague UNCUT: The NBA’s annual off-season frenzy is almost here” featuring NBA Insiders Chris Haynes of TNT and Marc Stein, with his own Substack NBA newsletter.
On that pod, Haynes had this to say:
“Depends on who you talk to, some people say James Harden is conflicted on whether to return to Houston or stay in Philly. Other people will say they believe that it’s a done deal that it’s Houston that James Harden is going to....That owner [Tilman Fertitta] is not happy being in that transitional phase. So he’s trying to get out and get to some wins and they believe getting a star next season that that is priority No. 1....trying to change the tide and get back to their winning ways. ”
Haynes sounds like he’s referencing some of the sources Shams Charania has been talking to, when Haynes says “some people say Harden is conflicted.”
And to Haynes’ point that there are also others who think this is a done deal, Keith Pompey, of Philadelphia Inquirer reported (back in Mid May) the “belief among NBA executives is that James Harden will rejoin the Houston Rockets.”
So this may truly be a depending on who you talk to situation. On the pod with Haynes, Marc Stein adds that:
“...there’s a lot of names that the Rockets are being linked with beyond just James Harden and that’s not really a surprise because the Rockets are gonna have an estimated $59.1M in salary cap space... Harden [is] wrestling with the idea of going to Houston or staying in Philly....”
Stein goes on to mention names like Fred VanVleet, Cam Johnson, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Dillon Brooks, all as players the hell-bent-star-hunting Rockets have been linked to.
Then Stein references his own recent report. “I’ve been told that the Rockets will weigh a run at Kyrie Irving in the event they are not able to convince James Harden to leave Philadelphia,” Stein said.
And to that point, Haynes predicted the market for Kyrie Irving will actually pick up a bit over the next week or so, beyond just the Dallas Mavericks.
Stephen A. Smith
Moving on to ESPN’s First Take.
"I'm not guessing. I'm telling you what I know. I'm going to put this story to bed right now."@stephenasmith tells us exactly why Houston is in the mix for going after James Harden pic.twitter.com/CqsPlemdHa— First Take (@FirstTake) June 12, 2023
Stephen A. Smith appeared on “First Take” Monday and talked about Harden too.
Intriguingly, he prefaced his point by insisting that he’s not simply guessing here but that he really knows the deal!
Ben DuBose of RocketsWire noted that Smith is “close” with the Rockets owner so this isn’t something we should be so quick to dismiss, even though Stephen A. isn’t exactly Woj when it comes to scoops.
Stephen A and Tilman are close. So when he says he doesn’t think it’s happening, I would listen.— Ben DuBose (@BenDuBose) June 12, 2023
My take, as a Harden supporter, this is perfectly reasonable. If he *only* wants back for the money and a four-year max, I agree that’s probably too risky.https://t.co/IB2KBtOATw
In that clip above, Smith explains that in order for Harden to get himself dealt to Brooklyn back in 2021, he came to an understanding with Fertitta that if both sides were open in the future, Harden might return.
“I don’t believe he’s going back [to Houston]. I don’t even believe he wants to go back. He just wants his money.
You’re thinking, if there’s one organization that will give you the money, it’ll be them. I would say to you, ‘That ain’t gonna happen.’
Because after watching him in this postseason, [Houston] might be willing to give him a two-year deal, but they ain’t willing to give him a four-year deal, particularly at max dollars. And so because of that, I really don’t see that happening.”
That idea backs up Windhorst’s recent assertion that Houston could simply be a “leverage play” for Harden’s camp to get more money out of 76ers owner Josh Harris and Daryl Morey.
It also adds validation to a Steve Bulpett Heavy.com report speculating Harden is no longer a max-level player.
“You’re always welcome back here,” [Fertitta] told [Harden] in so many words during a goodbye phone call between the two [back in 2021],” Sam Amick and Kelly Iko reported back in March.
The Rockets have enough cap space to at least try to sweeten the pot, selling the 2018 MVP on the idea of vaulting themselves into semi-contenders.
