Sources: James Harden mulling free agent return to Rockets

All-Star guard James Harden is seriously considering a return to the Houston Rockets in free agency this July -- if he decides against a new deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, sources told ESPN.

Harden and his inner circle have been openly weighing Houston in recent months, sources said, a remarkable possibility given that he requested and received a trade out of the franchise less than two years ago.

His future with the 76ers remains a fluid proposition, one that has been buoyed with eight straight victories, including a 119-112 win over the New York Knicks on Christmas. Harden is on a productive roll with All-NBA center Joel Embiid, and the state of that partnership and the Sixers' postseason success could well be telltale factors in how Harden proceeds past this season. Experiencing a deep playoff run in a rabid, hungry Philadelphia marketplace could positively impact his thinking -- just as the fallout of an early exit could, too.

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

Despite forcing his way out of the Rockets in January 2021, Harden has maintained something of a magnetic pull to Houston, drawn to the community, lifestyle and family there, sources said. After what would become relatively brief stops in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, a move back to a rebuilding Rockets franchise would effectively represent comfort and familiarity over an immediate championship pursuit.

For next summer, the Rockets are flush with salary cap space and an appetite to make significant improvement in the standings. Rockets officials will have to evaluate how they believe Harden's arrival would benefit the development of its 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 stops with Embiid and Kevin Durant, Harden has continued to evolve as a pass-first guard. He's leading the NBA with 10.9 assists per game -- including a career-high 21 in a victory over the LA Clippers on Friday.

Harden spent eight-plus 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 scoring titles with the Rockets and ranks second to Hakeem Olajuwon in all-time franchise scoring -- and first in assists.

After cycling through hand-picked co-stars including Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, Harden became disenchanted with the Rockets -- and eventually the Nets, too. 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 connection with Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey and CEO Tad Brown, his working relationships with Embiid and coach Doc Rivers resemble something closer to a work in progress. The Sixers gave up significant assets to acquire Harden, and he's expected to remain a priority to re-sign on a new deal for a second consecutive summer.