James Harden is a deeply unserious franchise cornerstone. However, in the midst of a pivotal, legacy-defining season for his career, Harden may be eyeing a return in free agency to the Rockets franchise he forced his way out of two years ago, according to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Harden wanting out at this particular time is unexpected, to say the least. Harden signed a prove-it two-year, $68.6 million contract with Philadelphia in the offseason that includes a player option for next season. Thus far, things are going well. Philadelphia has won 11 of its last 14 games since Thanksgiving. Just last week, he tallied a franchise-record 21 assists and is on track to be named to his 11th consecutive All-Star team. Meanwhile, Joel Embiid is still peaking. Surely, Harden would have shot down this Woj Bomb posthaste on Christmas Day. Instead, he offered up a classic non-denial.
“I’m here, we’re playing very well,” Harden said after Philadelphia’s 119-112 victory against the Knicks. “I don’t know where the report came from, but I’m excited to be here, we’re playing well and we’re continuing to get better.”
Harden’s eyes have always been bigger than his stomach. In Oklahoma City he had team success but longed to be the leading star elsewhere. For nearly a decade in Houston, he registered absurd numbers, but clashed with peers who could have helped him hoist a Larry O’Brien Trophy. He talked his way out of Brooklyn where he, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving came inches away from knocking off the eventual champs in a Game 7.
He’s still in an ideal position to compete for rings with Philly, but he’s never seemed overly concerned with championship pursuits. If he’s sending hints that he’s looking to rejoin one of the NBA’s youngest teams, then it would appear he’s all but throwing in the towel on a title.
He could have entertained a move to Sacramento or Atlanta or Los Angeles to join the Lakers, but Harden has tried pairing up with his peers before. He’s not built for that sort of accountability. His low effort when faced with adversity and slothful play are the biggest pockmark on a playmaking savant who is immensely talented, but unable to access the extra level of effort megastars find in the postseason.
He may be making the calculation that a young squad with its top contributors all on rookie contracts off the next two years wouldn’t be so squeamish about paying him $50 million a season.
A return to Houston like the one LeBron had in Cleveland after Kyrie Irving, and Andrew Wiggins were drafted first overall by the Cavs is the dream. Or he believes he can be the elixir that Chris Paul has been to the Phoenix Suns. James Harden is not that dude.
Anytime Harden faces higher standards, he either chases his partners away or jumps ship. The grass is always greener on the other side. But Harden is delusional if he thinks he’s what Houston’s junior Rockets need right now. At 34, Philly wouldn’t even commit to a long-term supermax deal due to Harden’s underwhelming play and poor conditioning during his first half season as a Sixer.
Another knock against the odds of a Houston reunion is that it’s only been two years since he reported to training camp packing on more extra weight than Black Santa and rather than giving it his all while a trade was negotiated, played dead on the floor until a deal was finalized.
Nevermind that he’d be a redundancy. Eight of the Rockets nine top players in minutes logged are 22 or younger. Jalen Green, Jabari Smith, Kevin Porter Jr., and Alperen Şengün don’t need the bad habits Harden would ingrain into their formative basketball minds. At 10-23, the Rockets possess the NBA’s second-worst winning percentage, which also puts them in position to share the best odds for the top pick in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes with Detroit and Charlotte.
Playing with Harden has never been an enjoyable experience. His last five years in Houston, his teams were the complete opposite of Golden State’s platonic idea offense that created open shots by sharing the ball. Instead, they were last in player movement from 2016 through 2021, according to Second Spectrum, while Harden often dribbled out the clock setting up his own playmaking opportunities. Paying Harden to grow old, ornery, and lackadaisical on a burgeoning Rockets roster is a fool’s errand.