Few teams enter the late-season stretch with as much urgency as the Philadelphia 76ers. For nearly a decade now, Philadelphia has failed to stay in the postseason past the conference semifinals, despite oft-talented rosters that have included Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, and James Harden.
Another early exit could spell doom for Philadelphia. It could also be just the boost (read: excuse) Harden needs to leave the Sixers, convinced he can’t win a ring in the City of Brotherly Love. Despite entering the twilight of his career, Harden would likely have no shortage of suitors in free agency.
Count the Houston Rockets as one such lingering suitor. On an episode of Brian Windhorst’s Hoop Collective podcast this week, insider Tim MacMahon reported that there’s a real chance the Beard reunites with his old team in the Lone Star State, citing Harden’s still-strong connection to Houston.
“Not just that Houston wants to, but Houston believes it is a legitimate possibility and that’s not coming out of thin air,” MacMahon explained. “James Harden still spends a lot of time in Houston. Spends his summers in Houston. Works out at the Rockets’ facility on a regular basis. It’s a very real possibility. And Harden, by the way, never shot it down. He just said ‘I don’t know where that came from.’”
Harden’s initial interest in a Houston reunion was reported on Christmas Day. Since then, the whispers have only grown louder about the player’s affinity with the city and vice versa.
With a player option this summer, Harden could well opt-out and seek a substantially richer contract than the one he’s currently owed. And, for the record, a richer one than the Sixers could offer.
Harden’s Houston Return Given ‘Seven out of Ten’ Chance
But the Rockets, loaded with cap space after years of wandering the desert, have plenty of money to pair Harden with their young and exciting core of Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, Tari Eason, and Jabari Smith, Jr.
“I’m putting it at a seven out of 10. I think where there’s smoke, there’s fire. James loves this city. He loves those guys on the roster, the young players in Houston. He has ties to the city’s businesses. His home is here. Crazier things have happened, so, don’t call me crazy, but you might be seeing something different,” Iko said.
And a playmaker of Harden’s ilk could work wonders for a Rockets team that is sitting 29th in assists this year. It’s not difficult to imagine Harden acting as a facilitator, unlocking Green’s offensive potential while also providing open looks for Smith, who has struggled so far in his rookie season.
Defensively, Smith and Sengun could make up for Green and Harden’s poor play on that end of the floor.
Sixers’ Future Called Out by Lowe
It’s difficult to imagine exactly what a “win” this season would mean for the Sixers. Is it a trip to the conference finals? The Finals finals? A gutsy series battle against the Celtics or Bucks?
What’s abundantly clear is that if the Sixers go out, it can’t be via whisper. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe explained, the Sixers will be under the microscope over the next few weeks, with potentially years of basketball ramifications dependent on what goes down now.
“There hasn’t been enough discussion of what the Sixers have riding on the next few months,” Lowe wrote. “They have not been to the conference finals in 22 years. They dodged the thorny sides of the bracket in each of the last two seasons, and still crumbled in the second round. Harden can enter free agency this summer. The Sixers (as of now) would not have cap space to replace him.”
With the Eagles, Phillies, and Union all having taken part in their league’s respective championships this season and fallen just short, it’s now on the Sixers to rescue the city from heartbreak.