James Harden has long had an interest in returning to the Rockets

Philadelphia 76ers' James Harden plays during an NBA basketball game, Friday, Dec. 23, 2022, in Philadelphia.  (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
James Harden is pursuing a title with the 76ers but has an interest in returning to Houston. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The first chats Philadelphia 76ers All-Star guard James Harden considering a return to Houston dates back to before he asked for a trade from Brooklyn, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

When Nets officials first learned of Harden’s waning commitment to their franchise, his purported interest in rejoining the Rockets was as much on Brooklyn’s radar as the looming threat from Philadelphia. ESPN reported Sunday on Harden’s opening to rejoin the Rockets in free agency this summeran hour before the Sixers played New York during the network’s Christmas Day broadcast.

The 10-time All-Star was traded to Philadelphia in February in a blockbuster five-player deal that included Brooklyn-bound Ben Simmons.

By all accounts, the city of Houston and its foothold in the Rockets organization is something Harden lost the moment he left the franchise. That’s where he went from Sixth Man of the Year to Most Valuable Player and one of America’s most recognizable athletes. The Rockets were his franchise and Houston was his domain.

While Harden was frustrated with Kyrie Irving’s part-time player status in Brooklyn and a January knee injury to Kevin Durant left him shouldering the Nets’ offensive burden, sources said Harden also longed for the familiarity of Houston, where he became a central mogul of the area’s popular culture and entertainment industry. You were someone in Houston if you knew Harden. And after a visit to San Antonio last season, sources said, Harden took a detour on the Nets’ road trip to have another Houston king night.

The move to Philadelphia reunited Harden with one of the biggest centers in the game, Joel Embiid, and reunited Harden with his former Rockets chief executive, Daryl Morey. Yet even Philadelphia is not Harden’s city. He still regularly finds opportunities to venture out and spend more time in Houston during his ongoing tenure with the Sixers. In December, Harden dated Lil Baby for the rapper’s birthday following the Sixers’ double loss at the Rockets.

Harden’s apparent interest in rejoining the Rockets resurfaced among league personnel during his contract negotiations with Philadelphia this offseason. Some league executives wondered if that accomplishment was a real bogeyman for Harden’s services as he weighed an option on his pre-existing 2022-23 contract with the Sixers. Although team officials consistently classified their discussions with Harden’s representatives as productive, the league office went so far as to hook Philadelphia with two second-round picks for how cooperative their dealings were in allowing the 76ers ample room to sign PJ Tucker and Danuel House. Harden accepted a $15 million pay cut from his original $47 million player option to help squeeze the Sixers’ roster with enough talent to compete for a championship. To say he was not involved in this current situation in Philadelphia would be a mischaracterization.

Winning was the ultimate baseline for this current Sixers group. “There is nothing to be happy about, just to make it to the conference finals or finals. You have to win it all,” Embiid recently told Yahoo Sports.

A championship is the one thing that’s also missing from Harden’s resume. People familiar with Harden’s thinking have long listed Dwyane Wade’s three titles as something Harden sees ahead of his position in the rankings of all-time great guards in NBA history. Rockets in Rebuild isn’t exactly a more established situation for Harden to earn a trophy.

Harden’s deal to stay in Philadelphia is a one-year contract plus one option through the 2023-24 season. It’s no secret that his partnership with Embiid may not last much longer. But this season is still, and always will be, rooted in a clear joint drive to fight for a championship. If Harden is indeed eyeing a return to Houston as his version of the Florida retirement once that latest accolade is in his trophy case, it would be a stunning end to a quixotic career. But if there’s an impression that Harden is eyeing Houston now like he was eyeing Philadelphia this time last season, and fans are gearing up for another midseason trade, that prospect seems off-putting until this season rolls around. to a definitive conclusion.

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