NBA

James Harden thinks the free agent will return to the Rockets

James Harden thinks the free agent will return to the Rockets

All-Star guard James Harden is seriously considering returning to the Houston Rockets in free agency this July, if he decides against a new deal with the Philadelphia 76erssources told ESPN.

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 from the franchise less than two years ago.

His future with the 76ers remains a fluid proposition, buoyed by a seven-game winning streak en route to a Christmas Day meeting with the New York Knicks (noon ET on ABC and ESPN). Harden is on a productive streak with the All-NBA center Joel Embiid, and the state of that partnership and the Sixers’ postseason success could be telling factors in how Harden fares this season. Experiencing a deep playoff run in a rabid, hungry Philadelphia market could positively affect his thinking, as could the aftermath of an early exit.

Harden signed a two-year, $68.6 million contract with the Sixers, including a player option for 2023-24 that allows him to re-enter free agency this summer. The Sixers are 19-12, fifth in the East and hope to return a rising star Tyrese Maxey next week.

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, sources said. After what would become relatively brief stops in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, a return to a rebuilding Rockets franchise would effectively represent comfort and familiarity over an immediate championship pursuit.

Heading into next summer, the Rockets are flush with salary cap space and eager to significantly improve the standings. Rockets officials will have to assess how they believe Harden’s arrival will benefit the development of their young core of talent, including Jalen Green, Jabari Smith i Kevin Porter Jr., but his stature and talent still make him an attractive proposition.

In his post-Houston he stops with Embiid and Kevin Durant, Harden has continued to evolve as a pass-first guard. Leads NBA with 10.9 assists per game, including game-high 21 in win over LA Clippers Friday.

Harden spent more than eight All-Star seasons with the Rockets, a stretch that included a 2018 MVP award and a trip to the Western Conference Finals. Harden won three consecutive scoring titles with the Rockets and ranks second Hakeem Olajuwon in franchise scoring all-time, and first in assists.

After cycling through hand-picked cast mates like Dwight Howard, Chris Paul i Russell Westbrook, Harden fell out of favor with the Rockets, and eventually the Nets, too. The Sixers traded Ben Simmons, Seth Curry and two future first-round picks to the Nets as part of a package to acquire Harden in February.

For all of Harden’s history and connection with Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey and CEO Tad Brown, his working relationships with Embiid and coach Doc Rivers resemble something closer to a work in progress. The Sixers gave up significant assets to acquire Harden, and he is expected to remain a priority to re-sign a new deal for the second summer in a row.



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