Christmas means a lot of things to many different people. For ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, it is just another day at the office. Just an hour before the Philadelphia 76ers were set for their primetime matchup with the New York Knicks, the Senior NBA Insider dropped a noteworthy report regarding the future of James Harden. While these whispers have begun for a few weeks now, this is the most in-depth report to acknowledge Harden’s future.
As Wojnarowski wrote, “Harden and his inner circle have been openly weighing Houston in recent months, sources said, a remarkable possibility given that he requested and received a trade out of the franchise less than two years ago…His future with the 76ers remains a fluid proposition,” per ESPN.
Why the Timing is Interesting
The vibes surrounding the Sixers have been highly positive in recent weeks. They are riding a seven-game win and have played some of their most effective basketball in the era of Joel Embiid and Harden. The complementary players have begun to find their stride in the way it was imagined as both stars have returned to full health.
There have been plenty of reports of a hand-shake deal to ensure he will be in Philadelphia for the long term. Earlier this week Heavy Sports’ Sean Deveney spoke to an anonymous Eastern Conference General Manager regarding the situation. As the executive put it, “There is talk that the deal for Harden is already in place, as the league investigated. He is not going anywhere. No one really thinks Harden is going to give teams a fair shake in free agency, everyone is assuming he goes back to Philly. Basically, yeah, there is some concern because it does not seem like both guys play well at the same time but there is nothing they are going to do about it except keep trying to make it work. James, you have to give him credit, because he does seem to be trying to change his game a bit, be more of a facilitator, but it is not comfortable for him yet.”
It also is interesting the desire to return to Houston comes just under two years after forcing out of the organization in such a dramatic way. The former MVP has made it clear that his ultimate goal is still securing a championship. A report just over a week ago from Yaron Weitzman of Fox Sports indicated Harden’s strong desire for this to cement his legacy. While Houston has a bright future and is in a better spot than when he left it, walking away from playing with an MVP candidate such as Embiid would decrease these chances dramatically.
Why the Report Holds Weight
It is no secret how much Harden likes Houston. He remains very involved in the community and recently took a trip down there for an extended period when he first suffered the right foot tendon injury just over a month ago. It was reported as a “personal matter” that Harden was dealing with but he remained away from the Sixers and in the city during this time. He also made his return to the court in Houston where he holds numerous franchise records.
As Wojnarowski put it when looking at a reunion from the Rockets’ perspective:
“Harden has maintained something of a magnetic pull to Houston, drawn to the community, lifestyle and family there, sources said. After what would become relatively brief stops in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, a move back to a rebuilding Rockets franchise would effectively represent comfort and familiarity over an immediate championship pursuit…
For next summer, the Rockets are flush with salary cap space and an appetite to make significant improvement in the standings. Rockets officials will have to evaluate how they believe Harden’s arrival would benefit the development of its young core of talent, including Jalen Green, Jabari Smith and Kevin Porter Jr., but his stature and talent still make him an attractive proposition,’ per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.
Harden inked a two-year contract worth $68.6 million this offseason with the second year as a player option. The mindset, even when signing the contract, was essentially it would be a one-year deal with the second year as an insurance policy. Agreeing to it at this length and pricepoint gave the Sixers the flexibility to add players like P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr, and another full season to evaluate the relationship for both sides.
Leaking this could also be a play from Harden’s camp to make it clear that he is not interested in taking a pay cut again. Opting out of his $47.3 million player option last summer was a huge show of fate from the star, but it also likely came with the belief that he will be taken care of in the long run. If the Sixers are not willing to repay this favor, and there are fair arguments on both sides on if he is worth the high contract he will demand, it should not be a surprise Harden is looking elsewhere.
The bottom line is both Harden and the Sixers will look at how this season ends before deciding what makes sense next. If Harden intends on continuing to compete and his main priority is still that elusive championship, Philadelphia provides a much better opportunity than Houston. However, if the team flames out in the second round once again it may not be a long-term relationship that makes sense for either side. For now, the goal for everyone will be to continue to focus on the team reaching its peak, but many questions will need to be answered whenever the end of the season does occur.