Thank goodness for Adam Silver. If it wasn’t for the bald eagle—and a devastating Boogie Cousins Achilles tear injury—Paul George would not be an NBA All-Star. A grave oversight.

One could argue the omission wasn’t such a crime since his 21-6-3 statline represents George’s worst since 2013, but that’s before you remember his numbers are superteam-adjusted (why is this not a figure on basketball-reference.com yet?!). Going from being the guy in Indiana to Brodie’s brodie in OKC, the Fresno State alum has sacrificed offensive production. In the process, he’s helped transform the Thunder into a lethal defensive team, who currently rank fifth in the NBA in defensive rating (103.3).

Because PG-13 and the Thunder struggled so mightily early on, receiving the wrath of superteam haters nationwide, that stellar D was overlooked. So was George’s influence on it, with the small forward leading the league in steals per contest (2.2).

“I think if we exceeded the world’s expectations right from the jump, then it would have been a no-brainer for me to be chosen [as an all star],” says George.

If we’ve learned anything from modern day superteams, it’s that finding the right balance is the toughest thing to do. Winners of eight straight and 16 out of their last 21, the Thunder are achieving that equilibrium. Russ has settled back into MVP form, and George and Melo are figuring out how to maximize their production off the ball. Still, people don’t speak about OKC in the same breath as the untouchable Warriors and high-octane Rockets, but it’s time we start taking this dangerous team—now on both ends of the floor—seriously.

While shooting his latest commercial spot for Gatorade, in which he's promoting Gatorade Flow, George took a break to chat with us about the initial All-Star snub, getting roasted by Kobe for the first time, tensions between NBA players and officials, and more.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Going from being the guy in Indiana to a team with three perennial All-Stars, were there adjustments to your game that you felt like you had to make in order to fit with the rest of the guys?
Yeah, absolutely. I had to learn to really play off the ball. I’ve been so accustomed to playing with the ball in my hands and making things happen that now I have to figure out how to be great and productive and efficient without the ball being in my hands. And without having it every possession. Finding ways to help the team win and do whatever it takes to be productive. It’s helped me grow as a player and as a person too, figuring these things out. And having guys to go through that battle with has surely helped me.

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Image via Getty / Mark Sobhani

The Thunder got off to a slow start, and people were really quick to criticize. As of late, you guys have been rolling. Still, it feels like only the Warriors and Rockets are talked about out of the West. Do you think the Thunder are underrated?
Absolutely. But I think our record doesn’t indicate who were are as a team. We’ve very underrated. At the same time, we’re a new team. We haven’t done nothing together as a core, as a group. So it’s rightfully so. We shouldn’t just be handed this elite superstar team until we go out and prove what everyone has hyped us to be. I think we’re doing that now. We’re showing everyone who we are as a team, and what we can be. But for sure, we’re underrated. And that’s fine. That’s where we should be.

Is getting overlooked something you guys take personally? Does it motivate you?
Nah, there’s more motivation than just that. Again, we have so much star power and so many great players on our team. For us to be where we’re at right now, that’s motivation enough.

Do you think not getting initially selected to play in the All-Star Game is a byproduct of you guys being considered underrated?
Yeah, I think so. For sure it is. If we would have been higher in the seeding, we would have been more talked about in terms of us being a real threat in the West. I think if we exceeded the world’s expectations right from the jump, then it would have been a no-brainer for me to be chosen [as an all star]. I think us falling where we’re at right now in the seeding—granted, we’re playing a lot better right now, we’re a whole different team from where we started as—but if we could have been where we’re at now at the start of our season, it’d be a whole different situation.

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Image via Getty / Nathaniel S. Butler

Shifting gears, your idol, Kobe Bryant, has been in the news a lot recently with the Oscar nomination for “Dear Basketball.” Every NBA player seems to have some kind of MJ trash-talking story, but Kobe was a pretty epic trash-talker himself. Do you have any you can share?
Yeah, yeah. I remember it was my first time matching up against Kobe. Brian Shaw was our assistant coach with the Pacers. And you know Brian and Kobe’s relationship that they’ve had for many years. So I’m checking in, I’m guarding this guy. We’re down on defense, and I’m guarding him in the post. He does his patented turnaround-spin-pump-fake. I jump, go flying trying to block this guy. And then he just steps through and lays it up. And then he runs down in front of our bench where Brian Shaw is sitting, and he’s like, “Yo, check the young fellow for feathers. I got him flyin’ all over the place.”

I love that! A line like that though, he had to have thought about it beforehand.
[Laughs]. Yeah, that was real quick. Quick on his behalf.

I’m trying to wrap my head around what exactly is going on between the players and refs this year. From a spectator’s perspective, it’s hard to really know the kind of communication and conversation that takes place on the court between the two. What’s changed this year, if anything, that has made those tensions boil more than we’ve seen in the past?
I’m not sure. Honestly, that’s a tough question. On one end, I get it. The officials and referees are human. They’re people as well. They’re apart of the game. But on the other end, I think when we’re upset or we’re emotional, it doesn’t come from a bad place. It comes from us being competitive and us wanting to win. It’s hard to be in the moment and then try to take yourself out of it when something’s not called right. I get it, though. They’re not perfect, they’re going to make mistakes. But some of them have an ego that’s like, alright hold it. You’re taking this to where you’re trying to make this show about you. That’s the part where we are not understanding of how some of these guys have egos, as far as the officials.

But I don’t know. I think it’s a little on both sides. We’ve got to do better approaching and treating them as humans. Because they are. I think we belittle them at times. But I don’t think it ever comes from a bad place. It’s just us being competitive and not liking a call. But I think they have to be better. They have to do a better job. They have calls that are important that they have to make. It’s three of them out there, and one of them has to make the right one, or see the right call. So it’s a little bit of both.