James Harden is considering a free agent return to Rockets

All-star guard James Harden is seriously considering a freelance return to the Houston Rockets in July — if he decides against a new deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, sources tell ESPN.

Harden and his close circle have been openly weighing Houston for the past few months, sources said, a notable possibility given that he applied for and received a trade from the franchise less than two years ago.

His future with the 76ers remains a fluid proposition, given a boost with seven straight wins en route to a Christmas Day meeting with the New York Knicks (12 p.m. ET on ABC and ESPN). Harden is on a productive path with All-NBA center Joel Embiid, and the state of that partnership and the Sixers’ postseason success could well be telltale factors as to how Harden is progressing this season. Experiencing a deep playoff run in a rabid, hungry Philadelphia market could have a positive impact on his thinking — as could the aftermath of an early exit.

Harden signed a two-year, $68.6 million deal with the Sixers, including a player option for 2023-24 that will allow him to return to free agency this summer. The Sixers are 19-12, fifth in the East and expect to bring back rising star Tyrese Maxey in the coming week.

Although Harden forced his way out of the Rockets in January 2021, he has maintained a sort of magnetic attraction to Houston, drawn to the community, lifestyle and family there, sources said. After relatively brief stops in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, a move back to a rebuilt Rockets franchise would effectively represent comfort and familiarity over an immediate championship pursuit.

For next summer, the Rockets are packed with room for salary caps and an appetite to significantly improve the rankings. Rockets officials must weigh how they think Harden’s arrival would benefit the development of his young core of talent, including Jalen Green, Jabari Smith and Kevin Porter Jr., but his stature and talent still make him an attractive proposition.

In his post-Houston stints with Embiid and Kevin Durant, Harden has progressed as a pass-first guard. He leads the NBA with 10.9 assists per game — including a career-high 21 in a win over the LA Clippers on Friday.

Harden spent more than eight All-Star seasons with the Rockets, a stretch that included a 2018 MVP award and a trip to the Western Conference Finals. Harden won three straight titles with the Rockets and ranks second in franchise scoring all-time, behind Hakeem Olajuwon — and first in assists.

After riding through hand-picked co-stars like Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, Harden became disillusioned with the Rockets – and eventually the Nets as well. The Sixers traded Ben Simmons, Seth Curry and two future first-round picks to the Nets as part of a package to acquire Harden in February.

For all of Harden’s history and association with Sixers basketball operations president Daryl Morey and CEO Tad Brown, his working relationships with Embiid and coach Doc Rivers resemble more of an ongoing work. The Sixers gave up significant assets to acquire Harden and he is expected to remain a priority for a second straight summer to re-sign.

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