When ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Christmas Day that James Harden is "seriously considering" a return to the Houston Rockets next season, tiny alarm bells started ringing all across Sixers-land.
Harden's commitment to the Sixers has always seemed tenuous at best, with an apparent desire to play with a star like Joel Embiid but no inherent connection to Philadelphia or the organization. The question of an eventual long-term contract has floated above the entire situation since the trade went down 10 months ago. Will it ever actually happen? And does it really make sense?
Now, according to rumblings from ESPN insider and analyst Zach Lowe, it seems a long-term Harden contract may never happen... and it's could be because of Harden himself.
Stay in the game with the latest updates on your beloved Philadelphia sports teams! Sign up here for our All Access Daily newsletter.
Here's what Lowe said during the most recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast about Harden's contract preferences:
"[A Houston return] has been sort of whispered about, mumbled about in the ether almost since the moment he got traded off the Houston Rockets to the Brooklyn Nets.
"There are a lot of whispers around the league that he wants to continue cycling through, like, 1+1 kinds of deals."
Harden is currently on a 1+1 deal - one year guaranteed for both sides, and one additional year with a player option. It's effectively a "We'll see what happens" deal with leverage built in on the player's side. If things go sideways Harden can choose to decline his option and become a free agent, which is the most likely way he'd wind up back in Houston.
For a subset of Sixers fans, this is actually probably good news. The idea of offering James Harden a long-term contract was the subject of much hand wringing this past offseason; Harden is 33 years old, past his prime (though still very good), and is not known for keeping himself in tremendous basketball shape. Giving four expensive, guaranteed years to an aging player could've been disastrous if his decline turned precipitous. Instead he inked a short-term deal, a mutually beneficial decision which helps the Sixers' championship aspirations this season and to keep his options open.
And now it seems that the short deal wasn't a one-off situation: according to Lowe, Harden is thinking short-term for the long-term.
The fact that Harden doesn't want to lock up one more mega-deal as he ages into the back end of his career is a bit surprising, but it shows he's confident in his ability to keep playing All-Star basketball - which would, in theory, keep him engaged and in shape because he has to continue to earn the shorter contracts. That's a positive if he sticks around in Philly on another short deal.
The negative, of course, is that you have less assurance that he'll be here for the long haul and you have to keep your head on a swivel in case of a swift departure or trade request.
Back at the start of the season, Harden said he was focused on winning championships with the Sixers... but also said he was taking things as they came to him:
"Winning as many championships as I can here. That's the goal. Just going through what I went through these past few years, my focus is on taking it one year at a time and just making sure I fulfill everything that I do individually. And then making sure my individual goals mesh with the team and our entire goals. But (I'm) taking this year and trying to do what we all expect to do, and we'll go from there."
Not exactly a robust commitment to the future of the organization.
We'll see how the Sixers play this entire situation. For right now, they're playing good basketball and are just four games out of first in the Eastern Conference with 49 games left in the regular season. Things are setting up for a fascinating next six months.