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Harden reportedly open to Houston return; truth or negotiation tactic?

Sacramento Kings v Philadelphia 76ers

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - DECEMBER 13: James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers reacts during the second quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Wells Fargo Center on December 13, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

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Last summer, James Harden opted out of the $47.4 million final year of his contract. That gave Philly GM Daryl Morey cap space to sign P.J. Tucker to a three-year contract and add Danuel House (the 76ers’ were found to have tampered in those cases and had their second-round picks in 2023 and 2024 taken away). A few weeks later, Harden re-signed in Philly for “what was left” of the space the 76ers had under the hard cap, or $33 million this season, with a player option for next season.

Meaning Harden can be a free agent come July. Around the league plenty of people thought last summer’s maneuvering was a handshake deal where the 76ers would make it good with Harden on the back end. But if things don’t work out in Philly he is considering a return to Houston, that rumor had been floating around the league but Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN confirmed it.

All-Star guard James Harden is seriously considering a return to the Houston Rockets in free agency this July -- if he decides against a new deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, sources told ESPN. Harden and his inner circle have been openly weighing Houston in recent months, sources said, a remarkable possibility given that he requested and received a trade out of the franchise less than two years ago.

Interesting timing that this comes out when the 76ers are on a seven-game winning streak and playing their best basketball of the season. From the outside, this has the feel of an agent/inner circle trying to remind the 76ers of negotiation leverage. For his part, Harden blew off the report.

“I’m here, we’re playing very well and I don’t know where that report came from,” Harden said, via the Associated Press, “but I’m excited to be here and we’re playing well and we’re continuing to get better.”

For the 76ers, nothing changes. Their moves last offseason were all-in on winning this season, and while they have not gotten off to the start of Boston or Milwaukee, the Sixers have impressed over their last seven — heading into a Christmas Day showdown with the red-hot Knicks — and they will get Tyrese Maxey back soon. Joel Embiid has played at an MVP level — again — and leads the league in scoring at 33 points per game. Philadelphia is at worst a fringe title contender and their focus is on this season, not beyond.

This summer the 76ers will make their offer to Harden, but if he is unhappy and wants to bolt the City of Brotherly Love he will have options. As Wojnarowski notes later in his article, Harden still has ties to Houston — he has a home there, returns there as often as he can, still has connections in the community and is revered there. Harden is drawn to Houston for reasons beyond basketball. He may be open to sacrificing a title chase for the comforts of a place he enjoys living.

Would the Rockets welcome him back? Obviously price plays into it, but Houston is a rebuilding team with a nice young core — Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith Jr. — and another high draft pick coming this year. Is inserting a ball-dominant Harden into that mix the right move for the franchise’s future?

We’re seven months away from these decisions being made, but it sounds like someone is trying to leverage the situation early.