On Christmas Day, an odd report came out from Adrian Wojnarowski that suggested James Harden will opt out of his player option this offseason to return to the Houston Rockets. It was weird for so many reasons. Who was wondering if Harden would go back to Houston? What's the point of leaking that information on Christmas, a full six months before free agency even begins? And why, oh why would Harden ditch the championship-contending Philadelphia 76ers to go play with one of the league's worst teams?
Nothing about it made any sense at the time and even Harden, the one party in the situation who could gain leverage through the report, seemed pretty pissed off about it when asked on Christmas. A few months later, we're back! Kelly Iko, The Athletic's beat writer for the Rockets, penned a lengthy piece connecting the two parties yet again titled "James Harden, the Houston Rockets and an undeniable bond that refuses to go away." It contains quotes like these:
But Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, whose unabashed love of all things Harden was no secret during their three and a half years contending for titles together, had a message to share with his soon-to-be former franchise centerpiece on his way out the door.
“You’re always welcome back here,” he told him in so many words during a goodbye phone call between the two.
Harden, sources with knowledge of the situation say, made it abundantly clear the feeling was mutual. There were no promises made that day — on either side — but everyone who was part of those final Harden days in Houston knew there were strong indications he’d be back, specifically, in the summer of 2023.
Fast forward to the present day, and the whispers about a Harden-Rockets reunion are louder than ever. Never mind that this Harden-Joel Embiid iteration of the Sixers looks as capable as ever of winning the whole thing, or that the Rockets are in the midst of the worst three-season stretch in franchise history.
Sources, who like all of the other sources in this story were granted anonymity so that they could speak freely, have told The Athletic 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. And even more surprisingly, sources with knowledge of Harden’s outlook say he’s as serious about a possible return now as he was when he left town.
All that really sounds like Harden is going back, right? Well, the article also includes these quotes.
But where does he want his next hoops chapter to be, and what factors will matter most when the time comes to decide? Even Harden himself may not know at this point.
Amid all the evidence Harden might be planning a return to Houston, here’s the part where his situation gets so fascinating: According to a high-ranking Sixers source with knowledge of the team’s operation, they are “unconcerned” about possibly losing him this summer. This confidence, it seems, is rooted in the belief that only Philadelphia can provide the two things Harden holds most dear: A chance to contend for a title, and maximum earning potential.
You get the sense those are all reflections for another time, and that Harden is locked in on this push to win it all. In that regard, things are going well in Philly. But what scenarios might make it the most likely he’ll leave? It seems to be anyone’s guess.
It all seems rather contradictory and is summed up by this final quote:
“Everything in this league is leverage,” one source close to Harden said. “But that doesn’t mean he won’t go to Houston.”
None of this is to take aim at Iko, who does a great job laying out sourced reasons for and against this possibility. But even after reading all that it still makes zero sense that he'd go back to Houston. The Sixers can give him a massive, massive contract and are in win-now mode. If all this is just a leverage play to ensure they give him as much money as possible then there is a shocking amount of work being done behind the scenes by Harden's team to ensure these rumors reach the light of day. And it's all playing out in March! Way, way before anything that matters will happen!
Whenever we see sourced reports that a player would like to join a team, it is important to ask why that information is out there. If all this is a negotiating strategy by Harden then why is it out in the public so far before free agency? If it is not a negotiating strategy and someone wants to lay the groundwork so nobody is shocked by his return, why was Harden upset by the initial report on Christmas and why is it getting drawn out into a six-month saga?
There is no clear answer. And that is why this whole situation makes no sense at all.