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February 21, 2023

Rumor: Houston reporter says James Harden return has '7 out of 10' likelihood

Will James Harden go back to Texas at the end of the current NBA season?

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James-Harden-Sixers-NBA-Playoffs-05022022-UST Sam Navarro/USA Today Sports

James Harden throws up his hands in frustration.

Not much is happening in the basketball world as we all wait for the games to start back up again, so it was the perfect time for a wild James Harden rumor to appear out of nowhere. And one Rockets reporter believes there's a 70-percent chance Harden could be back in Houston next season.

That's the word from Kelly Iko at The Athletic, who appeared on local TV in Houston to discuss the current state of the Rockets. At the tail end of the interview, Iko was asked about the likelihood of a potential Harden return next season, and Iko had this to say:

I'm putting it at a seven out of 10. I think where there's smoke there's fire, and James loves this city. He loves those guys on the roster, young players in Houston, he has ties to the city, businesses, his home is here, and crazier things have happened. Don't call me crazy, but you might be seeing something different.

Iko is not wrong about Harden's affection for the Houston area, which is not exactly a secret. This threat has been a recurring theme since ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski floated the possibility on Christmas Day, with other prominent reporters discussing that possibility in the months since. Perhaps more importantly, Harden hired an agent (Troy Payne of Equity Basketball) to represent him, with Payne the first full-time agent for Harden since 2017. Harden worked with other agents in the interim period, most notably when he hired Jason Ranne and Chafie Fields to help him get a trade out of Houston back in 2020/21.

Houston has emerged as the existential threat in free agency because of the ties Iko mentions, but also because when you run down the list of teams with cap space in the summer, basically none of them have basketball-centric appeal to Harden. Is he going to go play in Charlotte, San Antonio, Utah, or Detroit? Almost certainly not. So the Rockets have been framed as the looming threat, at least until/unless a better team emerges with cap space in the summer.

Where the framing falls apart is when you have to actually consider Harden playing basketball for the Houston Rockets again. I don't say this lightly — the Rockets absolutely stink. At 13-45, they stand alone with the worst record in the league, each of their potential building blocks coming with at least medium-sized concerns. Houston is young enough to have hope for a few years down the line, but they are a rudderless ship, one that Harden could not save on his own.

If Harden were to leave the Sixers to go back to Houston, you'd just have to laugh at all the claims he has made about putting winning first and adamantly seeking championships. He is certainly allowed to prefer one place or another for a multitude of reasons, from comfort to money to any old reason he could pick under the sun, but going to a Rockets team far away from success would certainly not match his public assertions about what drives him.

Frankly, I am inclined to believe those public assertions. I think Harden's changes to his style of play, from embracing the playmaker-first mentality to shooting more catch-and-shoot threes, is an indication of what matters to him as he hits the backstretch of his career. And I think you could make an easy case that his quick pivot to get out of Brooklyn was driven by that same mentality, with Harden unenthused by Kyrie Irving's lack of commitment to building a championship-level team. 

That said, you can never dismiss free agency rumors (from reliable sources, anyway) outright. Harden going back to Houston would probably include movement elsewhere, too, as I think it's far more likely that he'd try to set up a multi-star move back to the Rockets rather than play with the spine of the current worst team in the league.

Here's what matters for Philadelphia in the short-term — the urgency is there to try to win a championship this season, because there's no telling how long the core of this team will hold together. Maybe Harden decides that a second-round exit is proof enough that things won't be good enough here, and that he'd rather take his chances elsewhere. Maybe Joel Embiid wakes up one day and decides he wants a change of scenery, having been through so much trying to lead this franchise out of the wilderness. Maybe there's a coaching change that inspires one star and alienates the other, creating tension we can't predict at this very moment.

None of that is in their control right now, and the Sixers are aware of that, with insistence from all levels of the organization that free agency is a bridge they can only cross when they get there. There is too much at stake this year to spend much time worrying about the summer and the years to come. Even with continued rumors surrounding Harden, the only thing that matters is the quest for a title. Everything else will take care of itself.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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