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April 20, 2023

James Harden to Houston rumors have popped up once again

With the Sixers in control of the Brooklyn series and a second-round matchup against Boston looming, ESPN insiders speculated on big change for Philly if they hit the second-round wall again.

The Sixers are cruising in their playoff series, fresh off of their best regular season in 20+ years, and are likely to see Joel Embiid crowned MVP of the league in the coming weeks. What a perfect time for some new free agency scuttlebutt to pop up.

On the latest episode of the Woj Pod, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne checked in on a number of playoff matchups and storylines, closing the podcast with some chatter about the upcoming Sixers and Celtics battle. Or more accurately, the two veteran reporters discussed the looming stakes of round 2 for Philadelphia, and what sort of ramifications an early loss could have on the franchise.

Here's the snippet that people are going wild over on Twitter today:

But Philly, right? There's going to be change there if they don't – there may be change if they go to the Finals – James Harden's future is very unclear in Philadelphia. Houston is very much in play for him, and I think a lot may depend on do they make a run and win, and it's easy to pay him long-term big money? Or he just wants to be back in Houston and win or lose he goes, or it's dependant on the team's success, but it's gonna look different. [Woj Pod]

It should be noted that this is far from the only thing the two said about the situation or the stakes at hand in these playoffs – the overarching theme was that the Sixers are under a lot of pressure during this run, as an early exit could mean dramatic upheaval in Philadelphia. And that is sort of not up for debate at this point. They are not going to be favored in round 2 against the Celtics, barring a dramatic turn of events, but it does not really matter. Hitting the same second-round wall is not viewed as an acceptable outcome, and Harden's future is the most obvious pressure point if they get stuck there.

That comes on both ends of the relationship. On the team side of things, a second-round exit with Harden struggling in a primetime matchup would force some uncomfortable conversations to be had about what his value is now, next year, and over the duration of what would certainly be a pricy contract. No matter the outcome of this playoff run, it will be expensive to be in the Harden business, and while everyone has expressed how thrilled they are about this relationship to date, nothing tests that claim like playoff results. It has all been building toward this run and this moment.

Looking at it through a Harden-centric lens, it's easy to say defecting to Houston is a sign that his claims about wanting to win would be null and void. But you'd have to ask yourself if Harden would be unrealistic for thinking about moving on from a team that (theoretically) still couldn't clear the second-round hurdle after years of trying, making sweeping changes to chase that goal. Giannis Anteokounmpo will still be in his prime for a while. The Celtics' core stars are younger than Philadelphia's. If you're asking me personally, I think being "the president" in Houston is running away from a worthwhile fight, though you could see how someone could convince themselves otherwise.

There's also the reality where the Sixers win and win big, and everyone's flowchart becomes much cleaner. Maybe Embiid's MVP moment turns into an ascension to the clear best player in the league. Maybe Harden sees that and hangs on for as long as it might last. Woj, Shelburne, and Co. are not just making things up, but we're all working with incomplete information because the single most important factor in what happens this summer is this playoff journey the team is on. 

Truthfully, I don't think anyone with the Sixers (or even James Harden) is really thinking about this issue at the present moment. The importance of this season has been clear to the major parties all year long, and the fear of losing top talent is an ever-present reality in today's NBA. It's a world where stars sign extensions and quickly turn around to demand trades, one where stars can meet in a tunnel during All-Star weekend and plot out their free agency plans only to deny in public that anything of the sort is happening.

I can imagine there are a lot of people hearing about this or reading this and groaning that it is a storyline on the day of a Sixers playoff game. As unrealistic as it may seem, try not to think about it. At this moment, what matters for Philadelphia is that they have two stars who give them a pretty good chance to win a title this season (even if, sadly, their most likely outcome is a loss to Boston in round two). 

It's hard to hope for or expect more than that with the way the league has tilted. Enjoy the games and the ride for as long as they last.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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