RETURN OF THE BEARD?

Here's what James Harden's return could look like for the Houston Rockets

Will James Harden return to the Rockets? Composite image by Brandon Strange.

It was a Christmas Day bombshell that was dropped by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski before any of the National Basketball Association’s holiday slate of games even tipped off.

Former Houston Rockets guard James Harden, after exiting the franchise less than two years ago, is reportedly seriously considering a return to the team in free agency if he chooses not to return to the Philadelphia 76ers.

The report created shockwaves and sent NBA fans on social media into a frenzy. But if Harden does indeed opt to return to the Rockets in July 2023, what are the positives and negatives of inserting the team’s second-leading scorer in franchise history and all-time assists leader to a core of young talent?

The good

Adding Harden to the Rockets roster instantly does one thing. It brings a lot more attention to Houston’s professional basketball team because it makes them better.

Since trading away Harden to Brooklyn in January 2021, Houston’s seen its national relevance depart along with him too. The Rockets had only four national televised games set for the 2022-23 season, three of which were on NBA TV and one on ESPN.

If “The Beard” returns, that number will spike up because Houston will instantly be expected to climb up from the basement of the Western Conference to compete for a playoff or play-in spot. Adding expectations to the young group is also good from a standpoint that it will give the Rockets a chance to see who can excel when the lights are brighter.

Now when it comes to the on-the-court product, Harden instantly serves as a jump starter for the team too. One of the areas that has been a weakness for the Rockets with their young talent of Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., Jabari Smith and everyone else, has been its lack of a true point guard.

Most of the point guard responsibilities have fallen on the shoulders of Porter, who in three seasons with Houston has seen his assists nearly triple per game compared to when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Despite that, however, Porter’s turnovers have also risen along with the assists. This season, Porter’s assists numbers have dropped while his turnover numbers are nearly at four per game. Porter’s main strength is his ability to get to the basket and be a scorer. Green, Houston’s No. 2 overall pick in 2021, falls in a similar category.

Green’s biggest strength is also being a scorer and shot creator rather than a true all around playmaker. If the team were to get Harden, who has averaged double-digit assists per game every year since leaving the Rockets, including this season in which he is averaging close to a career-high 11.1 assists per outing, Houston would have a player fill the void with the playmaker it has missed the last few seasons.

Being able to set up teammates, especially Green, Smith and whoever the Rockets bring in with this year’s draft pick, will only help the young core’s development and confidence playing with a player that makes their jobs easier.

Another positive the Rockets will have in seeing a Harden reunion will be a role model for the young core. While it may be controversial to some, particularly for off-the-court reasons, Harden’s on-the-court resumé speaks for itself.

The 2018 Most Valuable Player and seven-time All-NBA player has set records across the league, and a good amount of them came with the Rockets.

While guys like Eric Gordon, Dennis Schröder and this season Boban Marjanović, have been around the young core to serve as a veteran presence, Harden’s track record and star power could be more impactful because it comes from a future NBA Hall of Famer that those same young players one day hope to reach.

The final positive is that after 2023, Houston’s draft capital gets tossed up in the air. Coincidentally, the reason for it goes back to Harden’s final years with the Rockets in deals with Oklahoma City that sent Chris Paul to the Thunder and Russell Westbrook to Houston.

Being bad in 2024 and beyond for the Rockets comes with no guarantees there will be a top five payoff like the team has seen the past two seasons with Green and Smith.

The negatives

One of the biggest drawbacks to a Harden return is the way he left in the first place. After reportedly being the driving force in Houston trading for former teammate Russell Westbrook, the Arizona State product decided to bail on the franchise that had done everything to accommodate him when it didn’t work out.

Granted, it wasn’t personal, it was business. At the end of the day, Harden’s best chance at winning the long coveted NBA Championship was not in Houston, but the way it went down still leaves many Rockets fans with a bad taste in their mouths.

The break-up was nasty. Harden held out in the already shortened and crazy training camp coming off the heels of the COVID-19 season. He wasn’t ready to play when he reported to the team, and to cap it all off, he flat out said the Rockets weren’t good enough.

It was crazy. It couldn’t be fixed, Harden said. Then he went to Brooklyn for a reunion with Kevin Durant and a big three with Kyrie Irving.

Then things soured there too. Harden once again found himself going back to a greener pasture, this time with even more familiar faces in Daryl Morey and Tad Brown.

If Philadelphia doesn’t pan out, then what is left? A reunion with the original love — the Houston Rockets. For some, the exit was too much to ever welcome him back with open arms, at least for right now.

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said it the first time he came back to Houston, Harden’s jersey will one day be retired by the franchise, as it rightfully should. Would Fertitta be opposed to a return before that? Who knows, but he probably would welcome him back with open arms.

What about the young core? Would Harden be a bad influence for the likes of Smith and Green and everyone else when it comes to off the court lifestyle? Not as much as some might believe. While Harden may reportedly be the only player to ever have his jersey retired at an adult establishment, that shouldn’t be a drawback in a potential reunion because at the end of the day, all players are professionals.

The final, and most important part, comes the fit. If Harden were to return to Houston in the summer, he would be 34 years old by the time he steps foot in an official game. Clearly his days of scoring 30-plus points in 30 consecutive games will be behind him, but would Harden be willing to take the backseat in the city that he thrived in and a franchise he was the face of for nearly eight years?

That’s the question that would have to be answered. If Vegas were to put odds on it, Harden being receptive to letting the young guys be in the driver’s seat should be the favorite because he’s done it since leaving Houston with the Nets and 76ers.

If he were to come to the Rockets, then he will likely be in the mindset of being a mentor to potentially grow the team into a playoff contender, but having a championship-or-bust mentality would be unreasonable. Wanting to take all the shots for Houston wouldn’t make sense for any of the parties involved either.

With the current rotation of players, the two biggest ones that might be hurt in a Harden re-union could be Porter and Alperen Şengün. Both need the ball in their hands, and while Harden is used to playing with Joel Embiid, and even further back with Dwight Howard, playing through Şengün in the post is not likely to be the focal point with Harden at point guard.

As for Porter, he does everything Harden would be expected to do, but not at Harden’s level. The player that gets the shortest end of the stick in a Harden reunion would undoubtedly be Porter.

The former late first-round pick signed a contract extension with Houston just this year. While it was a four-year deal, only the first year is guaranteed, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania. If Harden does opt to return, Porter could be on his way out, and if he is not, would Porter be willing to come off the bench?

There are plenty of questions, and a lot will factor into Harden’s decision between now and July.

When Harden was asked about the report following Philadelphia’s win against New York on Christmas, he gave a good non-answer. While he probably doesn’t know where the report came from, or more specifically who told Wojnarowski, he didn’t say no.

For the time being, that will serve as fuel for speculations that may grow louder if Philadelphia hits an obstacle too big to overcome.

One thing is for sure. Harden with Houston makes the Rockets better, and if the guard ultimately chooses to return this summer, the team should welcome him back because the clock is ticking and soon wins will be expected for those in the front office of the red and white.

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