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James Harden downplays report he could return to Houston

Philadephia 76ers v New York Knicks

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 25: James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers reacts during the game against thew New York Knicks on December 25, 2022 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

It felt like a negotiation tactic, a reminder to the 76ers that they were not getting a discount this summer. The 76ers entered Christmas Day on a seven-game winning streak, then they beat the Knicks behind another strong performance from James Harden. Everything is looking up in Philly.

Yet floating over the top of all this was a report that Harden was considering a return to Houston this offseason. Harden did his best to blow this all off. Harden was colorful on the podium postgame but his comments were straightforward, via NBC Sports Philadelphia.

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

Before the game, Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer asked Harden about the report, to which Harden said he didn’t know about any report. When it was explained to him, Harden got testy.

“Why would you ask me about that on Christmas, man?” he said. “You didn’t say Merry Christmas or nothing. You asked me about something that I ain’t even … I’m not answering. I didn’t see nothing.”

Later told why the question had to be asked, Harden responded: ”I’m not talking right now before the game.”

If one were cynical, one would note this is how things work: Harden’s agent or someone in his camp leaks the report he’s open to a return to Houston, then Harden comes out and denies everything. Message sent to Philly about next summer’s negotiations, but Sixers fans have what they need to ignore the report.

Harden has a player option for next season that nobody expects him to pick up (barring some injury or unexpected circumstance). Harden will be a free agent, he still has strong ties to Houston and the community there, the Rockets can create the cap space to make a max offer, and reports of Harden being interested a Houston reunion are not new. The Rockets have a strong young core — Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith Jr. — plus they will add another high draft pick coming this draft. After that (and because their 2024 pick goes to the Thunder, top four protected) the Rockets may focus more on winning and want to bring in a veteran who can help turn the ship around. Enter Harden rumors. (Another question is whether Rockets ownership will want to pay Harden as all those young players come up for contract extensions in the coming years, but we’re not going there today.)

As we wrote before, this rumor changes nothing for Daryl Morey and the 76ers. Acquiring Harden and their offseason moves pushed the 76ers all-in on winning this season and that remains the focus. Joel Embiid is playing like an MVP, Harden has found a groove, the role players are stepping up and Philly has won eight in a row and looked like more of a threat to Boston and Milwaukee. Philly can play this season out, see what happens in the playoffs, then the 76ers can judge next steps and make their offer to Harden. If he leaves, he leaves.

But the rumors are already starting.