If things were binary, the Sixers could offer a better shot to win than the Rockets. But if there are teams like the Phoenix Suns in the mix, that makes things far trickier for Morey and co. to run it back.
ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Yahoo Sports’ Jake Fischer both recently talked about the mere possibility of Harden playing for Phoenix next season.
But John Gambadoro of Sports 98.7 FM Phoenix isn’t buying it.
Rockets’ Smith Jr. and Green weigh in
We learned over the weekend that Rockets 2022 third overall pick, Jabari Smith Jr., may not mind if James signs in Houston this summer.
“That’d be great. The team would want a Hall of Famer [in Harden.] It’s promising, but we’re not just banking on that. We’re still focused on us and how we can improve as a team.— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) June 11, 2023
…Come back home. He did so much for that city; there’s still so much love for him in Houston.” https://t.co/BAaSBS24mA
But Rockets’ 2021 second overall pick, Jalen Green, didn’t sound nearly as excited about the idea when asked about it on “Podcast P with Paul George last month:”
Bottom line: show me the money
In the end, it’s all starting to feel like it may come down to a combo of dollars and teammates.
When we hear that rival execs around the league (like Pompey reported) or execs at the Draft Combine (like Ryen Russillo mentioned) think this is a done deal and he’s gone, how do we resolve that with the fact others like Charania, Windhorst, Smith, Daryl Morey, and possibly even Nick Nurse don’t sound like they feel this way at all?
Maybe there was recently a belief the Rockets would simply max Harden. And maybe that is no longer the case?
Could that have changed this equation? Maybe this is going to come down to dollars, and maybe the Sixers are going to offer a whole bunch more (or an additional year) than the Rockets are willing to. And we’ll look back at all this as simply noise, James’ camp working tirelessly to maximize his next (and last large) contract.
If Harden was a straight up, stone-cold, four-year max player, he would just be choosing between two very comparable offers. The Sixers can only offer about $8M more than Houston on a four-year deal; that difference doesn't even beat Texas’ state tax advantages, let alone how much James could save on travel expenses since he’s always visiting H-Town as a member of the Sixers anyways.
So maybe these franchises are still deciding what he’s worth to them, and in Fertitta’s case, still deciding who else they might be able to get instead of or in addition to The Beard.
For example, might the Rockets be more willing to pay James a max if they knew, say Khris Middleton was coming too? And if not, without a second-star might they be less inclined to pony up?
What if a Rockets’ young player, a future Nets’ pick or two, and the No, 4 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft got Houston in the trade ballpark for New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram? What if half of that could land them CJ McCollum?
The Pelicans are after Scoot Henderson, per Shams. They can offer #14 this year and have a ton of future picks to add with young players on the roster. The Hornets would obviously want a ton. Would the Pelicans be willing to move Brandon Ingram? Or even Zion Williamson? https://t.co/exbx0Cv475— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) June 12, 2023
Could Harden’s decision depend on something like that? What about Toronto’s Pascal Siakam or O.G. Anunuby, could either of them be on the move? Would one of them as a possible running mate make a tough decision easier?
I suppose if I had to guess, as of this writing, I’d say if the Rockets added a legit talent and if their offer was comparable to the Sixers’ offer, then the combined odds that Harden would a) sign in Houston or b) find a way to maneuver himself to a team like Phoenix would ultimately outweigh the chances Philly re-signs him.
Two ifs sure,...but neither difficult to imagine. So we’ll stay glued to Rockets updates with the NBA Draft now just days away. If you want Philly to re-sign James, you should probably root for the Rockets to simply make a pick and keep their young movement going.
That’s really what they should be doing anyway.
All I know is that I don’t think this thing is decided one way or another yet. And that’s probably exactly how Harden’s camp wants it.
You want me, start backing up the brinks, go land me some top-end talent, and roll out your red carpets, your red, white and blue carpets, or your orange and purple carpets!