Raptors bracing for tough test in opener

The new-look Toronto Raptors will have their hands full and then some on Wednesday when they welcome the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Air Canada Centre for their season opener.

Hedo Turkoglu and rookie DeMar DeRozan headline the new starting lineup, while Jarrett Jack was signed to an offer sheet to provide depth and allow more rest for incumbent starting guard Jose Calderon.

Cleveland had the NBA’s best record last season (66-16) and are once again among the favorites in the Eastern Conference with the additions of Shaquille O’Neal and former Raptor Anthony Parker.

Eastern Conference preview

But it all starts with LeBron James, arguably the game’s premier player. James won his first MVP award in 2008-09, while O’Neal brings a wealth of postseason credentials that includes three Finals MVP trophies.

Toronto (33-49) hopes for a quick turnaround this season after finishing 29 games behind the Atlantic Division-winning Boston Celtics last year.

One of the keys could be Turkoglu, who helped lead the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals this past season.

The forward signed a five-year, $56 million (US) contract this offseason, and the Raptors will lean on his experience and knowledge in 2009-10.

Chris Bosh, in the last year of his current contract, will also be counted on as usual. Bosh scored a career-high 22.7 points per game last season while starting 77 games.

Perhaps one minor advantage the Raptors will have heading into their opener is the fact that the Cavaliers will be coming off what is sure to be an emotionally taxing game against the Celtics in their season opener on Tuesday.

Nonetheless, Wednesday’s contest will be a key test right off the bat for a Toronto team that many believe can contend in 2009-10.

Sports Illustrated predicted the Raptors to be a playoff team and finish in second in their division, while the majority of ESPN.com writers also said Toronto would qualify for the postseason.

Another familiar face on Cleveland’s roster will be Jamario Moon, whom the Raptors dealt to the Miami Heat last February in the deal that brought them Marcus Banks and Shawn Marion, now with Dallas.