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Five Questions with Denver Stiffs

Ryan Blackburn of SB Nation's Nuggets site drops by to talk about Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, and more.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back! We at Grizzly Bear Blues hope you enjoyed your Thanksgiving. Most of all, we hope that you were able to take some time to distract yourself from the dark pit of despair that is Memphis Grizzlies basketball at the moment.

Today's guest for Five Questions is Ryan Blackburn of Denver Stiffs, who dropped some knowledge on the Nuggets, including a little love for someone near and dear to Memphis fans' hearts.

(Please note: These questions were written before the Millsap injury, so I wasn't just trying to rub it in.)

1. Nikola Jokic has been one of the most talked about and hotly debated topics during the offseason. How has he improved this season, and do you think he's continued to live up to the hype surrounding him?

Nikola Jokic spent the summer improving his conditioning and making some defensive improvements to his game. He will always lack the athleticism to be a top end defender, but so far, his commitment to being a good defender has led to better effort for longer periods of time. Improved defense, combined with a full grasp of how to distribute shots for everyone offensively, have taken his game to another level.

2. The Nuggets rank 23rd in defensive rating (per Basketball Reference) so far this season after being near the bottom of the league last year. I'm sure Paul Millsap is part of that, but what else has helped them improve their defense so much this year?

Well, we will see how much Millsap meant to Denver's defense as he will be out with torn ligaments in his left wrist for the foreseeable future. Before that, three things contributed to better defense: Millsap's presence, Jokic's improved commitment, and a new, more aggressive scheme. Denver is generating more turnovers than last year, and having Jamal Murray and Gary Harris play more aggressively has helped Denver stymie some quality scoring guards this year.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

3. Emmanuel Mudiay has been taken out of the starting lineup and replaced with Jamal Murray. How worried are Nuggets fans about Mudiay? Can Murray run the offense well enough?

The point guard position is interesting. Murray has had up and down moments, but over the last 10 or so games, he has had more positive moments. With Jokic, he doesn't HAVE to run the offense, just make good decisions and let the offense work for him. Mudiay is still more of a question mark. His shooting at the rim has been atrocious again, getting blocked constantly. His decision making on offense is slightly better, and every five games or so, he reminds people of what he can be. Unfortunately, the games in between can be brutal.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

4. Who's your pick for most underrated player on this Nuggets team, and why?

Will Barton is basically the Nuggets' version of Tyreke Evans (A.K.A. a sixth man of the year candidate). Barton is shooting 43% from 3 this season on high volume, and his scoring off the bench has made up for an otherwise disjointed unit. He will never be an elite defender, but he's also improved there overall.

5. How high are your expectations for this team this season?

Expectations have changed in the wake of the Millsap injury, but the Nuggets can and should still be a playoff team. The point guard position (and some weakness at small forward) have made things difficult. Still, they are 10-7 and have had some quality wins over good teams. The question will be whether they can maintain adequate defense while generating high quality offense with Millsap out. I still think they win 45+ games and make a 6, 7, or 8 seed, but it will take a few games before we can properly readjust expectations.

Thanks again to Ryan over at Denver Stiffs for taking part in our Five Questions series!