It’s a new day. And you know what that means? You nailed it. More James Harden rumors!
Today we caught the “The HoopsHype Podcast with Michael Scotto.” Scotto was joined by Kelly Iko of The Athletic. The two had an intriguing back-and-forth about the pending NBA draft, the upcoming free agency period, plus trade rumors, all from the perspective of the Houston Rockets.
Here are some key takeaways.
Get ready for a big splash Rockets summer?
Scotto wondered if we might see a big splash trade in Houston, along with a big free agency signing... or three. He lobbed the question over to Iko, a Rockets insider for many years now.
Recall, Iko ventured there was a “70 percent chance Harden would be back in Houston for the 2023-2024 season,” back in February.
Per some of the pod transcript, via HoopsHype Rockets rumors:
“Scotto: Could you see [Houston] trading that fourth pick for a guy like Pascal Siakam or another win-now type of player?
Iko: The problem with trying to find a trade is whoever you trade the No. 4 pick for is someone you’d have to be OK with taking up a big chunk of your cap space....If you were to trade No. 4 for a guy like Siakam, does he move the needle enough to where you add James Harden are you cooking with gas? … It’s pretty difficult.”
Narrator: No, they wouldn’t be cooking with gas.
It sounds like the Rockets are weighing just how much Harden would be worth to them, both with and without other All-Star caliber players.
Maybe the Rockets would feel much more comfortable “overpaying” one player if it helped them land two or three others? If you pay him, they will come?
No Harden max from Houston?!
If you’ve been following this story as obsessively as we have, it once kind of sounded like Houston was prepared to drop a full max on James’ doorstep. But lately, things haven’t sounded definitive.
Per Scotto and Iko:
Scotto: ...there are rumblings the Rockets don’t want to give [Harden] a max contract....
Iko: When you talk to Houston, you get both sides of the equation. You have guys in the organization that are pretty confident in him returning and others who are skeptical and have their doubts.....
Do I think the Rockets are willing to give him the max? No. They want to add at least three or four veterans, and you can’t do that conceivably if you’re giving Harden upwards of $45-50 million. If it comes to a deal in the range of $30-33 million, I can see that. Then, you still have enough to get another marquee guy or two.
So we’ve followed this story very closely so far, and I know Iko is merely speculating, but it’s the first time a credible reporter has offered us even a ballpark figure on a potential Rockets offer for Harden.
(It’s bad luck for Philly in some ways that the third-worst team in the league suddenly decides they want to pay a relative truck load for a dude set to turn 34 years old in a couple months...hopefully they’ll listen to Doc Rivers talk about the challenges of coaching Harden and offer even less.)
Still, armed with this hypothetical number in mind, let’s do some of the capology Rockets GM Rafael Stone might be doing this week.
The Rockets are projected to have roughly $60M in cap space.
In this scenario, where Houston owner Tilman Fertitta offers his former star a salary beginning at Iko’s ballpark figure $33M, that might amount to roughly $104M on a three-year framework.
- The most the Rockets could offer Harden on a three-year deal would be roughly $147.7M.
- The most the Sixers could offer Harden on a three-year deal would total roughly $152M.
(No significant difference here if Harden prefers Houston.)
How about four-year deals?
- The most the Rockets could offer Harden on a four-year deal would be roughly $202M.
- The most the Sixers could offer Harden on a four-year deal would be roughly $210M.
(Again, no significant differences.)
But what if Iko’s number is near the mark?
For example, say the Rockets offered James a three-year deal beginning at $33M.
That $104M contract (a non-max, capped by 5 percent annual raises) would be almost $50M less than a $152M three-year max offer (with accompanying 8 percent raises) from the 76ers.
Now, let’s say Houston dropped a four-year deal beginning around the same mark. Surely, both teams might be wary of paying him exorbitant sums heading into his age-37 season. So, would a fourth year from Houston cause Morey to balk?
Counterintuitively, it starts to seem even less appealing for the former 2018 MVP. A potential Rockets four-year deal, beginning at $33M, would amount to approximately $142M in total.
