James HardenPhoto: Getty Images
James Harden is a deeply shady franchise cornerstone. However, in the midst of a career-defining season that shaped his legacy, Harden may be eyeing a return to free reign on the Rockets franchise he forced himself out of two years ago, according to a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
For Harden to want out at this particular point is unexpected, to say the least. Harden signed a two-year, $68.6 million deal with Philadelphia during the offseason that includes a player option for next season. Everything is going well so far. Philadelphia has won 11 of their last 14 games since Thanksgiving. Just last week, he set a franchise record with 21 assists and is on course to be named to his 11th straight All-Star team. Meanwhile, Joel Embiid is still at his peak. Surely Harden would have dropped that woj bomb asap on Christmas Day. Instead, he offered a classic non-denial.
“I’m here, we’re playing very well,” Harden said after Philadelphia’s 119-112 win over the Knicks. “I don’t know where the report came from, but I’m happy to be here, we’re playing well and we’re getting better and better.”
Harden’s eyes have always been bigger than his stomach. He found team success in Oklahoma City but yearned to be the leading star elsewhere. For nearly a decade, he recorded absurd numbers in Houston but clashed with colleagues who could have helped him lift a Larry O’Brien Trophy. He talked his way out of Brooklyn, where he, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were inches away from defeating the eventual champions in a Game 7.
He’s still in an ideal position to contend for rings with Philly, but he’s never seemed overly concerned with championship pursuits. When he hints that he wants to return to one of the NBA’s youngest teams, it seems like he’s almost throwing in the towel to win a title.
He could have moved to Sacramento, Atlanta or Los Angeles to join the Lakers, but Harden has tried to team up with his peers before. He’s not built for that kind of responsibility. His low effort in the face of adversity and sluggish play are the greatest weaknesses of a playmaker who is immensely talented but unable to access the extra level of effort that megastars find in the postseason.
He perhaps reckons a young roster with his top staff all on rookie contracts over the next two years wouldn’t be so squeamish as to pay him $50 million a season.
A return to Houston like LeBron had in Cleveland after Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins were drafted first by the Cavs is the dream. Or he thinks he can be the elixir that Chris Paul was for the Phoenix Suns. James Harden is not that type.
Whenever Harden is confronted with higher standards, he either chases his partners away or jumps overboard. The grass is always greener on the other side. But Harden is delusional in believing he’s what Houston’s Junior Rockets need right now. At 34, Philly wouldn’t even commit to a long-term supermax deal due to Harden’s overwhelming game and poor conditioning during his first half of the season as a six.
Another blow to the odds of a Houston reunion is that it’s only been two years since he reported to training camp, packing more extra weight as Black Santa, and rather than give it his all while a deal was negotiated, played dead on the floor until a deal was finalized.
No matter that he would be a redundancy. Eight of the top nine Rockets players by minutes are 22 or younger. Jalen Green, Jabari Smith, Kevin Porter Jr. and Alperen Şengün don’t need the bad habits that Harden would plant in their formative basketball mindset. At 10-23, the Rockets have the second-worst win rate in the NBA, which also puts them in a position to share the best odds for the top pick in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes with Detroit and Charlotte.
Playing with Harden has never been a pleasant experience. For the past five years in Houston, his teams have been the complete opposite of Golden State’s platonic idea offensive, which created open shots by sharing the ball. Instead, they were last in the player movement from 2016 to 2021, according to Second Spectrum, while Harden often dribbled the clock to create his own playmaking opportunities. Paying Harden to grow old, unruly, and neglectful in a burgeoning Rockets roster is a silly commission.