SALT LAKE CITY — Last season saw the Utah Jazz become a 50-win team for the second time in three seasons, drawing positive attention from NBA observers and teams league-wide. Their brand of defense-first and team-oriented offense was fun to watch for ardent fans, and some offseason moves have whet the appetite of Jazz Nation, which is hoping for another stellar playoff performance in the upcoming season.

A number of familiar faces are gone from this year’s team, but the addition of elite point guard Mike Conley via a blockbuster trade, along with a couple of key free-agent signings have created some expectations for success for a franchise used to winning, having endured only five losing seasons since the 1983-84 season. Seven players return from last season’s playoff team, including stars Donovan Mitchell and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

With the Western Conference landscape changing, the Jazz front office saw a chance to make some moves that could propel the team to the upper echelon of the league in an effort to contend for an NBA title. In a candid conversation with the Deseret News, first-year general manager Justin Zanik heads into the season with a sense of optimism, believing this could be the year when the Jazz once again join the ranks of the league’s perennial title contenders.

Deseret News: How optimistic are you?

Justin Zanik: I’m optimistic and we’re optimistic for the opportunity that we have because in the Western Conference we have so many good teams. Every game is going to be a competitive matchup and the East has improved as well. As we go into this (season), you want to be the last team standing so the decisions (you make), the people you hire — the coaches you have, the players you have — they’re coming here to (compete) too. We expect to compete. We are here to win and we’ll take our chances. We’ll work hard and let the chips fall where they may. But we’re excited about this season and we’re excited to compete.

DN: This is your first year as a general manager with some pretty high expectations. How do you feel going into this season knowing what’s at stake?

JZ: None of us would be here if we didn’t enjoy competition and (being) competitors. The expectations come from all of us from the inside to build the best team possible. We’re here to compete and I have every expectation — and hope for some luck too — to be the last team standing. As long as we’re getting up everyday and doing our jobs with the best intent, I’ll be happy with the results and be able to deal with the criticism no matter what.

DN: Was being a general manager your ultimate (career) goal or is this part of the journey of your career in basketball?

JZ: I was an agent for 15 years and I enjoyed a lot of it — the player relationships and building careers. When I moved over to the team side, it was for a couple of reasons. One was (executive vice president of basketball operations) Dennis Lindsey, who I considered a mentor and a top performer in his job. With the experiences, it fit me and my family very well and especially the state of Utah, the city of Salt Lake, the Millers who have embraced us. I’ve fallen in love with the Mountain West and I couldn’t imagine doing it anywhere else. Being part of a great organization and contributing, however I can contribute, with my skills and skill set, I’m happy to do it and this has been a lot of fun here.

DN: What do you think are your best attributes?

JZ: The experience I can bring from my network. When I came in starting as an assistant (general manager), I already knew all 30 (general managers) because I’d done deals with them. Understanding a player’s mind and in my executive and leadership style — just being able to connect people and understand where they’re coming from because I’ve been on different sides. I respect the job of an agent. I respect the job of a player. I respect learning from great people that I’m surrounded by with Dennis or (former team president) Steve Starks or the Millers’ great experience and all the great people we’ve been able to hire. Learning from everybody that you can.

DN: What does taking the next step look like for Donovan Mitchell?

JZ: From a team standpoint, the expectations are on all of us. And it’s incumbent on us to help him grow, but the rest of the team’s got to perform as well. So it’s not a one-man show here. Donovan would probably be the first one to tell you that. He’s got his big brother protecting the rim, and he’s got guys around him that are talented, and he obviously learned a lot from Ricky Rubio, but the opportunity to play with Mike Conley is gonna be great. Joe’s (Ingles) continued development; Bojan’s (Bogdanović) ability to be a scorer and help take an offensive load off Donovan; I think all those things will contribute to him in his journey and growth as a player.

DN: What is Rudy Gobert’s role in leading this team?

JZ: Obviously, Rudy is the defensive backbone of our team. I think I’ve said this before — he is the most unselfish player on our team. Everything he does is either cleaning up people’s mistakes or being the backbone of the defense. And on offense, he’s the best screener in the league. He spends his job — 48 minutes a night — getting other guys open or creating gravity on his rolls to the rim. So he may not be a classically unselfish player — you think of John Stockton at point guard — but his game every day is to make his teammates better. We’ve always been a defensive program; we’re going to continue being a defensive program and his role is integral in that.

DN: What about Mike Conley makes you think he’d fit here?

JZ: We can put on the film and see he’s a very good player from a good defensive program. We also know on intel work how good of a person he is. Since truly getting to know him and him being a part of our program, it’s unbelievable. His leadership, his ability to mentor and play at a very, very high level and also uplift the rest of the group with his experience and perspective I think will be integral for us. He can help all over. And I’m not just talking about Donovan or the other point guards. It’s literally everyone. And he’s already played with Ed Davis and Jeff Green, and I give Mike a lot of credit for those two wanting to come play with him again.

Contributing: Ethan Bauer