As we saw, Philly could offer him $152M on just a three-year max deal!
Morey could come back to Harden with a three-year max complete with a third-year player option and remind James that he’d already be getting $10M more than the Rockets’ four-year offer, plus a chance to hit free agency (one more time?) before his 36th birthday.
So if the Sixers wanted James back and were willing to pay up, Houston opening their bid with a $30M or $33M offer would seem to put Morey in the driver’s seat.
"I don't think [Harden] is gonna be here. I think it's less than 50 percent [he returns to Houston]. Not by much -- there's a few reasons. But...I've also been the one saying I don't think they can resist."— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) June 14, 2023
(Obviously, if Harden were content to walk away from major sums — something he’s done in each of the 2020, 2021, and 2022 offseasons — then this type of calculus is moot.)
But what if the Sixers are worried about that new CBA’s second-apron penalties? Say they really want to keep a couple free agents like Paul Reed, Jalen McDaniels, Shake Milton or Georges Niang, and draw a line in the sand for Harden.
In that scenario, maybe they don’t want to offer Harden a three-year max, which would start near $46.9M.
Now, if the Rockets offered Harden three years, totaling $104M, and the Sixers didn’t want to offer him more than say $38M in ‘23-‘24, and didn’t want to offer him a fourth year, Philly’s three-year deal is now only worth about $16M more than Houston’s.
Would that be enough to keep him in town? There are also differences in tax situations that make Texas more appealing financially.
What if James said something like “I’ll only stay if you offer me $24M more than the Rockets?”
If we’re no longer talking about a $48M disparity but more like a $15M one, then possible roster shakeups Houston can pull off might come into play.
Other Rockets maneuvers?
If Houston offered Harden $33M for next season, that would still leave them roughly $27M to splash around with on other free agents. Iko said signing multiple vets is the priority.
Could they get Khris Middleton to leave Milwaukee and spend it all on him and Harden? Probably not enough cash, right? They’ve also been linked to names like Brook Lopez and Dillon Brooks.
It might fall short, but could that $27M be divvied up on that duo (say $23M for Lopez, and $4M for Brooks)?
The Rockets could potentially sign those three free agents, and still cook up a big trade offer for a player like Toronto’s Pascal Siakam or O.G. Anunoby.
That would be four new veterans potentially joining the Rockets, including Harden; plus whichever members of their young core they retained. Ime Udoka was an assistant coach in Brooklyn when The Beard was there. Could he sell the vision?
Could they make a comparable salary offer, while closing some of that talent disparity edge Philly now enjoys?
To that end, Scotto brings up a potential four-player offseason for Houston:
Scotto: You’d talk to different people at different months of the year, and people around the league would say, “It sounds like it’s going to happen” early on....Harden’s camp will tell you that nothing’s been decided on their part, but there’s a lot to weigh.
Depending on the four guys Houston can bring in, is that enough to compete right now?
Iko: I know that Nick Nurse was in Houston maybe a week and a half ago and met with Danuel House and James Harden....when it comes to James, one thing I’ve learned being around him for so long is there are things outside of a 48-minute game that motivate him.... If you ask me personally, I think he’s coming back, but I’m not in the rooms where the teams will be putting money on the table....He moves to the beat of his own drum more than any player I’ve seen covering the league.”
News bomb! Nurse flew out to H-Town to talk to James. Now that’s some red carpet treatment, no? Nurse talked about that meeting here.
- if the Rockets offered James a three-year max beginning at $33M
- and nabbed a key free agent or two
- and swung a big trade
- and the Sixers didn’t want to offer substantially more than Houston in terms of salary...
...that really starts to feel like the type of scenario where Harden could justify taking a little less money, and maybe diminishing (but not obliterating) his title odds, doesn’t it?
Iko added that he still does believe James is returning to Houston and that’s significant. But having read portions of this conversation, it doesn’t quite sound like he’s still as confident as 70 percent, does it?
Houston will be on the clock with the No. 4 pick in the draft next week. Landing an All-Star-caliber player like Siakam or Anunoby on draft night next week might be a huge domino in this story.