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Would James Harden return to the Rockets, and should he be welcomed back?

James Harden left the Rockets in unceremonious fashion. Did he burn a bridge in Space City?

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Houston Rockets
James Harden vs Houston Rockets
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

They say that even the best-laid plans can go awry. That’s doubly true in the National Basketball Association.

The Brooklyn Nets parted with a lot to acquire James Harden. To be specific, they rerouted Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, Taurean Prince, Rodion Kurucs, and a historic amount of draft capital (three first-round picks and four first-round pick swaps) to various locations to land the perennial MVP candidate.

It’s looking increasingly likely that they made a long-term investment on a short-term rental.

Rumors are running rampant that Harden’s discontent with Brooklyn’s situation is growing. Kyrie Irving is only available on a part-time basis. Kevin Durant is periodically injured and only getting older. After popularizing the phrase “heliocentric offense” during his tenure in Houston, Harden forced his way to the Big Apple in hopes of having to do less.

Yet, regularly, Harden is left carrying a supporting cast headlined by Patty Mills. It’s eerily reminiscent of his days as a Rocket. So much so, in fact, that some are speculating about his return to Houston.

Of course, most of the chatter links Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers. There, he’d have the opportunity to reunite with former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and team up with MVP candidate Joel Embiid.

Frankly, it makes a lot more sense than reuniting with the franchise he left a mere year ago.

Could James Harden return to the Rockets?

The short answer, of course, is yes. In this era of player empowerment, Harden could probably force any scenario that suits him. The question is, why would Harden want to return to the Rockets?

Looking at the team’s present roster, it’s hard to conclude that they’re a Harden away from bona fide title contention. The Rockets boast a surplus of young, dynamic talent, but lack the veteran infrastructure most championship teams have.

Kevin Porter Jr. is still learning the ropes as an NBA point guard. Jalen Green has flashed elite potential but remains wildly inconsistent. Alperen Sengun is still adjusting to the rigors of playing major minutes at the sport’s highest level.

Meanwhile, the NBA trade deadline is fast approaching. Players like Christian Wood and Eric Gordon have virtually the entire season on the team’s chopping block. Changing course to accommodate a veteran superstar like Harden would require a rapid 180-degree turn, even by the offseason.

None of which is to say that Harden’s return is an impossibility. NBA rosters are increasingly malleable. The Rockets could make an instantaneous pivot. It feels crazy to even type this, but with the rebuilding assets that Rafael Stone possesses, the team could hypothetically sign Harden and broker a series of deals for a co-star and better cast of role players.

Even if that option were on the table, should the Rockets take it?

Should the Rockets welcome Harden back?

To be quite frank: no.

Feel free to disagree. There is a prevailing logic in the NBA that if you can acquire a star player, you always do. That’s fine. There are also exceptions to every rule.

Suppose Harden declines his player option with the Nets and outright signs with the Rockets. Surely, he wouldn’t be interested in teaming up with Kevin Porter Jr, Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, and Josh Christopher. He would also likely be indifferent to the team’s draft capital. All of those players and assets are likely to be moved to acquire a star running mate for Harden.

Looking at the league’s current landscape, that would likely be one of Bradley Beal, Jaylen Brown, or Damian Lillard. Following that transaction, the team would likely sink whatever assets they had remaining into high-level veteran rotation players. They’d be getting right back to the place they were in two years ago: competing for an NBA championship led by James Harden.

It all sounds tempting. It also has the makings of an outright disaster.

First of all, NBA championships are notoriously difficult to win. In taking this route, the Rockets would establish a standard where any other outcome would be an abject failure. After all, they’d be sacrificing a bevy of young potential stars in the process. Are we really confident that Harden, Beal, and a supporting cast assure the Rockets a real chance at the Larry O’Brien Trophy?

We shouldn’t be. That’s particularly true given one unfortunate reality: James Harden is on the decline. His box plus/minus (BPM) of 4.2 is the lowest figure he’s posted since his third year in the league. It’s a far cry from the astonishing 11.0 he posted as a Rocket in 2018-19.

Anyone who has routinely watched The Beard this season won’t be surprised by those numbers. While his historically elite basketball IQ remains intact, it’s clear that he’s lost a portion of the change-of-pace athleticism he leaned so heavily into in Houston. At 32, it’s unlikely that he’ll ever get it back.

A world in which the Rockets part with their rebuilding assets to acquire Harden, only to fall short of a championship, is not a world we should care to imagine. Rafael Stone’s previous declaration that we can’t fairly evaluate the original Harden trade until 2030 would suddenly appear shortsighted.

Meanwhile, it’s even harder to imagine the team reuniting with Harden only for him to mentor the youth movement. That simply doesn’t satisfy either Harden or the team’s needs.

A reunion doesn’t make sense for either side. The Rockets should not cut a promising rebuild short for an aging superstar on the decline. Likewise, Harden should look to join a team that already supports NBA title contention.

Rockets fans have understandably mixed feelings about James Harden. Some continue to support him in Brooklyn, while others stopped doing so from the moment their jersey was finished burning. Personal feelings aside, it remains possible that he’ll retire in Rockets red.

It’s simply not a good business decision at the moment.