Could a James Harden-Houston Rockets Reunion Happen?
James Harden is a deeply unserious franchise platform. However, in the midst of an important, legacy-defining season for his career, Harden may be eyeing a free agency return to the Rockets franchise he was forced to leave. two years ago, according to a report from ESPN Adrian Wojnarowski.
To say the least, that Harden wanted out at this particular time was a surprise. Harden signed a proven two-year, $68.6 million deal with Philadelphia during the off-season that includes a player option for next season. So far, everything is going well. Philadelphia has won 11 of its last 14 games since Thanksgiving. Just last week, he set a franchise record with 21 assists and is well on his way to being named to his 11th consecutive All-Star team. Meanwhile, Joel Embiid is still at the peak of his form. Sure enough, Harden would shoot down the Woj bomb shortly after on Christmas Day. Instead, he offers a classic non-denial.
“I’m here, we’re playing really well,” Harden said after Philadelphia’s 119-112 win over the Knicks. “I don’t know where the report is coming from, but I’m happy to be here, we’re playing well and we’re continuing to get better.”
Harden’s eyes are always bigger than his belly. At Oklahoma City, he was successful on the team but aspired to be a top star elsewhere. During his nearly decade in Houston, he registered silly numbers, but clashed with peers who could help him win the Larry O’Brien Trophy. He talked away from Brooklyn, where he, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were inches away from taking down the final champion in Game 7.
He was still in an ideal position to fight Philly for the title, but he never seemed too interested in pursuing the title. If he’s been sending in hints that he’s looking to rejoin one of the NBA’s youngest teams, it sounds like he almost just wants to give up the title.
He may have entertained moving to Sacramento or Atlanta or Los Angeles to join the Lakers, but Harden has tried pairing with his peers before. He’s not built for that kind of accountability. His low effort in the face of adversity and lazy play is the biggest pitfall for an incredibly talented playmaker, but unable to achieve the higher level of effort that the superstar found in the post-season period.
He may be calculating that a young squad with top contributing players all with rookie contracts over the next two years won’t be too difficult to pay him $50 million a season.
Returning to Houston like LeBron had in Cleveland after Kyrie Irving, and Andrew Wiggins first drafted by the Cavs was a dream. Or he believes he could be the elixir that Chris Paul got to the Phoenix Suns. James Harden is not that guy.
Whenever Harden was faced with higher standards, he would fire his partners or jump jobs. The grass is always greener on the other side. But Harden is delusional if he thinks he is the junior Houston Rockets need right now. At 34, Philly won’t even commit to a long-term contract with supermax due to Harden’s poor play and poor conditioning during his first half season as a Sixer.
Another push against the possibility of reunion in Houston is it’s only been two years since he arrived at training camp weighing more than Black Santa and instead of giving his all while the deal is negotiated, he plays dead on the floor until the deal is done.
Never mind that he will be redundant. Eight of the Rockets’ top nine players for logged in minutes are 22 or younger. Jalen Green, Jabari Smith, Kevin Porter Jr. and Alperen Şengün didn’t need the bad habits that Harden would ingrain in their formative basketball minds. At 10-23, the Rockets have the NBA’s second-lowest win percentage, which also places them in the best odds of a top pick in Victor Wembanyama’s sweepstakes with Detroit and Charlotte.
Playing with Harden has never been such an enjoyable experience. His final five years at Houston, his teams were the complete opposite of Golden State’s purely offensive idea of creating open shots by sharing the ball. Instead, they last in the player movement from 2016 to 2021, according to the second spectrum, while Harden often dribbles past the clock to create his own playing opportunities. Paying Harden to grow old, ugly, and being indecisive on the growing Rockets roster is a chore.