Harden has a $35.6 million player option to remain in Philadelphia, part of a two-year deal he signed last July, but reports have him agonizing whether to stay and play for new coach Nick Nurse (Harden wasn’t the most ardent Doc Rivers supporter) or go back to the Rockets, for whom he had his greatest individual success.
His three league scoring titles in eight-plus Houston seasons, the last of which was 2019-20, would seem to make him a high-value free agent. But the very young Rockets are in heavy rebuilding mode, coming off a tie for the second-worst record in the NBA and owning the No. 4 overall pick in the June 22 draft. They also have the 20th pick, via the Clippers.
“Why would Houston want him?” one league source told Heavy Sports. “And other than from negotiating leverage, why would he want Houston? I mean, none of that adds up.”
Harden to Rockets = ‘Negotiating Ploy’
Said an NBA executive, “There’s this talk about him going back to Houston, but from what I understand it’s nothing more than a negotiating ploy. He knows that these guys aren’t going to max him. He’s no longer a max player, but he’s hoping that Philly wants him back and is willing to pay him.
“Houston’s making changes, so what connections will James have with the new people — and why would Houston, that has a bunch of youngsters that they’re trying to grow into NBA players, why would they bring in someone with James’ history of partying?”
In Harden’s defense on this issue, it should also be pointed out that he is one of the more diligent players in the league when it comes to working hard in the weight room. The question is whether he’ll be able to withstand that tug-o-war on his body sufficiently as he turns 34 this August.
Injuries have been a problem, limiting him to 58 regular season games this past year, and while he had 45- and 42-point games against Boston in the recent conference semifinals, he averaged 13.4 in the other five games. And in the Game 7 showdown against the Celtics, Harden scored nine points on 3-11 shooting in 41 minutes of the 24-point loss.
“Look, in the right situation, I think he could be an important part of a team. He could contribute to a good team,” said an Eastern Conference exec told Heavy. “But is he ready to take that role and be paid what that role is worth? From our conversations, what James is looking for is someone to pay him at a rate that he thinks that he’s worth, which he’s not.
“So James is in that unfortunate circumstance that we talk about all the time. Who’s the last person to know it’s over? The player. His status as a max, alpha player in this league, it’s over. He can’t produce wins.”
Harden does still have value, to be clear.
“He can get numbers; he can help a team,” the exec said. “But he’s not a max player anymore. You can’t justify it. The unfortunate part is that more and more of us are going to metrics, and there’s nobody’s metric measurement that looks at him and his efficiency and what he gives up defensively and says, ‘Oh, yeah, this is a guy we should max out.'”
Short Deal for Harden Makes Some Sense
However, the Rockets do have money to spend, and perhaps the club could be interested if Harden is willing to take a shorter deal to come back to Houston.
“I think what Houston has to be afraid of in signing Harden is getting stuck in years three and four,” one general manager said. “I could maybe see it for a year or two, but does James go for something like that when this is probably his last chance for a big bite of the apple?
“And with Ime (Udoka, the Rockets’ new coach) focusing on defense, is that going to be a fit?”
There is also talk that Houston is considering Amen Thompson, another tall point guard (6-feet-7 to Harden’s 6-feet-5) with the No. 4 pick. If the Rockets go in that direction, that would seem to create another fit issue.