SALT LAKE CITY — Heading into Sunday's game, Mike Conley was considered the second most valuable player in the league so far this year.
Yes, the once-proclaimed "washed-up" point guard of the Utah Jazz was No. 2 in FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR ratings, which attempt to determine which player is having the biggest impact on winning (he now stands at No. 3, just a hair below Kawhi Leonard).
For reference, last season, James Harden, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo made out the top five of the RAPTOR ratings. Those were all MVP candidates, including the MVP.
So while the Jazz's 109-105 win over Denver on Sunday served as a rematch of last year's epic seven-game playoff series, it also was surprisingly a battle between the top two players this season, according to FiveThirtyEight: Denver's Nikola Jokic and Conley.
"Of course, I agree with that. Why wouldn't I agree with that?" Conley said when informed about his high rating. "I don't really understand that much but my imprint on the game is hopefully starting to show more."
Conley is averaging 16.8 points and 6.0 assists this season. He's shooting 42.2% from 3 on nearly seven attempts per game and the Jazz have been 10 points better per 100 possessions when he's on the court.
Anyone who watched the battle of the early-season MVPs on Sunday saw just how valuable Conley was to the Jazz.
Last season, fans wondered if Utah was better with the point guard coming off the bench. This season, there have been near-disasters when he is on the bench. Something that has been made even more clear without Joe Ingles serving as a secondary ballhandler for the second unit.
The Jazz outscored the Nuggets by 17 points in the 30 minutes Conley was in the game; Utah only won by 4. Yes, the plus/minus statistic has a ton of "noise," but sometimes it simply confirms what is easy to see. And it was easy to see that without Conley, the Jazz looked lost.
"It's kind of what I expect to do when I go in there — to steady the ship, keep us moving forward, keep a positive vibe on the game," Conley said. "I've been trying to do that throughout the year so I don't think it's any more added pressure; just go out there and play my game, get guys in positions to score. … Making sure that we can get the best out of everybody."
It's not a secret Conley needed time to adapt to playing with a rolling big. Or a secret that it took longer than anyone expected. But with that adjustment period finally behind him, he's been one of the best guards in the league. Check that; he's simply been one of the best players.
"It took a while to get used to it and you've seen what it's like when you start to read things and see things," fellow Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell said. "It's been easy for him and it's been easier for us."
While Conley's offensive contributions are easy to see, advanced stats say that Conley's defense has actually been more valuable. FiveThirtyEight rates him as the seventh-best defender (Utah's Rudy Gobert is No. 1) so far this season, with his play on Atlanta star Trae Young on Friday obviously helping with those metrics. His offensive rating is just shy of top-20 production. Add it together and Conley has been one of the most valuable players in the league.
"I do a lot of things that might not show up on the scoreboard," Conley said. "I can score 30 or 15 or have 10 assists or two or 10 rebounds. I don't really care; I just want to win. And I guess those stats are kind of quantifying all of them together. So I'm cool with it."
Jazz fans certainly are too.