Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Sixers’ James Harden expected to reunite with Rockets in free agency, sources say

Before hiring Ime Udoka, Houston asked head coaching candidates during the interview process how they would feel about coaching Harden, according to sources.

Sixers guard James Harden is expected to sign with the Houston Rockets this offseason, according to sources.
Sixers guard James Harden is expected to sign with the Houston Rockets this offseason, according to sources.Read moreYong Kim / Staff Photographer

CHICAGO — The belief among NBA executives is that James Harden will rejoin the Houston Rockets this summer.

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta “loves” the 76ers point guard and the franchise expects to reunite with him, sources say. Before the Rockets hired Ime Udoka on April 25, head-coaching candidates were asked during the interview process for their opinion on coaching Harden, according to sources.

» READ MORE: If James Harden leaves for Rockets, how will his Sixers tenure be remembered?

Houston is positioned to have around $60 million in salary-cap space this offseason. That’s great for Harden, who intends to opt out of his $35.6 million deal for next season with the Sixers and become a free agent.

Sources have said his interest in returning to Houston is mutual and not a ploy to get a lucrative deal out of the Sixers. His mother still lives in the city. He has several business ventures there. And, as one source said, “He’s treated like a god in Houston.”

But the question is: What type of contract are the Rockets, Sixers or any other franchise willing to offer?

Harden could receive a maximum salary of $210 million over four years with the Sixers, who have his Bird rights. He could make up to $201.7 million with another team. But with Harden at 33 years old and prone to struggles in the postseason, it’s unlikely any team would want to max him out for four years.

But if the Sixers do not re-sign Harden, they would be put in a tough spot.

He led the league in assists at 10.7 per game this season, and was by far the Sixers’ best ball handler and facilitator. Not projecting to have salary-cap space available, they would not be able to replace him adequately in free agency.

So the Sixers cannot afford to let Harden walk for nothing, especially considering what they gave up to acquire him from the Brooklyn Nets in a trade on Feb. 10, 2022. The Sixers surrendered their unprotected first-round pick, which was deferred to June’s draft, in addition to giving up Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, and Andre Drummond.

But Houston will always be a special place for Harden. It’s also a place he frequented several times this season when time permitted.

» READ MORE: There will be no winners in Sixers-Nets trade if James Harden leaves this summer without an NBA title

Harden went from being a sixth man of the year to a 10-time All-Star after the Oklahoma City Thunder traded him to the Rockets on Oct. 27, 2012.

For Harden, playing at Houston’s Toyota Center is different than in any other arena.

He’s one of the Rockets’ all-time best players. He won the 2018 MVP award and numerous other accolades during his nine seasons as a Rocket. Fans are past being upset with him for forcing a trade to Brooklyn on Jan. 13, 2021. He’s still appreciated in the city.

“The love and feelings are mutual,” he said before facing the Rockets in Houston on Dec. 5. “That’s never going to change. Like I said, I still own my home here. A lot of family still lives here. That feeling won’t change. What I meant by the game is obviously there’s no greater win or loss [in Houston compared to other places], but having that family environment around me is a little different.”

Harden averaged 21.0 points and 6.1 rebounds this season in addition to being the first Sixer to win the NBA assists title since Wilt Chamberlain in 1967-68.

He was celebrated for winning two series games against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

He had an epic performance in Game 1 with Joel Embiid sidelined by a sprained right knee ligament. Harden had a game-high 45 points, tying a career playoff-high. He also tied a season-high with seven three-pointers in the 119-115 victory. Fifteen of his points came in the fourth quarter, including the go-ahead basket with 8.4 seconds left.

In Game 4, Harden had game-highs of 42 points, nine assists, and four steals in the 116-115 victory. His wide-open, 24-foot three-pointer in front of the Sixers bench with 19 seconds left was the game-winner to cap his best home game as Sixer.

However, he was criticized for his struggles in Games 6 and 7.

Harden had 13 points on 4-for-16 shooting in the 95-86 Game 6 loss. He followed that with nine points on 3-for-11 shooting along with five turnovers in the 112-88 Game 7 defeat. And Harden failed to score in the fourth quarters of Games 5, 6, and 7 on a combined 0-for-6 shooting.

But that hasn’t deterred the Sixers, who are hopeful he will return but not oblivious about his mutual interest in the Rockets.

“Scenario A would be to bring James back,” Sixers president Daryl Morey said. “Scenario B, if he’s not back, we’ll have to get creative.”