HOUSTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 05: James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers controls the ball ahead of ... [+] Eric Gordon #10 of the Houston Rockets during the second half at Toyota Center on December 05, 2022 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)Getty Images
James Harden's return to the Philadelphia 76ers next season might not be a foregone conclusion. Ahead of the Sixers' Christmas Day matchup against the New York Knicks, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Harden was "seriously considering a return to the Houston Rockets in free agency" if he decided not to stay with the Sixers. "Harden and his inner circle have been openly weighing Houston in recent months," Wojnarowski added. Wojnarowski described Harden's future with the Sixers as a "fluid proposition," noting that the state of his partnership with All-Star center Joel Embiid and the team's playoff run "could well be telltale factors in how Harden proceeds past this season." He described Harden's relationships with Embiid and Sixers head coach Doc Rivers as "something closer to a work in progress," which suggests the next six months could prove decisive either way. Wojnarowski wasn't the only one to hint at Harden's potential interest in a Houston reunion this week, though. ESPN's Tim MacMahon said there had already "been a lot of gossip and dot-connecting, 'Hey, if things don't work out in Philly, keep an eye out on James Harden back to Houston,'" which he deemed as "certainly fair." None of these reports definitively conclude that Harden will leave the Sixers after this season. However, he appears to be far more of a flight risk than previously believed.
This past offseason, Harden declined his $47.4 million player option for the 2022-23 season and re-signed with the Sixers on a two-year, $68.6 million deal with a second-year player option. He effectively took a $14 million paycut, which gave the Sixers more than enough space under the $156,983,000 luxury-tax apron to sign P.J. Tucker using the non-taxpayer mid-level exception and Danuel House Jr. using the bi-annual exception.
Because the Sixers used the NTMLE on Tucker and the bi-annual exception on House, they aren't allowed to cross the apron at any point between now and June 30. Had Harden picked up his player $47.4 million player option, the Sixers would have been limited to only the $6.5 million taxpayer mid-level exception instead. They also wouldn't have had the bi-annual exception, which teams only get when they're below the apron. It's not an exaggeration to say that Harden's contractual sacrifice was the center point of the Sixers' entire offseason strategy. In fact, some executives wondered whether the Sixers already had a "handshake agreement in place on a future contract—which would be in violation of collective bargaining rules," Wojnarowski wrote in late July. The NBA did eventually strip the Sixers of their 2023 and 2024 second-round picks for illegal communication with Tucker and House ahead of free agency. However, the league's investigation "found no wrongdoing" in Harden's decision to opt out and re-sign for less, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic. Harden's contractual sacrifice seemingly suggested that he planned to stay in Philadelphia long term. However, the Rockets now appear to be looming as a legitimate threat to pry him away.
"Despite forcing his way out of the Rockets in January 2021, Harden has maintained something of a magnetic pull to Houston, drawn to the community, lifestyle and family there," Wojnarowski wrote Sunday. "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."
The 9-23 Rockets currently sit at the bottom of the Western Conference, but they have a promising young core headlined by 2021 No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green and 2022 No. 3 overall pick Jabari Smith Jr. They also have their own first-round pick this year, along with a first-rounder from the Milwaukee Bucks. The Brooklyn Nets also owe them fully unprotected first-round picks in both 2024 and 2026.
As of early December, the Rockets were projected to have a league-high $59.3 million in cap space this upcoming summer, according to Keith Smith of Spotrac. If the cap lands at $134 million (the latest projection), a max contract for Harden would begin at $46.9 million. The Indiana Pacers ($49.8 million) and San Antonio Spurs ($47.1 million) are the only two other teams projected to have enough cap space for Harden's full max, while the Utah Jazz ($42.6 million) and Los Angeles Lakers ($33.4 million) are the only teams with cap space that could feasibly give Harden a shot at playoff contention right away.
All of this may wind up being much ado about nothing if Harden and the Sixers go on a deep playoff run this season and the Sixers are willing to pony up on a long-term deal this summer. If they flame out before the conference finals and balk at shelling out nine figures for Harden, though, a Rockets reunion might be in order.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM. All odds via FanDuel Sportsbook.