It’s (still) not the time to trade KAT
It can be easy to feel an intense swing of emotions watching a poor performance by a great player. Fans who have spent countless hours watching their favorite team play and learning player details through interviews are beginning to subconsciously feel like we know the players on a personal level. Our brains group our perceptions of players like data points on a stat sheet until we feel we have a large enough sample. We then use this data to build a picture in our brain of who we think a player “is” as a person.
This psychological phenomenon is known as the parasocial relationship. The term was coined in 1957 by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in their article “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction”. The article analyzes how people manage to develop “the illusion of a face-to-face with the performer” they watch or listen to on TV, movies, radio and other forms of media.
In the 21st century, the phenomenon has become an even bigger part of the zeitgeist. The advent of accessible internet allows us to find information about our favorite celebrities in seconds. Social media platforms thrive on people who regularly share information about their lives, and their business model relies heavily on parasocial relationships to keep consumers engaged with content creators. As a result, people’s attachments to celebrities have intensified as they can constantly follow their activities and comment on content while imagining that the celebrity will hear them.
Of course, parasocial relationships are a natural part of fandom, and they’re not inherently bad. Emotional attachment to a player can be invigorating as you watch young love blossom into deeper trust. I feel warmth in my heart and a sense of pride every time I watch Anthony Edwards nail a clutch pullback three or hit a overlay on the shoulder in traffic. I relish fantasizing about the upper limits of his abilities, imagining Ant Man on billboards in Times Square looking like the superhero I believe he is. I brag about him to non-Timberwolves fans who question Ant like he was my teammate and we knew each other growing up.
All of this despite the fact that I’ve never met Ant in my life, and my only real connection to him is that he plays for my hometown team, and I want him to help us win. Falling in love watching a player is part of the beauty of sport, and watching a young player shine as you defend them on the internet gives us the pride of feeling like we’ve defended someone we love.
However, this parasocial relationship can also have a negative effect. Karl Anthony Towns was with the Minnesota Timberwolves for seven seasons. Fans who have followed KAT since he was drafted have had plenty of opportunities to get a picture of who they think Karl is. They began to act as if they knew Karl on a personal level and therefore felt entitled to say that he would never change and should be traded.
Of course, Towns’ occasional inability to ignore bad referees can be detrimental to his team, and every now and then it leads to a tough loss or complete meltdown. However, it’s unfair to focus on those moments given that on so many other nights in KAT’s career, he was by far the Timberwolves’ best and most consistent player. Ant may be on track to be better than KAT over the next few years, but Wolves still have to play games until that happens. The future is not certain, and it is certainly not the present.
Need I remind you that KAT led the team in almost all counting statistics this year, including points per game (24.6), rebounds (9.8), blocks (1.1), effective field goal percentage (.591) and three-point percentage (.410) )? Need I repeat that he is currently the 3rd best center in the NBA in any given season and will likely be recognized as the All-NBA Third Team center this year? If he was better, he would compete for MVP awards with Nikola Jokic and Joel Embid. They are generationally dominant players who have changed the NBA with the way they play. Do we really want to trade the 3rd best center in the NBA just because he’s not quite an MVP-level player?
People like to argue that KAT can’t be the #1 option on a championship team and should be traded to a place where he can be #2 or 1b. However, even if you believe it, that’s still no reason to trade it now. #2s are incredibly valuable and hard to find. The Milwaukee Bucks had to swap Eric Bledsoe, George Hillthree future first-round picks and two additional pick trades to acquire Holiday Jrue be #2 or #3 with Giannis Antetokounmpoand Kris Middleton. Wolves would back down by swapping a player who is currently a top complementary leader and hasn’t even reached his full potential yet.
Towns is only 26 and still has time to improve. He’s improved a ton on defense over the last year, in part because Chris Finch’s scrambling pattern allows KAT to use his speed and stop defenders before they get to the lane, rather than to force him to protect the rim, which has not always been his. strong suit. Towns has also added a new dimension to his attacking game this year by honing his face-up drives towards the lane, which is a big part of Giannis and Embiid’s dominance as centers. We’ve seen KAT improve every year since entering the league, and Finch has shown he can help KAT reach their untapped potential. There’s no reason to think Towns can’t continue to improve over the next few years, especially now that he has a good coach.
Additionally, an important part of player development is playing competitive basketball. Lessons are learned in a playoff against a tough opponent. Towns has tough games because of the attention he gets and because coaches play chess by adjusting lineups specifically to stop him. Ty Lue discovered he could slow KAT down by putting two big quick hits on him during the regular season, so now every team is going to try and use him in the playoffs.
Towns was so dominant in Game 1 that the Grizzlies had to change their defensive identity to counter him by placing their starting center on the bench steven adams. The amount of effort the teams put into stopping KAT should be proof enough of his worth as a player. Even the greatest players take time to adapt to new strategies thrown at them, especially when a team creates an entire game plan to slow you down.
At the very least, the front office needs to give this team another year to play together. Last year’s working theory was that when KAT, Ant and DLo were all healthy, the Timberwolves would be a tough team to stop. This season they proved that theory by winning 46 games, making the playoffs and being one of the best offenses in the league. Why would you blast a playoff team with good vibes and an insanely high ceiling just because a player had a few bad games?
If anything, I would argue that Wolves are just one step away from being a Championship contender as is. If Ant becomes the All-NBA player we think he can be, and the Timberwolves get one more who can help KAT protect the rim and bounce back, they could become a dynasty. It would be foolish to trade KAT after the best year of his career unless a team like the Phoenix Suns wants to trade Minnesota Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and two first-round picks. And that just won’t happen. It’s time for us to take a step back and see how much KAT has improved each year, rather than falsely pretending that we “know” it will never change.