Rumors Linking Sixers’ James Harden To The Houston Rockets Are Only Growing Louder

Over the past few months, there has been a steady drumbeat of rumors suggesting Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden is open to re-signing with the Houston Rockets if he becomes a free agent this summer. ESPN’s Tim MacMahon began alluding to it as a possibility in December (h/t Ben Dubose of Rockets Wire), while ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Christmas Day that “Harden and his inner circle have been openly weighing” a return to Houston.

On Wednesday, those rumors reached a fever pitch.

“Houston is widely expected to pursue the 13-year veteran point guard if, as is expected, he declines his player option for the 2023-24 season,” Sam Amick and Kelly Iko of The Athletic reported. “And even more surprisingly, sources with knowledge of Harden’s outlook say he’s as serious about as a possible return now as he was when he left town.”

At first blush, that’s hard to fathom. The Sixers currently sit third in the Eastern Conference with a 40-21 record after Wednesday’s win over the Miami Heat, while the Rockets have the NBA’s worst record at 13-49. Although the Rockets have a promising young core including Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr., they’re nowhere near competing for a championship at the moment.

For that reason, a “high-ranking Sixers source with knowledge of the team’s operation” told Amick and Iko that they are “unconcerned” about the possibility of Harden leaving for Houston in free agency. He’ll turn 34 in August and has yet to win a championship, so the young, rudderless Rockets aren’t nearly as appealing from an on-court perspective.

That might not be the primary motivation drawing Harden back to Houston, though.

“From an emotional standpoint, sources with knowledge of his thinking continue to maintain that while Harden’s head and focus are on winning a championship with the 76ers, his heart will always be in Houston,” Amick and Iko reported.

It’s fair to question whether a reunion with Harden would be in the Rockets’ best interest. They’re projected to have a league-high $61.7 million in salary-cap space, but a max contract for Harden will begin at $46.9 million (based on the current $134 million cap projection). The Rockets aren’t poised to lose any impact free agents this offseason, but Green, second-year center Alperen Sengun and the rest of their young core will become eligible for extensions within the next few years. The next two offseasons will be their best chance to add talent in free agency before those extensions start to kick in.

Age-wise, Harden is not on the same developmental curve as Green, Smith and whomever the Rockets select with their lottery pick this year. The Rockets would arguably be better off signing players in their mid-to-late 20s who could grow alongside their young core, since Harden is likely to be on the decline by the time they’re ready to compete for a title again.

However, the Rockets are now in the third year of their rebuild, with no end in sight. Patience tends to wear thin without demonstrable progress, and if anything, the young Rockets appear to be backsliding this season.

“There’s no improvement,” veteran guard Eric Gordon told reporters in late December, prior to his trade to the Los Angeles Clippers. “Same old thing all year. We have a small margin for error. It’s a lot of things. It’s mindset. You got to play for one another. Do what’s right by your teammates. If you do that, it’d be more fun. You give yourself a better chance to win.”

Wojnarowski reported in December that the Rockets had “an appetite to make significant improvement in the standings” next season. Although Harden doesn’t align age-wise with Houston’s young core, he could make an immediate impact as a primary playmaker and secondary scorer. Harden is averaging 21.6 points and a league-high 10.7 assists per game with the Sixers this season while shooting 45.0 percent overall and a career-best 39.3 percent from three-point range.

While the Sixers appear confident in their ability to re-sign him, the next few months could prove decisive either way. Going on a deep playoff run and/or winning a championship could potentially entice Harden to stay. Another early exit might have him questioning whether he’ll ever have a realistic title shot with the Sixers, as they have a number of rotation players (Shake Milton, Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels and Paul Reed). also set to become free agents this summer.

Although the Sixers have full Bird or Early Bird rights on all four of Milton, Niang, McDaniels and Reed, they’ll be limited in their ability to add external help this offseason. They don’t have a single pick in this year’s draft—they traded their first-rounder in the deal to acquire Harden last February, and the NBA stripped their second-round pick for tampering—and they’ll likely have only the $7.0 million taxpayer mid-level exception at their disposal if they do re-sign Harden.

However, the alternative is far worse for the Sixers.

If Harden walks, it isn’t as though they’ll suddenly have nearly $47 million of salary-cap space with which to replace him. They already have $117.1 million in guaranteed salaries on their books for next season with only seven players under contract. Factor in cap holds for their other free agents, and they’re likely to operate as an over-the-cap team regardless of what Harden decides to do.

Questions about Harden’s future aren’t going away. How the Sixers navigate them over the final month of the regular season and into the playoffs could help dictate where he ends up signing this offseason.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM. All odds via FanDuel Sportsbook.