The Bulls certainly have an organizational message going into training camp, and it's improving the defense. Coach VDN is preaching it in practice, and Mike McGraw at the Herald called it the 'overall goal of the team' this season.
It's a nice way (and I mean it) to spin the Ben Gordon departure. I always thought Gordon's defensive deficiencies were overblown, but there's no doubt that replacing all of his minutes with Hinrich, Salmons, and Deng is an upgrade on that end (as is a full season of Brad Miller over Nocioni/Gooden), and at 18th in defensive efficiency last season there's plenty of room for improvement. There's a chance they're actually better offensively this season too, but I think making the defense above-average is a more attainable goal, with Improvement from Noah (not being pushed around) and Tyrus (not being out of position entirely) being the best way to make it happen.
And here's Bulls GM Gar Foreman (didn't hear from Pax, he's away from the scary media now since his promotion) with his big-picture take on this team, this year:
Speaking Friday at the Berto Center, Forman made sure to downplay next summer's free agent chase, when the Bulls will have the salary-cap room to pursue Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer or others.
"That's not our focus. We like this team," Forman said. "Our focus is on this team and we're looking forward to a good season ahead. It's our opinion we have the talent to compete."
Compete for what exactly was left unsaid. No one is calling the Bulls a championship contender, but if things go well this season, a top four playoff seed in the Eastern Conference might be within reach.
Alright, so I emphasized that line from McGraw as a testament to his awesomeness (I was thinking the exact same words in response to that quote...), and he does answer his own question by saying the #4 seed is what the Bulls can 'compete' for. That's my ultimate benchmark for this team as well, and if it does happen the individual successes will likely have been a part of it, either for the guys who will be there next season, or at least providing some clarity in evaluating the guys who won't.
As far as what Foreman actually said, I don't buy they're not ultimately thinking the 2010 offseason game. (and I don't buy anything Gar says after this past offseason. Not that it's necessary to tell me the truth to do his job well...) But that game does start now, and it involves keeping the team's perception up, and getting their player values high. Saying 'compete' is vague enough to encapsulate that.
And in the spirit of opening-of-training-camp-runaway-optimism, I do think they can have a very successful (as in, 4th seed. Not real success) season. It's because they have a very solid rotation that keeps Vinny's job easy. However, if one of Rose-Hinrich-Salmons-Deng-Thomas-Noah-Miller gets hurt, coaching adjustments have to be made, and unproductive players need to come in. So while it's not a concern yet, the biggest story of this training camp is getting Luol Deng back healthy, and keeping everyone else good as well.
So it's not the best start that Hinrich is already missing a practice. Staying healthy seems a bigger part of this season than in other years, as the dropoff from the top 7 is too large, the coach likely won't handle adversity well, and the (self-imposed) budget is already maxed out.