Harden Back to Houston

Winning the 2023 NBA draft lottery wouldn’t change the Houston Rockets’ plans to pursue a potential reunion with Philadelphia 76ers star James Harden.

ESPN‘s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Monday on Get Up that earning the right to select heavily hyped French prospect Victor Wembanyama “would not necessarily change the Rockets‘ intentions.”

Wojnarowski added a return to Houston could be a real possibility for Harden:

“And listen, it may ultimately be a leverage play for James Harden. Houston may be his way to get him the kind of guaranteed money, long-term money he wants from Philly. But I wouldn’t underestimate it as just a leverage play. I think he’s very serious about returning. And Philadelphia now, they have strong relationships in that organization from Daryl Morey, starting with him in their front office. It’s going to be a really interesting couple of months.”

In March, The Athletic’s Sam Amick and Kelly Iko detailed how Harden has maintained a solid relationship with the Rockets despite forcing his way out in January 2021. Wojnarowski had also reported in December that the 10-time All-Star “is seriously considering a return” this summer, when he can opt out of his contract.

To say the Rockets have been rebuilding since Harden’s departure would imply they’re actually working toward something bigger. While they’ve added some intriguing young players, they’re basically exactly right where they were after the trade. Houston went 59-177 in Stephen Silas’ three years as head coach.

From that perspective, you can understand why ownership and the front office want to shift gears in a dramatic way. Ime Udoka was already hired as head coach following the departure of Silas.

But the Rockets would be threading an almost impossible needle if they win Tuesday’s lottery and then sign Harden. Developing younger stars such as Wembanyama, Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. is tough when you’re simultaneously trying to contend with a mid-30s future Hall of Famer as your centerpiece.

The Golden State Warriors are a prime example of this.

Their two-timelines plan made sense in theory. The Warriors could continue to lean on the Big Three of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson while positioning James Wiseman, Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga to lead the franchise forward in the future.

Golden State couldn’t pull it off and wasn’t willing to waste what continue to be elite performance years from Curry.

The Rockets would be a little different in that Harden is no longer playing at a near-peak level like Curry. It’s not like his arrival is the one thing keeping Houston from being a legitimate title threat either.

Still, Wembanyama is potentially a generational talent who can basically be a cheat code in the same way LeBron James has been for his teams.

It didn’t matter how bad and mismanaged the Cleveland Cavaliers were before they selected LeBron James in 2003. He single-handedly made them relevant and within three years had them in the playoffs.

As alluring as signing Harden might be for Houston, winning the draft lottery and keeping the timeline based around Wembanyama would arguably be a better path forward.

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