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How the NBA Draft could prove a key domino in the James Harden sweepstakes

What the Houston Rockets do with the No. 4 pick in the draft might provide clues about James Harden’s future.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Another day, another absolute deluge of James Harden scuttlebutt from around the NBA. With the NBA Draft now just eight days away, things are starting to heat up.

A quick reminder: teams cannot talk to their own free agents about re-signing until June 30. Rival teams are not allowed to have discussions with their free agent targets until a few days later, starting on July 1.

We all know the NBA logistically can’t, so mostly does not, enforce these rules, other then to select a team or two (seemingly at random) each summer and dock them second-round picks.

Let’s look at the latest James Harden rumors and see what we might learn with the NBA Draft now just eight days away.

NBA Draft buzz

2023 Play-In Tournament - Oklahoma City Thunder v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

There are all kinds of rumors swirling this time of year. We know the San Antonio Spurs will be selecting France’s Victor Wembanyama.

Down in Tier 2, we feel pretty confident that the next two picks will be Alabama’s Brandon Miller and the G League’s Scoot Henderson.

But will the Hornets and Blazers keep their picks or look to swing a big trade? We have heard the Hornets, sitting on pick No. 2, like Miller. But with Damian Lillard perhaps growing restless in Portland, would the Blazers look to trade out of No. 3 and find Dame some veteran help? There have been some big names like Pelicans’ stars Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram popping up in potential rumors.

Things could get crazy. Even the Sixers were recently named as a hypothetical Dame landing spot if the Blazers opted to keep their pick and trade him.

Then sitting on pick No. 4, at the beginning of Tier 3, are the Houston Rockets. Chances are Houston’s GM Rafael Stone and co. haven’t fallen head over heels with a single prospect yet or we might have heard something more concrete.

According to a new NBA Draft report from ESPN’s resident experts Jonathan Givony and Jeremy Woo:

“At this point, Amen Thompson and [Cam] Whitmore are the two names circulating as leading candidates at No. 4. One potential factor in the decision is James Harden’s potential return to the Rockets — a situation that rival teams have come to view as increasingly uncertain in recent weeks.”

A month ago, we learned rival executives expect Harden to sign with the Rockets this July. That report came from Keith Pompey. But Givony and Woo make it sound like that’s less so the case today.

If the Rockets select and hold onto one of Thompson (Overtime Elite) or Whitmore (Villanova) then maybe that means Houston has received a morse code transmission (remember, they’re not allowed to tamper!) indicating Harden is staying put?

Alternatively, if we get that blockbuster update (you know the little music that plays) that the Rockets are flipping that pick to Toronto for example, that might be a big clue regarding Harden’s future.

If the Rockets flipped their pick in a deal for a player like Toronto’s Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby, for example, it might signal a major shift in Houston’s direction from youth movement to win-now. We might begin to wonder if the Rockets wouldn’t have even done it, unless they’d already gained a keen sense about James’ plan.

Of course, players like Thompson and Whitmore are likely to retain value over the summer if the Rockets needed to wait for the actual start of free agency or later. So, no draft day trade for Houston doesn’t mean we can simply pencil the Sixers in for re-signing The Beard.

But an acquiring President like Masai Ujiri and his GM Bobby Webster would no doubt prefer to make a pick themselves.

Hey Masai, it’s me Tilman, hypothetically, if you WERE to be on the clock at pick No. 4, who would you want, asking for a friend....

Here was what The Athletic’s Kelly Iko recently said:

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.”

So we’ll stay glued to the Rockets trade market as a possible key domino in the Harden sweepstakes.

More from the Rockets Beat

You may have caught our analysis of the key Rockets insider who does not think Houston will offer Harden a max.

More to that end, Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle appeared on the “Red Nation Hoops” podcast.

On that appearance, host Salman Ali asks Feigen how conflicted might the Rockets be on offering Harden the type of deal it would take to lure him away from the Sixers.

Feigen’s insight is pretty interesting:

“I’ve always felt it was ambivalent, I thought that since Christmas time.... it’s not as it’s been depicted nationally as ‘can the Rockets get him — and it’s solely [Harden’s] decision,’ it’s [Houston’s] decision too.”

This answer makes it sound as if the Rockets have been perhaps more conflicted internally than it’s sounded like as a national storyline.

Ali asked if Feigen gets the sense that Stone offering Harden a four-year deal is out of the question?

“I don’t know, — I think it probably is [out of the question] yeah. I don’t know — that’s where you start to be, oh my gosh, you’re gonna be paying him more than $50M when he’s [37?] wooof!”

So neither Kelly Iko of The Athletic nor Feigen of The Chronicle expect Houston to offer Harden a full max.

Eventually Ali asks Feigen straight up if he thinks Harden will return to Houston:

“I don’t think he’s here. I don’t think he’s gonna be here. I think it’s less than 50 percent [he returns to Houston]. Not by much, I think — there’s a few reasons. But like I said, I’ve also been the one saying ‘I don’t think they can resist.’ If he says yes, I don’t think they can resist.”

Feigen offers his prediction but then walks it back a little by offering a counterpoint; basically suggesting I don’t think he’ll be here, unless of course, he wants to be here, then they won’t be able to resist paying him.

But if one were trying to read between the lines: he doesn’t think the Rockets could resist if Harden says “yes” he wants to return. And he doesn’t think Harden will be a Rocket. So it almost starts to sound as if he might think Harden would ultimately prefer to remain a Sixer, doesn’t it?

Whether that is because of a major financial difference in each team’s respective offer he doesn’t specify. Rather than talking about what free agents and trade targets the Rockets might get to lure Harden, he spoke instead of possible targets that might change their minds about splurging on Harden. The title of the pod was “If not James Harden, then who?”

But like everyone else who discusses this topic does, he did remind listeners that Harden loves Houston.

Maybe it’s as simple as this: Philly pays much more than Houston or he’s a goner. And if he’s a goner, that opens up the possibility he could land himself in Phoenix or even Los Angeles with LeBron James, right Big Perk?

Brian Windhorst

SixerDaily on Twitter posted an ESPN segment, attributed to “NBA Today,” where Brian Windhorst made some intriguing comments.

Per Windy, from RealGM:

“The Sixers are not desperate. While they absolutely want James Harden back, and I think there is a way that [Joel Embiid and Harden] can play together, and still be highly successful, the Sixers have other moves they can make. If Harden walks they have cap space. They have tradable contracts, they have things that they can do. Harden is important but he is not the be all or end all for the 76ers.”

This echoes sentiment Windy put forth last month when he said the Sixers have “not shown an appetite to pay Harden the max.....”

Windy wondered if this rumor that Harden wants to return to Houston may ultimately just be a leverage play from Harden’s camp, seeking to extract as much money as possible from Daryl Morey and the 76ers. What he said today sounds like Philadelphia isn’t going to be pushed around in any negotiations.

This idea that Harden is looking to Houston as leverage but isn’t all in on a return appears to mesh with the clues Jonathan Feigen left us.

Now we examined the Sixers options if Harden leaves. Windy adds that the team would have “cap space” if The Beard bolted. But from our calculations that’s a long-shot. They could look to retain a couple of their other free agents, and operate as an over-the-cap but under-the-luxury-tax team. But even then, all they would have really is a $12.2M non tax payer mid level exception. A $12.2M exception, in this economy? Good luck.

They could look to “dump” Tobias Harris into another team’s cap space, but ironically, it’s the Rockets who are one of the few teams with the space to absorb a contract like that.

Anyway, the draft is coming. And even though the 76ers do not (yet!) have a pick, there are plenty of things for us to watch.

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