James Harden, who's having an excellent and understated season for the Philadelphia 76ers, has big choices to make this summer. The roly-poly point guard can decline his $35.6 million player option for next season to negotiate a new contract. He already took a $15 million pay cut to give Philly's front office more cap room to play with; that well-constructed team is now 39-21 and third in the East.
Harden is 33 years old, and his decision this summer will also be a clear expression of his values. What matters most? Is it championship potential, which is probably best served by sticking with Joel Embiid? Is it a max contract, which he might struggle to squeeze out of Sixers GM Daryl Morey, but could find elsewhere? Is it physical proximity to Las Vegas? Please select one of the three before proceeding.
Reporters have begun to chatter about one amusing outcome: a return to the Houston Rockets, the worst team in the league, with perhaps the worst collective point guard play in recent memory. A dialed-in Harden might even elevate this pack of sad zoomers to the neighborhood of 30 wins. ESPN's Tim MacMahon said on a podcast last week that Harden spends a lot of time in Houston and even "works out at the Rockets' facility on a regular basis." On Wednesday, the Athletic's Sam Amick and Kelly Iko went long on a hypothetical reunion.
Common rubes might think that building buzz about Houston is just a negotiating leverage play with the Sixers, but, as the article solemnly attests, "if you talk to the people who know Harden best ... this isn’t the negotiating leverage play so many assumed it to be." Seems legit. There are unconvincing lines about how much Harden admires regressing sophomore Jalen Green and defective rookie Jabari Smith Jr., but the article buries Harden's most honest reasons for a reunion right in the middle:
For all those years—the eight consecutive playoff berths, two West Finals appearances, one MVP season and eight All-Star appearances—Harden had an unofficial agreement with his Rockets bosses. So long as he showed up and showed out, he’d be free to bend the rules when it came to well-chronicled off-court style.
“It was the place that allowed him to truly be him,” one source close to the situation said. “They embrace the clubs, the private jets to Vegas, the lack of conditioning. … So they were like, ‘No, you go.’ As long as you put up 30, we’re good. That was not any other place he’d ever been. … He loves that place. It was the place that allowed him to truly be him.”
They "embrace ... the lack of conditioning"! They were like, "No, you go"!
The Houston Rockets already have a long list of to-dos: fire head coach Stephen Silas; move Green and Kevin Porter Jr. off the ball; figure out what they have in Alperen Sengun and TyTy Washington Jr.; suss out what's ailing Smith, who was supposed to be a plug-and-play prospect. Also, they might soon welcome Victor Wembanyama to town, due to how poorly they're faring on the above tasks. Now we are to believe that they've added a new priority to the list: Max out a 33-to-37-year-old with playoff-tested strip-club experience.
It's one of those murmurs that's very hard to believe this far out, but somehow wholly unsurprising if it comes to pass. If you correctly picked what matters most to James Harden at this juncture of his career, you've earned a cookie, and something even more precious: a place to truly be you.