Ap_jr_shooting_mediumWho knew that a typically uneventful week in late August would produce so much Nuggets news that will test the team’s character immediately.

First, we learned last Sunday night that Nuggets backup forward – and fan favorite – Renaldo Balkman managed to get himself arrested on "suspicion" of driving while under the influence of alcohol in Florida.  Then mid-week, the Nuggets announced that backup center Johan Petro would be rejoining the team for a one-year minimum contract.  And finally, the NBA laid the hammer on the Nuggets by suspending soon-to-be starting shooting guard J.R. Smith for the first seven games of the 2009-10 season.  The suspension was for an incident that occurred two summers ago, but for which Smith was penalized with a month of jail time this summer.

Combine the J.R. suspension with the NBA "rewarding" the Nuggets with a Western Conference high 22 back-to-back games, and you can break out your "the NBA wants the Lakers to repeat" conspiracy theories early.

There's no reason to sugarcoat it: the Nuggets character is going to be tested right out the gate.  With J.R. (and presumably Balkman) staying home for the first few games of the season, the Nuggets will open underhanded in two critically important games – at home against the always tough Jazz followed by a road date against the equally, if not more, tough Blazers in Portland.  And it's not your average, run-of-the-mill back-to-back.  It's the nasty "nationally televised" late night Wednesday game, meaning the Nuggets won't depart Denver until the middle of the night only to face a Blazers team waiting at home that didn't have to play the night before.  I hope Arron Afflalo is watching Brandon Roy game tape already.

Assuming Balkman gets the typical two-game suspension for the DUI incident, the Nuggets will be sans J.R. only for their next five games after the back-to-back opener.  Those games include a home game against the Grizzlies (who might have Allen Iverson on board!) and then four straight roadies: at the Pacers, Nets, Heat and Hawks.  

I don't believe that how teams start necessarily tell you anything specific about how they'll finish.  Lest we forget the 2004-05 Nuggets were 17-25 before George Karl took over and then won 32 of their remaining 40 games.  But watching how the Nuggets respond to adversity early will give us some insight into how this team spent its summer preparing to replicate, or exceed, their amazingly successful 2008-09 campaign.

Getting into the specifics of the week that was, I haven't had a chance to comment on the Balkman incident and there's not much I can say that hasn't already been said by the readers of this blog.  Simply put, there's never an excuse for anyone – much less a professional athlete with ample cash – not to take a taxi if you think you're over the limit.  And in regards to basketball, Balkman's absence hurts with Linas Kleiza off on his two-year Greek vacation.  Unless things shake out differently with the Nuggets roster, Balkman is the lone backup small forward to Carmelo Anthony.

The Petro signing is solid if not spectacular.  Once again, the Nuggets GM troika of Bret Bearup, Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman were able to sign a productive player for scrap heap money.  I'm hoping that the cut in pay will somehow inspire Petro to work harder on his game and his footwork, too.  Petro was blessed with an NBA center's body but he was also cursed with two left feet and my shooting touch in the paint.  But for the $850,000 or so that he'll get paid, re-signing Petro was a no-brainer.

I think the J.R. suspension is excessive.  I understand and appreciate the NBA's hard line stance on off-the-court incidents involving its players, and J.R. absolutely should be punished for what occurred when his reckless driving killed his best friend in 2007.  But given that the incident occurred two years ago, just because J.R. went to jail this summer shouldn't have warranted such a prolonged suspension.

But it is what it is and we are where we are.  Assuming for now that Jeff Foster or Marc Gasol or another legitimate center isn't walking into the Pepsi Center wearing powder blue and gold in time for training camp, the Nuggets coaches, players and their fans will have to man up, accept these challenges and prove to the NBA that 2008-09 wasn't a fluke.  Like its 2008-09 predecessor, will this Denver squad be a team of character and mental toughness that won't allow excessive back-to-backs and excessive suspensions to hold them back?  

We just might find out in the first week of the season.