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More whispers free agent James Harden could return to Houston this summer

Michael Holley and Michael Smith continue their NBA MVP debate as Nikola Jokic powers toward his third straight -- while still never having gotten his Nuggets to the Finals.

Whispers about James Harden eyeing a return to Houston have swirled around the league all season, and while Harden has downplayed them they were a topic of speculation All-Star weekend in Salt Lake City.

Now comes another report that Harden is seriously considering a return to the city he thinks of as home. From a detailed, well-reported piece by Sam Amick and Kelly Iko of The Athletic:

Sources, who like all of the other sources in this story were granted anonymity so that they could speak freely, have told The Athletic Houston is widely expected to pursue the 13-year veteran point guard if, as is expected, he declines his player option for the 2023-24 season. And even more surprisingly, sources with knowledge of Harden’s outlook say he’s as serious about a possible return now as he was when he left town...

According to a high-ranking Sixers source with knowledge of the team’s operation, they are “unconcerned” about possibly losing him this summer. This confidence, it seems, is rooted in the belief that only Philadelphia can provide the two things Harden holds most dear: A chance to contend for a title, and maximum earning potential.

How the 76ers do this postseason could play a significant role in Harden’s decision. If Philadelphia gets to the Eastern Conference Finals or NBA Finals, that may feel very different to him than a second-round exit (or, worse yet, a first-round upset).

Then there’s the money. A max salary from Philadelphia or Houston (which has plenty of cap space next summer) will start at about $46.9 million (the exact number depends on the final salary cap number). However, the 76ers can offer 8% raises and an extra guaranteed year, making it a $272 million contract over five years. Houston can only offer 5% raises and four years, or a total of $201 million.

Ultimately for Harden, this may come down to chasing a ring vs. being home and in his comfort zone. Harden has personal reasons for wanting to return to Houston, among them his family is there and he is deeply entrenched with charities and businesses in the city. The rebuilding Rockets, however, will not contend with him there (and things will feel different on the court than they did the last time he played in the city). Philadelphia is a top-five (maybe top-three) team in the NBA and will be a serious title contender if Harden remains, and they can pay him more. That is a huge draw.

Harden has to decide what matters most to him, and how Philly does this postseason will factor into that decision.