What does the Knicks' future hold?

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A few months ago Isiah Thomas was hailed as a savior in New York. He had injected new life into the New York Knicks by trading for Stephon Marbury and a host of other high-priced veterans, and he had hired native son Lenny Wilkens as head coach.

But after a poor close to the regular season, and beatings at the hands of the New Jersey Nets in the first three games of their best-of-seven series, one has to wonder what Thomas will do after his team's inevitable first-round loss.

Thomas took a big gamble in acquiring Marbury, Penny Hardaway, Nazr Mohammed and Tim Thomas during the regular season. This was a team already saddled with huge contracts (Allan Houston and Shandon Anderson, to name a few), and now the team is way over the cap with no foreseeable salary flexibility on the horizon.

The theory is that, in New York, you can't expect to start from scratch – the fans simply won't stand for the pain of a rebuilding project given the price of tickets. They want a team that can compete today, not two years from now.

But the Knicks have been in a vicious cycle ever since the Patrick Ewing trade, which brought in the contracts of Luc Longley, Glen Rice and Travis Knight.

Rather than simply allowing Ewing's enormous contract to run out, New York acquired three role players with long-term contracts that tied up the team's cap room. And when those guys didn't work out, they were moved on for other role players with sizeble long-term contracts – Anderson, Keith Van Horn and Howard Eisley, for example.

In effect, the Knicks have been spinning their wheels for years. The question now is: Can the Knicks develop into a good team over the next few seasons, or are they just stuck in salary cap hell?

If the first three games of the Nets series is any indication, things aren't looking good for the franchise. They were run off the floor in Games 1 and 2 and couldn't score in Game 3. They don't defend. And because all of their big guys would prefer to stand on the perimeter and shoot, they have no inside presence.

Simply put, they just don't seem to have an identity. Who are they? What do they do? What's their style? Are they an up-tempo team? Do they create havoc defensively? Are they good in the half-court?

The Nets, meanwhile, appear healthy and are playing well – which would have seemed impossible a few weeks ago. Injuries to Kenyon Martin and Jason Kidd raised a lot of questions about their hopes for a return trip to the NBA finals, but those two have looked terrific.

And Richard Jefferson, who is now the Nets' leading scorer and a burgeoning star, has given them a new dimension – a big-time slasher and driver with a newfound jump shot. Jefferson was just two rebounds shy of a triple-double in Game 3.

These are two teams that have been traveling in different directions the past couple of years, and so far in this series it doesn't appear that anything has changed. If you're a Knicks fan, that's a scary thought, especially when you consider the fact that the team's future-committed salary is growing faster than our national debt.