One of the oft-reported stories around the NBA this season has been James Harden's reported interest in returning to the Houston Rockets this summer. The Rockets are the former league MVP, and while that doesn't mean he'll automatically sign there, the connection between Harden and Houston is one that makes these rumors have some substance behind them.
The Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey reports that Houston "expects" to reunite with Harden this summer, and that the interest from both sides is "mutual" and not a tactic to get a better deal from the Sixers. Harden is expected to decline his $35.6 million player option this summer to become an unrestricted free agent and sign a deal worth more money.
Though nothing is final until pen is signed to paper, this is the strongest indication yet that Harden is at least seriously considering a return to the team he spent nine years with.
It's not a surprising revelation given Harden's public adoration for Houston, even since forcing a trade from the team in 2021. Still, though, that doesn't mean it's a forgone conclusion that Harden leaves Philadelphia. The Sixers firing head coach Doc Rivers was reportedly done in part because of Harden's urging to bring in a different coach. If that's true, then Harden could have a big hand in choosing who his next coach is in Philadelphia. However, if Harden does bolt for Houston, it will have major ramifications for the Sixers.
Losing Harden for nothing would be a significant step back for a team that has consistently been a championship contender over the last several years. It would leave recently-named league MVP Joel Embiid without a co-star, and force the Sixers to, as team president Daryl Morey puts it, "get creative" in trying to add another All-Star caliber player before next season.
From the Rockets' perspective, they'll have about $60 million in cap space this summer to sign Harden, who could receive up to $201.7 million from teams around the league and a maximum of $210 million from the Sixers. While Harden's fit on this rebuilding Rockets team is questionable, the bond between he and the city of Houston seems to be strong enough to overlook roster construction.
Despite bouncing around from Brooklyn and Philadelphia since requesting a trade from the Rockets, Harden still owns a home in Houston. He has several businesses based in the city, and on more than one occasion this season has spoken glowingly about the city and team. When discussing the "frustrating" stint he had in Brooklyn earlier this year, Harden shared how difficult it was for him to leave Houston.
"I was in a really good place in Houston,". "Obviously, we didn't have a chance to win a championship, but I was comfortable. So for me to up and leave my family, all the things I created there, to come to Brooklyn for a year and a half to try to just get up and leave, it was for a reason."
It seems like Harden values the lifestyle that Houston provides more than chasing a ring, or maybe he thinks both are possible with the Rockets after a few roster moves. Houston has already brought in a new head coach in Ime Udoka, who in addition to Houston's other coaching candidates, were asked their opinion on coaching Harden, per Pompey. It's clear that Houston plans on putting all its efforts behind bringing Harden back to Texas, but we'll have to see if he feels the same way when the time comes for him to make a decision.