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James Harden could leave 76ers for Rockets in free agency based on playoff run, per report

Could James Harden really return to the Rockets? It depends on two big factors.

LA Clippers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Is James Harden plotting his return to the Houston Rockets if he enters free agency in the summer of 2023? It’s a real possibility, according to a new report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Harden has a player option for next season after taking a $14 million pay cut to return to Philadelphia over the offseason. The 76ers were among the preseason favorites in the East, but they’re the No. 5 seed in the conference ahead of their Christmas day game against the New York Knicks after a 19-12 start. Harden could look to return to Houston — who is flushed with cap space — over the offseason if Philadelphia comes up short in the playoffs, according to Woj. The report also notes that Harden may still stay in Philadelphia if the Sixers have the type of postseason success he’s looking for.

This feels like such a jarring scoop from Woj because Harden forced his way out of Houston less than two years ago. His stops in Brooklyn and Philadelphia since have failed to yield the deep playoff run he’s been hoping for. A move back to the Rockets likely wouldn’t put him in position to compete for a championship immediately, but it would allow him to potentially get paid a max contract.

Harden spent the best years of his career with the Houston Rockets, where he powered eight consecutive playoff runs, two trips to the conference finals, and won the 2018 MVP award. For all of Houston’s success in the Harden era, the franchise could never breakthrough to the NBA Finals and eventually started to tear down the core around him. Harden saw the writing on the wall and forced his way out, eventually getting traded to the Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 14, 2021 for a massive package of future draft picks that included three first round draft picks (2022, 2024 and 2026) and four first round pick swaps (2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027) going to Houston.

Harden’s stay in Brooklyn barely lasted a year before he forced his way into a trade again, this time because he was upset with Kyrie Irving’s lack of availability following his refusal to get the Covid vaccine and the team’s lack of success. Harden was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers on Feb. 10, 2022 for a package that included Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, and two first-round draft picks going to Brooklyn.

Harden recently gave an interview with Yaron Weitzman where he said he changed the game and the only thing his legacy is missing is a championship. He forced his way out of Houston to put himself in a better position to win a title, but both the Nets and Sixers came up short.

The Nets won only one playoff series in two playoff runs with Harden. The Sixers were knocked out in the second round of the playoffs last year by the Miami Heat.

Harden is no longer one of the game’s best scorers at 33 years old, but he’s still a highly productive point guard. Harden is averaging 21.4 points and 10.9 assists per game this season in Philadelphia.

The Rockets are off to the worst start in the Western Conference at 9-23 overall. The team has some nice young pieces in place, headlined by scoring guard Jalen Green, stretch forward Jabari Smith Jr., big man Alperen Sengun, and energy forward Tari Eason. The Rockets could add another dynamic talent in the draft this season, potentially even Victor Wembanyama, the 7’5 French super prospect who will go No. 1 overall. If the Rockets land Wembanyama in the draft lottery, Harden’s interest in Houston would certainly increase.

What the Rockets really need is a point guard, and Harden would fill that void.

There are two swing factors here: 1) how far the 76ers advance in the playoffs, and 2) how high the Rockets land in the draft lottery. While this report feels surprising, it isn’t hard to believe Harden may not have loyalty to Philly after taking such a big pay cut this season.