Dec 5, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) drives to the basket as Houston Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr. (3) defends during overtime at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Rockets should be open to a James Harden reunion, if he’s willing to change
James Harden’s Rockets career may not be over after all.
ESPN reported Sunday morning Harden would be open to a Houston return this summer when he becomes a free agent. The possibility has been speculated about ever since he signed a short-term contract with the Sixers in late July, and the Rockets would be wise to entertain the idea of bringing Harden back to where he starred for eight seasons, but only if he is willing to change.
Harden is the best player to wear a Rockets uniform since Hakeem Olajuwon, and in an era of rest management and players sitting the second night of a back-to-back, Harden demanded to play. He played through wrist injuries, and ankle injuries and shoulder injuries, and a myriad of other injuries he refused to talk about, but at the same time, he took over the organization.
If the Rockets had a trip to Los Angeles or Phoenix and Harden wanted to leave a day early, the team would leave a day early. If he wanted to hang out in a city for an extra day, the team would do that too. Before the 2019-2020 season, Harden said he liked playing for Mike D’Antoni because he was allowed to do whatever he wanted. He was joking when he said, but at the same time, Harden was telling the truth. The previous Rockets regime afforded him an incredible amount of freedom both on and off the floor, and that can’t happen if there is to be a reunion. He must be 1-of-15, not 1-of-1. If Harden is willing to be one of the guys instead of THE guy, bringing him back is an easy decision.
Harden instantly makes the Rockets better, and significant improvement next season is imperative. The Rockets control their 2023 first-round pick, but then the bills come due on the disastrous Russell Westbrook/Chris Paul trade. Houston owes Oklahoma City its first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, top four protected, and the Thunder have the right to swap picks in 2025.
Almost two years after ending the Harden era, the Rockets’ rebuild is off to a good start after two solid drafts. They’ll have a chance to add to that core with a high lottery pick in June and loads of cap space in July when Harden will be the best free agent available, despite approaching his 34th birthday. While the Rockets could choose to roll their cap space into 2024, there’s still no guarantee they’d be able to get anyone that would have near the impact.
If he were to return to the Rockets, Harden would not walk into the Rockets locker room a stranger. He has relationships with many of the players already on the roster. Josh Christopher wore his number while at Arizona State, he’s been a mentor to Kevin Porter Jr., and he speaks frequently with Jalen Green. Harden maintains a home in Houston, and he played pickup games at Toyota Center with a good portion of the Rockets roster over the summer.
Harden isn’t the guy who finished with five top-three MVP finishes in a six-year span, but he’s still a tremendous player. Despite missing 14 games with a right foot strain, he’s still averaging 21.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 11.1 assists per game. He’s become less of a scorer and more of a distributor, which is exactly what the Rockets need right now.
While Harden’s separation from the Rockets two years ago was ugly, no bridges were burned. Rafael Stone sent him to one of the destinations he wanted, and the team has been effusive with its praise since he left. The Rockets should be open to it if Harden wants to return, just as long as he’s not expecting his treatment to revert to what it was.