The New York Knicks are currently enjoying a surprisingly successful season to kick off the post-Carmelo Anthony era. With a record of 18-20, the Knicks sit at 10th place in the Eastern Conference, but they are just four games behind the fourth-place Washington Wizards, and when you consider the expectations for this team entering the 2017-18 campaign (its over/under for wins was 30.5, per Vegas Insider), the Knicks have to be happy with how well they've played so far this season.
What they can't possibly be happy with, however, is how they have fared on the road. The Knicks have a strong record of 15-7 at home this season, but their 3-13 road record is reminiscent of the team's dark ages, when they were led by a post-prime Stephon Marbury. Fortunately for the Knicks, the schedule has unfolded in a way that has allowed them to play terribly on the road while remaining competitive in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Thanks to playing 22 home games to just 16 road games so far, the Knicks are still very much in the mix as a playoff team.
But a problem may surface if the Knicks don't quickly correct their struggles away from home. Over the rest of January, New York will play 14 games with 11 of them coming on the road, and 20 of the next 28 will be away from home. If the Knicks continue to lose road games at an 81.3 percent clip, they could find themselves out of the playoff race by the All-Star break.
The Knicks aren't simply losing games on the road—they're playing terribly. When you look at the splits, you can see clearly that the team goes into a shell when they leave the confines of Madison Square Garden. New York is averaging 106.5 points per game at home compared to 98.8 on the road, and opponents' points skyrocket from 100.9 to 108.3 when away from MSG. It's as if the Knicks completely forget what makes them effective on both sides of the ball whenever they travel.
It's become clear that the Knicks have enough talent to be at least a low-end playoff team. Kristaps Porzingis is flirting with true superstar status, Enes Kanter—getting a rare opportunity to start regularly—is showing us why he was the third overall pick in the 2011 draft, and role players like Courtney Lee, Michael Beasley, Doug McDermott, and Kyle O'Quinn have proved to be useful pieces.
What the team needs in order to fix their road issues is coaching and leadership. The talent is there—now the Knicks need to get everyone playing in rhythm and with energy every night, regardless of where the game is. Head coach Jeff Hornacek is no longer being restrained by former Knicks president Phil Jackson's triangular shackles, but he has made some questionable decisions this season, often sticking with cold players for too long while keeping stars on the bench for lengthy periods of time while the second unit struggles. He also doesn't seem to be motivating his team on a nightly basis—anyone who has seen the Knicks play at home can tell you that they haven't played up to their potential in their 16 road contests.
You could also make the argument that Porzingis deserves some of the blame. During the Carmelo Anthony days, many questioned Anthony's nonchalance on the court, suggesting that it was contagious and caused his teammates to take the same laid-back approach to the game. When the Knicks have played at home this season, it has seemed like Anthony's critics were right, as many of the same players from last year's Knicks team suddenly look energized and willing to leave it all on the floor.
On the road, however, the Knicks often look like the same lethargic team that Anthony led to disappointing seasons over each of the past four years. Now that Anthony is gone, Knicks players look to Porzingis as their leader—the player whose energy they feed off and emulate on the court. Porzingis has been a hard-working, level-headed professional ever since coming into the league, but perhaps now is his time to take his leadership to the next level. Maybe he needs to show some passion on the court, get angry when players make boneheaded mistakes, and light a fire under his teammates, who seem to need a kick in the pants whenever they're on the road.
Whether Hornacek needs to up his game on the sidelines, Porzingis needs to show more energetic leadership on the court, or the team as a whole needs to be accountable for its poor play, the Knicks have to put their road struggles behind them before this potentially make-or-break stretch of their season. They certainly have the talent to squeeze their way into the playoffs, which would allow young building blocks like Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina to get some valuable postseason experience, but if the Knicks can't get themselves motivated on the road, their season may be lost by the end of next month.