The Philadelphia 76ers are winners of six straight and seem to be finding their rhythm as a team. James Harden is playing great basketball: clearly in the second stage of his stardom, but magical to behold all the same. His ability to process the game and manipulate defenders is completely singular. The Sixers are lucky to have him.
Despite the recent buildup of excitement and the clear title-contending potential of the Harden-Embiid combo, there has been chatter about Harden’s ability to bolt in free agency next summer. The one team coming up in gossip around the league, according to ESPN’s Tim McMahon, is Houston.
At this stage, it’s only “dot-connecting” and speculation from the sound of it. But, Harden’s longstanding relationship with the city of Houston — and the perpetual ability of the Sixers to fumble the bag, metaphorically speaking — does make it the kind of hypothetical that will lodge itself in the minds of fans.
Could James Harden leave the Sixers to rejoin the Rockets?
Now, let’s address the elephant in the room: the Rockets are terrible. Bottom of the league, basement-dwelling terrible. That team won’t be ready to win for a long time. Harden can still elevate the floor of just about any team, but the Rockets wouldn’t be anywhere close to title contention unless another significantly talented star (or two) decided to join him in Houston.
The Rockets don’t profile as a free agent destination, even if Harden does broadcast his plans to return. Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, and Tari Eason have all been particularly impressive youngsters, but none of them are second bananas on title contenders yet. Green could arrive at that level by next season, but the infrastructure around the Harden-Green backcourt wouldn’t be strong enough.
So, why on earth would Harden go back to Houston? It makes very little sense on paper. He appears perfectly content in Philadelphia and the Sixers are genuine title contenders with a much clearer path to bringing home Harden’s first Larry O’Brien trophy.
The Harden-Embiid chemistry, while imperfect, has been growing stronger of late. And even without perfectly polished chemistry, those two have been virtually unstoppable when on the court together. The numbers, advanced or standard, are off the charts. It’s very hard to defend two offensive engines of that caliber simultaneously.
Even if Harden decides Philadelphia is not his long-term home, one would expect him to seek out another contender: the Lakers, for example, will have more flexibility with Russell Westbrook off the books. Would Harden not rather play with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, instead of Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr.?
My takeaway is, don’t read too far into this until we get more concrete reporting on the subject. That concrete reporting won’t come until later in the season, maybe even after the season concludes. How the Sixers finish the campaign — or, perhaps more importantly, where the Sixers finish the campaign — will probably influence Harden’s decision more than any lingering feelings for the city of Houston.