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Why James Harden’ potential return to Rockets doesn’t make sense for either party

Credit: James Harden

During his final days with a franchise he carried for nine years, James Harden acted like a petulant child. He barely tried in games. He acted disinterested in practice. He disrespected coaches and teammates enough behind-the-scenes that the Houston Rockets quickly accommodated his wishes to be traded.

Since the Rockets dealt Harden three seasons ago, they have looked like a dramatically different team than when Harden guided them to two Western Conference Finals appearances out of eight consecutive playoff stints. The Rockets competed for NBA ping-pong balls instead of actual wins (combined 59-177). Though they turned the Harden trade and subsequent tanking into various draft picks, none of those prospects have offered definitive clarity on if they can become a star. The Rockets then fired the coach they had hired shortly before Harden’s departure (Stephen Silas) before hiring an accomplished coach Ime Udoka) that demands more defense than what Harden is capable of providing.

All of which begs twos questions. Why would Harden want to return to fix Houston’s problems? Why would the Rockets believe Harden can help them lift off into becoming a contender again?

The Rockets have since acquired some decent young players (Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason, Jae’Sean Tate). Some of them seem more worried about their numbers. None of them seem special. Why would Harden want to lead a team full of young players that may feel more concerned about how Harden displaced their pecking order than how they can help him win?

Why would the Rockets feel Harden could become that savior? For all of his success during his first stint with the Rockets, he couldn’t win with another established player with a dominant albeit goofy center (Dwight Howard), a demanding albeit injury-prone point guard (Chris Paul) and a competitive albeit one-dimensional point guard (Russell Westbrook). Since then? Harden co-existed well in Brooklyn with Kevin Durant, but struggled with Kyrie Irving’s prolonged absences. Harden has meshed well in Philadelphia with Joel Embiid, but both have disappeared in big games. And regardless of his teammates and role, Harden’s body has continued to break down at the most inopportune times.

Harden might counter this way.

He has experienced too much drama since his departure from Houston. He dealt with Irving’s flakiness for 1 ½ seasons in Brooklyn before wanting out. He became frustrated with the Sixers’ shortcomings with Embiid, Doc Rivers and a supporting cast falling short in crucial games. Those places feel like utopia compared to the Rockets.

After bouncing from Brooklyn (2020-2022) and Philadelphia (2022-23), Harden might feel comfortable returning to a city that embraced him for his on-court play, catered to his night-club interests and made he and family members feel more at home than they did in bigger markets.

The Rockets might counter this way.

Houston already replaced Silas with a more proven coach that helped the Boston Celtics last season appear in the NBA Finals (Udoka). The Rockets have $60 million in cap space to pursue Harden and other options. And Houston has a No. 4 pick and a handful of young players either to develop further or flip in deals. Perhaps the Rockets can build a contender that involves Harden.

None of those best-case scenarios seem realistic, though.

Whatever misgivings Harden has about Philadelphia, he should stay put. Sixers general manager Daryl Morey has remained loyal to Harden both during his time in Houston and with acquiring him to the Sixers. Morey will certainly take care of Harden in contract negotiations after taking a relative discount last summer to give Philadelphia more room to upgrade its roster. Morey may even find a more offensively-minded coach for Harden. He would presumably feel more comfortable playing for that coach than for Udoka, who would expect more of Harden on defense.

As for the Rockets? They might view Harden’s legacy in Houston more for what he accomplished than how he handled a messy divorce. Although it appears admirable the Rockets do not appear to hold a grudge for how Harden handled his hasty exit, that incident still reveals many red flags.

Should the Rockets mostly stay intact, Harden has shown he can’t carry a team full of young players. Should Houston make big moves, Harden has shown he also has struggled as serving as someone’s second or third option. Regardless of the Rockets’ identity, Harden has not set a good example with his training habits and has not offered promising signs that he can stay healthy.

Perhaps this scenario has just emerged as possible leverage. Maybe it helps Harden with ensuring a better contract in Philadelphia. Maybe it opens more doors for Houston to weigh other offers for their young players before potentially dealing them to Philadelphia in a sign-and-trade. Regardless, those are weak attempts at manipulating the market.

The Rockets should thank their lucky stars that the dealt Harden before it was too late to land anything of value in return. Harden should feel thankful he left the organization in hopes to land on a contender. No need for either party to rekindle something that is no longer there.

Mark Medina is a veteran NBA reporter who will be contributing to Aaron Torres Online and Aaron Torres Media throughout the NBA playoffs - follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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