In a year when Toronto sports teams have been more fizzle than sizzle, more flop than pop, it falls to the Raptors to salvage some civic sports pride.
The first step in that endeavour begins this week at Carleton University in Ottawa when the Raps get together for a five-day training camp in preparation for the 2008-09 season.
Not only are the Raptors the final hope (yes, we're aware the Maple Leafs are in training camp too) to bring some legitimacy back to the phrase Toronto sports fan, they are the best hope. Chris Bosh, Jermaine O'Neal and Jose Calderon as the core of the Raptors make that so.
But just carrying the only realistic hopes of a Toronto professional sports franchise into the season, is not enough. There are no guarantees that they will live up to them. The architect of the franchise knows that as well as anyone.
"When you look at this team we feel we have dramatically improved," general manager Bryan Colangelo said of a 13-man roster that includes five newcomers and eight returnees. "There are a lot of things that have to fall into place -- we have to maintain health throughout the year -- but the early indications from what we have seen here (at the informal workouts) are promising."
Those informal workouts have lit a fire under this team. And the chief igniter has been O'Neal, the 29-year-old veteran of 12 NBA seasons who Colangelo acquired in a draft-day trade with the Indiana Pacers that sent point guard T.J. Ford, centre Rasho Nesterovic and the Raptors' first-round pick (Roy Hibbert) to Indy in return.
O'Neal changes the Raptors landscape significantly.
The arrival of the 6-foot-11, 230-pound O'Neal combined with the growing presence of Chris Bosh in the Raptors frontcourt puts the team at a distinct advantage over arguably any other frontcourt in the league.
Specifically for Toronto, O'Neal's arrival addresses the club's two main deficiencies, defence and rebounding.
The caveat to all this is that O'Neal, is healthy. For seven seasons starting in 2000, O'Neal averaged 19.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game. If the Raptors get that O'Neal, even the heightened expectations can be reached.
But if they get the O'Neal, whose numbers fell to 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in just 42 games because of a knee injury, those expectations could lead to disappointment.
As Colangelo concedes: "The one question everyone wants answered" is how is O'Neal's health now? Colangelo's early answer is just fine based on the monitoring the team has been doing during the summer and what they've seen from O'Neal during the past week.
Following are some other story lines to watch as camp progresses and the Raptors gear up for their NBA opener:
HOW IS BARGNANI UTILIZED?
Few will argue that Andrea Bargnani's second year as a professional was a disappointment. How the Raptors use him this season could go a long way toward seeing the former first overall pick rebound from that sophomore slump or take another step toward bust status.
By all accounts, from those who have either seen or taken part in the informal workouts this past week at the Air Canada Centre, Bargnani already has bulked up over last season. That is Step 1. Step 2 is finding him a role he can be comfortable in.
Colangelo stirred things up a couple of weeks ago when he suggested Bargnani could play the small forward position. When it is suggested to the GM that he created a bit of a storm, there, Colangelo bristled.
"There is no storm," he said. "It's utilizing the talent the best way you can. We are going to play the best five as much as we can keep them on the floor. I think when you look at our team the key is versatility. Versatility for the bigs in terms of Chris and Jermaine being interchangeable parts, 4-5, 5-4, you've got a guy like Hump who we play at a couple of positions.
"With the makeup of our team now, especially with the defensive presence back there in the paint with Jermaine and Chris, you can get away with playing Andrea at the three. If your concern is perimeter defence, again the basket is protected, but playing big can create all kinds of mismatch problems for your opponents. You are going to see different things.
"That was not a prediction that someone was going to start, it was a forecast that you will see all sorts of different things out of this team because of the versatility that we present."
IS THERE ENOUGH CALDERON?
This is a no-brainer for Colangelo.
"I have no doubt that the combination of Will (Soloman) and Roko (Ukic) will spell Jose. If there is a scenario where you can look back in the history of this organization and feel more comfortable about your backup point guard, I'd have to say I would be surprised. We have two guys that have played at a very high level in Euroleague competition. We have already shown that guys can play at a high Euro level and come over here and it translates -- AP, JG, JC."
WHICH KAPONO SHOWS UP?
The one from the regular season who never found a niche or the playoff version who was one of the better Raptors in the Orlando series?
It's no secret the smooth-shooting forward had an extremely uneven season last year. In five post-season games he was over the 30-minute threshold four times and in double digits in scoring each game. Compare that to the regular season when he played more than 30 minutes just 10 times and averaged just 7.2 points a night and you can't stop your head from shaking.
Colangelo has a couple of reasons why he expects a more consistent Kapono.
"One, the mentality that (Kapono) brings to each and every game and No. 2 it's that there is no other place to turn this year. In the past there might have been a Carlos Delfino combination or something that got in the way of Sam utilizing Jason. Jason is the guy now whether he comes off the bench or starts at the two or the three."