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May 19, 2023

If James Harden wants to return to Houston, the Sixers should let him

If James Harden wants to leave the league MVP and return to Houston, the Sixers should easily let him.

It is the rumor that simply won't die, the worst-kept secret in the NBA over the last six months or so. Ever since King of Sources Adrian Wojnarowski dropped on Christmas that James Harden could return to the Houston Rockets, an idea that seemed ludicrous at the time, the whispers have grown louder and louder. Each move in Houston has been viewed as a potential tip-off of their plans, setting up the reunion few would have viewed as possible a year ago.

And the latest to join the waterfall of whispers is Keith Pompey at The Inquirer, with a dispatch from the NBA combine in Chicago: 

The belief among NBA executives is that James Harden will rejoin the Houston Rockets this summer. 

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta “loves” the 76ers point guard. The franchise expects to reunite with him, sources say. Before hiring Ime Udoka on April 25, head coaching candidates were asked for their opinion on coaching Harden during the interview process, according to sources. 

Houston is positioned to have around $60 million in salary cap space this offseason. That’s great for Harden, who intends to opt out of his $35.6 million deal for next season with the Sixers and become a free agent. 

Sources have said his interest in returning to Houston is mutual and not a ploy to get a lucrative deal out of the Sixers. His mother still lives in the city. He has several business ventures there. And, as one source said, “he’s treated like a god in Houston.” [The Inquirer]

Nobody has made the claim that this is a done deal, and this still only exists as a belief in the minds of people who have their own reasons to spin rumors during the offseason. But there has been too much smoke to sit here and bury your head in the sand until early July, when Harden could flee Philadelphia to head back to his comfort city.

So let it be said: If Harden is this interested in returning to Houston, if this isn't a ploy to simply get more money out of the Sixers, if he wants to be the man with the Rockets rather than the co-star in Philadelphia, the Sixers should let him walk, whether that means walking for nothing or picking up whatever paltry sum they could come up with in a sign-and-trade.

If the stakes of the Harden experience have not been made clear during his year-and-a-half in Philadelphia, they have certainly been made clear during his time in the NBA. When Harden wants something, he is willing to cause a fuss in order to get it and willing to shut himself and his commitment down until his demands are met. It happened in Houston after Daryl Morey moved on, and it happened in Brooklyn when his patience for the situation there wore thin. Whether you understand or agree with his motive in either situation is beside the point. 

When you are fortunate enough to have Harden's ear, he will do what he's asked and perhaps even more, as laid out by the last year of his time in Philadelphia. First came the pay cut he took last offseason, then his point-guard-first mentality that Doc Rivers asked him to play with, and along the way, Harden let everyone in on his mentality for the 2022-23 season, highlighting sacrifice as his top priority.

"I told myself this year I'm all big on sacrifice, whether it's the money, my role, just letting everything go and sacrificing and see what it gives me. I'm not the type of person that's naive, or I'm not the type of person who's – I'm a sponge, I listen, and I can go out there and just be [whoever] for the betterment of the team," Harden said following Philadelphia's Game 4 win over the Nets. "So throughout the entire year, people expect me to be the scoring James Harden, the James Harden that goes out there gets 40, 50 points and people talk, oh they can't win like that. And then it's like, well I go out there and get 20 points and 11 assists, and it's like, well he's not the old James Harden anymore."

In the right light, it's a quote about doing the right things and not worrying about your critics. But you can also view this as a tell — for James Harden, sacrifice over the last year was a deliberate choice and not something that happened naturally. An action that says, "I'm going to do this, and I'll see what it does for me before deciding what to do next." And that in itself is a misunderstanding of what sacrifice is supposed to be about, which is about giving yourself up for others because of the inherent goodness of that act, not what it returns to you.

This is not to paint Harden as selfish, greedy, or anything other than a man who knows what he wants. With the work he has put in to become the player he has been during an illustrious career, marching to his own beat is the least he has earned. But the Sixers need to have the clarity of how they need to walk to understand that a mercurial, sacrifice as a bargaining chip star is not what they need right now.

That is at least partially a reflection of their other star, Joel Embiid. The Sixers have brought in more foxhole guys to surround their core players, most notably P.J. Tucker, who broke their spirits a year prior with the Miami Heat. They ended up in a similar place a year later — with Embiid ailing in the second round, players commenting on a lack of toughness after a season-ending loss, and the stars just sort of meandering through the game, unable or unwilling to pull the Sixers through a time of real adversity. 

The vision of Tucker berating Embiid at the free-throw line at the end of Game 4 ought to have brought some clarity. The Sixers don't just need role players who inspire descriptors like "tough" and "gritty," they need a co-star for Embiid who can be that ass-kicker verbally and transfer that energy into game-saving heroics. Whether that player could or should have been Jimmy Butler, who briefly stopped through here four years ago, is a moot point. The truth remains the same — it is hard to win in the playoffs if your team-driving forces are as likely to feel sorry for themselves as they are to rise to the occasion.

With Harden, the Sixers need to ask whether getting him back is worth the cost of having him. That means many things to many different people in the organization — how much freedom are you willing to give him on offense? How much will your coaching search cater to his needs? How much oversight (if any) do you want of his off-court life, as his time away from the floor becomes more consequential to his health and ability to bounce back in short order? Philadelphia hardly seems to be in a place where they can afford to be wishy-washy in any way. This is a true crossroads moment for the organization, a period that could end before you know it if the aforementioned big man decides to look for the exit door.

There is real pain in letting Harden walk out the door, starting with the fact that there are no immediate means of replacing his production. His impact on their success shouldn't be understated. Harden's patience and passing ability helped Embiid climb the MVP mountain, his scoring prowess won the Sixers a pair of round-two games against an elite team, and his very presence was enough to boost Philadelphia to near the top of the league on offense. 

In a world where Harden's sacrifice wasn't temporary or self-motivated, in a world where you know you're getting 100 percent of James Harden for the next four years, you would sign on the dotted line for as much as you could offer, locking him in here until the final years of his career. Maybe the Sixers will get to the negotiating table and find that's the Harden they see. If Daryl Morey can look him in the eye and feel confident that's who he has, we'll spend the offseason talking about how to iterate around the Embiid/Harden combo in a quest to win the title.

But if you have to sell him on coming back here compared to Houston, an organization that has done nothing but flail and lose since he left? Don't bother. The Sixers don't, or at least shouldn't, have time for anyone whose mind is on the comforts of home, off-court ventures, or deity-level treatment. There are enough questions for the group to answer about the star at the center of everything without signing up to figure out what they're going to get from his co-star on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis. The Sixers need a laser focus on winning, and whatever it takes to do so. Anyone whose priorities are elsewhere need not apply. 

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