The NBA free-agent scramble starts about a week after June 22 draft, and Harden may be the biggest name on the market. While he can opt into one more season with the Philadelphia 76ers at $35.6 million, multiple sources indicate he's likely to decline the option and explore the market.
That doesn't mean he won't re-sign on a new max deal with the Philadelphia 76ers starting at $46.9 million. That's still very much in the cards with new head coach Nick Nurse and reigning MVP Joel Embiid.
But Philadelphia is far from a lock. It's a personal decision for Harden that will come down to more than just the opportunity to win or finances. Houston (22-60)—tied with the San Antonio Spurs for the second-worst record in the league—has a real opportunity to reunite the former Rockets All-Star. The pull of family (still living in the area) is a real factor, but it may not be enough.
For Harden to come home, the Rockets may need to give him more of a basketball reason. Not to belittle the talent in place—Houston has several impressive young players—but the team may need to cash out some of what it has to give Harden a viable enough roster to compete for a playoff berth.
And if Harden gets that same starting max salary, the Rockets probably can't achieve that with roughly $17 million in cap space remaining, plus the $7.6 million room mid-level exception.
The answer may come via trade, and (with a green light from Harden, contingent on upgrades) that's where the front office needs to earn its stripes. Other teams, like the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors, have their own problems. So too, do the Minnesota Timberwolves and Atlanta Hawks.
Perhaps Houston can be the conduit to multiple solutions.
Let's Talk Draymond and OG
The NBA's new collective bargaining agreement all but explicitly targets the Warriors to limit their spending with stringent rules above a new second apron (at a projected $179.5 million this coming season). Golden State needs to decide if it intends to spend anyway, with Klay Thompson extension eligible and Draymond Green with a player option of $27.6 million for 2022-23 (with a decision coming before July).