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James Harden expected to return to the Houston Rockets in NBA free agency

It’s only the middle of May. NBA free agency won’t officially start until the beginning of July. Despite this, James Harden rumors continue to fly around the league’s watercooler.

It was noted earlier in the week that the former NBA MVP will opt out of his $35.6 million deal for next season and hit the open market. Currently a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, Harden has already been linked to his former Houston Rockets team on a near never-ending loop.

We now have some more concrete information on this via 76ers insider Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer. It’s an absolute doozy. The expectation now is that Harden will indeed return to the Rockets where he starred from 2012-20.

“The belief among NBA executives is that James Harden will rejoin the Houston Rockets this summer,” report on James Harden returning to the Houston Rockets. “Sources have said his interest in returning to Houston is mutual and not a ploy to get a lucrative deal out of the Sixers.”

During the Rockets’ process of finding a new head coach to replace Stephen Silas, candidates were asked about their opinion regarding coaching Harden. Ime Udoka is now leading things in Houston. The former Boston Celtics head coach worked with Harden as an assistant with the Brooklyn Nets during the 2020-21 season.

Owner Tilman Fertitta is also said to love the current 76ers point guard. Meanwhile, Harden’s mother still lives in Houston.

These are all major backdrops when it comes to Harden’s decision-making process. And while a report of this ilk could draw scrutiny when it comes to the NBA’s anti-tampering process, there’s a lot more to look at.

Related: James Harden and the top 2023 NBA free agents

James Harden as a fit for the Houston Rockets

James Harden, Houston Rockets
Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Houston put up its second consecutive 60-loss campaign in 2022-23. It has been building through the draft, including adding forward Jabari Smith with the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. The team also picked up guard Jalen Green with the second pick in the 2021 draft. Both had been seen as potential building blocks moving forward.

With that said, general manager Rafael Stone is looking to expedite Houston’s rebuild. In no way will the roster we saw this past season look the same in 2023-24 should Harden opt to return to the Rockets.

Houston boasts the fourth pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. It is already looking to move that selection for proven assets. The Rockets have also been rumored to be interested in trading the aforementioned Green. These two assets could net a massive return, helping the Rockets build a competitive team around Harden.

  • James Harden stats (2022-23): 21.0 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 10.7 APG, 44% shooting, 39% 3-point

As you can see, Harden is still playing at a high level. At issue here is the fact that he’s set to turn 34 before the 2023-24 season starts. Harden is also looking for a max contract valued at $201.7 milion over four seasons. He’ll be way past his prime about halfway through that contract.

Related: Sportsnaut’s updated NBA trade rumors

Philadelphia 76ers situation without James Harden

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

There were some reports indicating that Harden spearheaded the firing of head coach Doc Rivers afer a premature exit at the hands of the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Whether that’s the case remains to be seen.

Perhaps, Philadelphia believes that it can still retain Harden in free agency. After all, the team has been linked to Mike D’Antoni to replace Rivers. Harden enjoyed some of his best seasons under D’Antoni in Houston.

Even then, losing Harden for nothing in free agency would sting. Philadelphia is already over the salary cap and wouldn’t be able to go that route to replace him.

The 76ers could look to work out a sign-and-trade with Houston involving Harden. It would be a way for the Rockets to be able to add another top-end free agent while moving off some salary. Names such as Kevin Porter Jr. and Jae’Sean Tate come to mind. Under this theory, Philadelphia is able to acquire something of substance for James Harden.

As it stands, young guard Tyrese Maxey would take over for Harden as the No. 2 option behind NBA MVP Joel Embiid. Philadelphia could then use Tobias Harris’ contract and future draft capital as assets in a trade for another core player.

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