After years of looking to the future, the Knicks believe the future is now. At least they hope it is.

No more three- or four-year plans to get under the salary cap. No more multi-player trades in which the contracts shed are more important than the players received. No more in-season blowing up of the roster.

In the Big Three of Amar'e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, the Knicks have two premier scorers and a defensive anchor in the middle with an NBA championship ring won last season with the Dallas Mavericks.

"I think you get a glimpse of it in practice and what it can be," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "It's not there and it won't be there for a while, but we get excited about what we see. The length, the talent, the camaraderie between the three. It leads to great things. We don't know if that's going to show up immediately or show up a week from now, but you can rest assured those three together are going to have good chemistry."

When Chandler, in a surprise, agreed to sign with the Knicks as part of a three-team trade after the lockout, visions of Chris Paul joining Stoudemire and Anthony next season as a counterweight to Miami's Big Three ended. But the Knicks got better now.

"My first goal is to get everybody thinking defense,'' Chandler said. "We know you can play offense . . . but defensively, I want us to buckle down."

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D'Antoni, in the final year of his contract, has a new assistant in Mike Woodson to focus on defense. D'Antoni said the Knicks "should" be able to contend for a title this season. The lockout-shortened schedule could be a help or a hindrance to that dream, depending on which teams are able to stay healthy during the grueling 66-game sprint.

The Knicks have 21 back-to-backs and will play three nights in a row once. They will play four games in five nights five times.

"That's never a good thing as far as for us players,'' said Stoudemire, who is recovered from the back injury he suffered during the Celtics' first-round playoff sweep last season. "It's definitely hard on your body. You have to be smart about playing time and recover from those games.''

The Knicks have their three stars, but not much proven depth behind that. Baron Davis should take over as the starting point guard once healthy, but his aching back has to be a concern. Starting two-guard Landry Fields wore down in his rookie season. There are no true scorers coming off the bench.


"We're trying to build the best team we can,'' interim general manager Glen Grunwald said. "Ultimately, hopefully, it will be for an NBA championship. But this year we're hoping to move forward, make progress and improve on what we did last year. In terms of my philosophy, I think that we've got a core group together that's going to be here for four years, and we're going to look to add to those guys, maybe do some tweaks, but we'll see how it goes."

Grunwald may have already fired all of his bullets for this season, so the team you see Sunday in the opener against the Celtics could be pretty much the same one that suits up for Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs.

Say this, though: That the Knicks seem to be a lock to make the playoffs is a huge change in itself. Starting with Donnie Walsh's painful, salary cap-clearing trades and extending to Grunwald's stealth move to get Chandler, the Knicks have come a long way in terms of their roster. Now it remains to be seen how far that roster can get them.

"We're going to have a fun year,'' Anthony said. "I can already see the bond. Our goal is not just to make the playoffs. Our goal is the championship. That's what we're looking for.''

The Knicks have this going for them: The last time they made the NBA Finals was in a 50-game lockout season in 1999. The Knicks lost to the Spurs in five games.

Maybe a repeat of an NBA Finals berth is too much for Knicks fans to hope for, especially with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh looming in Miami with a year of togetherness in their hip pockets.

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But the Knicks are part of the conversation. Now. Not in the future.

The Dolan family owns controlling interest in the Knicks, MSG and Cablevision. Cablevision owns Newsday.