Is James Harden using Rockets as contract leverage?

James Harden has been linked to a potential return to the Houston Rockets for months. There’s certainly a lot of smoke regarding this potential free agency move from the Beard. Even ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, one of the most reputable news sources in the NBA, dumped fuel into the fire of this potential reunion. With Harden’s Philadelphia 76ers having flamed out of the playoffs once more, there’s certainly a strong possibility that Harden bolts for someplace where the grass is greener.

Nevertheless, one possibility that has been floated around by some pundits, such as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, is that Harden and his camp are only using the Rockets as leverage to get a max contract from the Sixers. This especially might be the case given the Sixers’ reported reluctance to give Harden a max contract, which begins at $46.9 million next season based off the current salary cap projection.

“The Sixers haven’t shown an appetite to pay Harden the max. That’s why they asked him to take a pay cut last year. […] They’re not really motivated to pay him a max salary if they don’t think anybody else is going to do it,” Windhorst said in an appearance on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption.

Windhorst then wondered whether the Rockets-James Harden rumor is merely being used as a smokescreen, especially when going back to the Sixers remains the most rational outcome given where Harden is in his career.

“The Rockets have the cap space. Do they do it? There’s been a very hard rumor out there in the NBA about Harden’s intent to go back to Houston. It makes you wonder if it’s being sold too hard. It’s certainly something that people are considering,” Windhorst added.

Only time will tell what happens with the Sixers’ James Harden free agency saga. One thing’s for sure: the Sixers will have difficulties replacing one of the best guards in the NBA given their current cap situation should he decide to spurn them in free agency.