NBA fans -- maybe C's -- lose the most

Now it's not just the first paycheck (due Tuesday) that the players will miss. It could be a whole season of them.

We're well beyond the good and evil in the debate over who's to blame for the NBA labor impasse. There is no sympathy for the owners, whose own ineptitude led in part to the large financial losses the league is claiming. As is always the case, they need something to protect themselves from themselves, and this collective bargaining agreement was going to do it for them. Or so they thought.

There is no sympathy for the players, who had they accepted the latest offer would still be among the most well-compensated, pampered athletes on the planet and would continue to fly to and from games on private jets, stay in five-star hotels and have their summers to themselves. (Or, in the case of the 14 non-playoff teams, a lot of the spring and summer to themselves.)

But the collective bargaining process has "broken down," says National Basketball Players Association head Billy Hunter, and now the matter is headed to court. Not the court many of us had in mind.

It can't be a stretch to think that Monday's action by the players, in rejecting the league's latest (or last, best) offer, puts the 2011-12 season in jeopardy. The offer of a new deal and a 72-game season was there for the players. Now, if the NBA sticks to its guns, there will be a less attractive offer -- and no hint of a season.

The players clearly are hoping that the courts (the ones with judges) will do for them what the bargaining process could not -- convince the NBA owners to produce a deal the players deem to be equitable, rather than what they see as a total cave-in. Maybe the players will succeed. Or maybe the judge will look at this move by the union and see it for what it truly is: a back-door play right out of the Princeton playbook.

"This is the best decision for the players," union president Derek Fisher said.

Only time will tell. For if the union is not successful in its litigation, then it will be forced to go back to the bargaining table, where a not-so-happy David Stern will be waiting with another offer they don't want to accept. The difference is that this one will be demonstrably worse for the players. Just check and see what happened in the National Hockey League.

This latest development didn't happen during the previous lockout, when the players eventually acquiesced and a 50-game season ensued in 1998-99. Maybe that was on their minds as they sought this 11th-hour remedy. We can now see a livid Stern cancelling games through Christmas and, with a month needed after any agreement, there doesn't seem to be much of a chance of having even a 50-game season.

It's not as if we didn't see this coming. The union has been telling its members to stash their cash for the past two years, figuring it could well get ugly and end up as it has. Some of the small-market owners (not to be confused with intelligent decision-makers) had July 1, 2011, circled on their calendars as the first day of the rest of their NBA lives, when they would finally be able to get cost control. Most observers expected a lockout and many expected a truncated season.

But even with all this, when the players gathered in New York on Monday to deliver their news, it was still something of a shock. Not that they rejected the proposal. We had heard rumblings for 72 hours that they likely would. No, the shock was that by taking the matter to the courts, they could well be sticking a fork in the 2011-12 season with all the attendant collateral damage.

It's going to hurt the Celtics, that's for sure. They are your proverbial "small-window" team in terms of being able to compete for a championship, and with one year removed, that window has gotten smaller or even is about to be closed. Neither Kevin Garnett nor Ray Allen is under contract for 2012-13. (Mercifully, neither is Jermaine O'Neal.)

You think Micky Arison in Miami is happy about this? He's got a championship-ready team.
Wouldn't you have liked to see the Mavericks get a chance to defend their title? Or just seen Blake Griffin, period? (If this year goes away, he will have been in the NBA for three seasons and played in just one.)

How quickly can you say "worse-case scenario?" Or "worst fears confirmed?" We've gone from being close to a deal to entering a whole new playing field.

For those who watch the NBA, who depend on the NBA, who actually enjoy the NBA, this is, indeed, DEFCON 5. We won't be missing paychecks. But we will be missing something that has almost always been a part of our sporting lives for nine months a year.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.