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Would the Rockets ever welcome back James Harden?

And how would it look if they did?

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Houston Rockets
Could Harden and Alperen Sengun compliment each other?
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to write this piece without using the ex-partner trope. I’m just going to get it out of the way for everyone’s benefit without leaning on it.

James Harden is my favorite player in the NBA. James Harden is my least favorite player in the NBA. Let me live. There is no truth without contradiction.

Of course, this isn’t about how I feel — and it isn’t about how you feel either. It’s about basketball. If the opportunity ever arises, should the Rockets welcome James Harden back?

We probably talk about this every time Harden sets foot in the Toyota Center. In fairness, that’s because every time he does, he says something like this:

He’s still got a house in Houston. He isn’t really over us. Is it time that we got over him?

Should the Rockets want Harden back?

There won’t be any in-depth statistical analysis here. Harden is still really good. He can get you 20 points and 10 dimes in his sleep. He still bends defenses at will.

His approach has changed. Harden is aging into less isolation scoring and more playmaking. If anything, that’s a pro in the “bring Harden back” column.

How would it look? Under what circumstances would Harden come back to the Houston Rockets?

The Circumstances

I can think of three scenarios in which Harden dons Rockets red again: the ceremonial retirement, the mentorship role and contending for an NBA championship.

The first scenario hardly merits discussion. Sure, Harden can sign a 10-day when he’s 39, get on the floor to sling a precision dime, hit a stepback three and waive goodbye. Who cares?

Either of the next two scenarios would be happening within the next couple of seasons. The second scenario is interesting. It doesn’t feel egregious to say that Harden isn’t precisely the player that we picture when we think of a mentor.

I’m not trying to knock the guy. I always thought that criticisms of his lifestyle were overstated. Separate your thinking from the classic work/life binary: Harden works hard, and he plays hard. He never neglected his craft — in Houston, Harden always came to training camp with a new move he’d spent the summer perfecting. What Harden neglected was relaxation.

Not everyone is cut out for that life. We shouldn’t be paternalistic about these guys, but it might be best if Jalen Green doesn’t make a habit of popping champagne with Lil Baby all summer — or at least, if he does, it should be because he knows his body can handle it.

Of course, it’s doubtful that Harden himself has any interest in coming back to Houston just to teach the kids, unless he wins a title in Philadelphia first. Frankly, I don’t really love the odds of that happening. Sorry if you’re a Sixers fan who stumbled onto this, but it seems to me that Harden and Embiid both play in silos. I don’t see a lot of synergy between the two iso-heavy stars.

Either way, I like the third situation best. How could you not?

Could Harden accelerate this rebuild?

In the third scenario, the Rockets are a plucky 40+ win team in 2023-24. They look to be a star player away from serious title contention, and 35-year-old Harden still looks spry enough to be that player.

The team could even ship a young guy or two off for some additional win-now help. Rockets fans don’t like to hear this, but the team they’re building now doesn’t have to be the team. The Rockets could be in asset accumulation mode. Imagine a world where the Rockets sign Harden and trade a soon-to-be sophomore Ausar Thompson away for another star.

It’s a bold vision. Is it the right one?

Wait and see

For my money, this is only appealing if Harden is coming back to play the distributor. It only works if Green has developed into one of the league’s very best scorers, and the team is looking to pair him with an exceedingly rich man’s Ricky Rubio.

Beyond that, there are countless factors that play into this hypothetical.

The Rockets may not look attractive enough to Harden in the handful of years he has remaining in (the back end of) his prime. The Sixers could trade for Kevin Durant, steamroll to a championship, and inspire Harden to sign up for another run or two. Heck, the Rockets could look strong enough with their young core soon that they figure it’s best to let them grow together.

This may be fan fiction. Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and Rockets fans can be forgiven for indulging in escapism.

It hasn’t been so long since they lost the one that got away.