Here are the biggest payoffs to a Harden return for Houston Rockets

Here are the biggest payoffs to a Harden return for Houston Rockets
Will James Harden return to the Rockets? Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images.

With the NBA Draft only days away, and the Rockets seeming to be dangling the No. 4 pick in exchange for a reliable veteran, it’s time for the Rockets to either land James Harden or get off the pot.

While media voices say it’s not going to happen, and fan polls pleading for it not to happen, the Harden talk doesn’t die.

Last week, when asked what he thought about the Rockets possibly bringing back Harden, Kenyon Martin Sr. didn’t mince words. He said it’d be a horrible idea and would “stunt the growth” of young Rocket players, including his son, Kenyon Martin Jr., age 22.

Then Sr. added, “But I don’t sign the checks.”

That would be Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta. Four years ago, when Harden left the Rockets to chase a title in Brooklyn (how’d that work out?), Fertitta and Harden sounded like high school sweethearts going off to different colleges.

Both sides sighing, “I’ll wait for you.”

You know that usually works out, too.

Harden is a free agent, and there’s Fertitta, home waiting with open arms, if not an open checkbook.

Harden reportedly is seeking a max contract. Under NBA rules, the Rockets would be allowed to offer him a four-year deal, starting with $46.9 million for next season with 5-percent raises the next three years, topping out at $201.7 million.

Harden already has made $301 million over his 14-year career. He is the eighth highest-paid player in NBA history. No. 1 is LeBron James, who’s pulled down $401 million over his 20 years.

The Philadelphia 76ers, Harden’s team the past two seasons, can offer him a four-year contract that would start with $46.9 for next season, but with 8-percent raises the next three years, for a total of $210 million.

However, Pennsylvania has a 3-percent state income tax, while Texas doesn’t have a state tax. Bottom line, the 76ers’ offer really is only about $2 million more than a possible Rockets’ deal.

Here’s where it gets sticky. Harden probably wants four years, but does it make sense for the Rockets or 76ers or any team to bank that long on Harden? While still an effective player, he led the NBA in assists last season, Harden clearly is on the back end of his career. Would he return to his one-man-team, ball hog style of play with the Rockets? Would Rockets fans enjoy seeing a live production of Boban Marjanovic’s commercial for State Farm?

He’s bouncing the ball,

He’s bouncing the ball,

He’s bouncing the ball again,

He’s bouncing the ball again

He’s bouncing the ball.

Some NBA insiders think Harden is merely flirting with the Rockets to put the screws to the 76ers, so they’ll give him four years.

Harden will turn 34 years old in August. The rest of the Rockets’ core players are a decade or more younger: Jalen Green (21), Alperin Sengun (20), Jabari Smith Jr. (20), Kevin Porter Jr. (23). Would they continue to develop and fill their potential if they’re watching Gramps play bouncy ball before jocking up a 3-pointer?

Last week, Jabari Smith Jr. was asked on camera what he thought about a possible Harden return to the Rockets. He was all for it, saying it was time for Harden to “come back home. There is still so much love for him in Houston.”

I’ve seen more convincing hostage videos.

So, assuming both the 76ers and Rockets make an offer, Harden would have to choose between chasing a title in Philadelphia or the comforts of home in Houston without the pressure of a deep playoff run. Harden has never been on a championship team.

Harden does have high-end value for the Rockets. He won three scoring titles and an MVP during his eight-year run with the Rockets. The Rockets were a serial playoff team during his time in Houston. There’s no need to bring up Harden’s disappearing act during the playoffs, an act he reprised this year in Philadelphia.

The biggest payoff to bringing back Harden would be star power. As a friend told me this week, “At least I would recognize one of the Rockets then.” The Rockets would like to sell more tickets next season. Those half-a-house crowds rivaled the Houston Texans last year.

Fertitta appears determined to sign a marquee veteran. Chatter on the NBA gossip line has the Rockets kicking the tires on Kyrie Irving if Harden stays in Philly. Another rumor has the Rockets interested in Draymond Green or Dillon Brooks. They’re all disruptive characters with big personalities and big mouths. Is that what the Rockets need? Is that a smart play for the future?

Then again, Fetitta didn’t become the $8 Billion Man making bad investments.

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