SACRAMENTO — If the Sacramento Kings stood any chance at success this season, Paul Westphal had to find a way to control talented but volatile center DeMarcus Cousins.
He couldn’t — and lost his job because of it.
The Kings fired Westphal Thursday after two-plus seasons as coach, cutting ties amid a slow start and an escalating dispute with Cousins that threatened to consume the locker room. Assistant Keith Smart, let go by the Golden State Warriors in April after one season at the helm, signed a deal to become the team’s new head coach.
With the Cousins-Westphal spat showing no resolution, Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof finally decided to take action. Instead of trading away a promising young big man, they made Westphal the first firing of the lockout-shortened season.
“We’re in a situation here where you can’t take a philosophical vacation because things are happening in real time,” Kings president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie said. “You start to keep seeing the same things over and over again, you can’t sit around and meditate forever about how you’re going to approach them or try and change them.”
Looking to build momentum for a new arena project, Sacramento stumbled at the start again this year.
A talented and athletic — albeit raw — roster entered Thursday night’s home game against Milwaukee with a 2-5 record and in last place in the Pacific Division. Westphal finished with a 51-120 record in Sacramento.
The 61-year-old previously coached the Phoenix Suns and Seattle SuperSonics. In a statement released by the team, Westphal thanked the Maloofs, his coaching staff and players for the opportunity.
“While the job is far from finished, I am proud of the strides we were able to make,” he said.
In the last week, all of Westphal’s efforts in California’s capital shattered.
He abruptly released a statement Sunday criticizing Cousins’ commitment to the franchise and excused him from the team’s game against New Orleans. He also said Cousins asked for a trade, which the center’s agent refuted.
Petrie said he knew of Westphal’s plans to release the statement but indicated that the Maloofs didn’t. Petrie dodged questions about whether he supported Westphal’s statement about Cousins, who expressed remorse for Westphal and said he would soon reach out to his former coach.
“It’s been an emotional week and a lot of misunderstandings,” Cousins said. “But it comes with the territory. Coach Westphal was a great teacher to a lot of us and a good coach. But this was a management decision.”
Sacramento drafted Cousins with the fifth overall pick in 2010 after he spent one season at Kentucky. The 21-year-old was averaging 13.7 points and 9.3 rebounds in 26 minutes per game this season.
Cousins’ behavior has been well documented going back to high school and his one season at Kentucky, mixing in dramatic and astonishing plays with outbursts against players, coaches, trainers and referees. His conditioning has been questioned and so has his work ethic. However, he showed up for training camp in prime condition and appeared ready for a breakout season.
“Of course people are going to tie (Westphal’s firing) to me,” Cousins said. “It will just show their ignorance. But like I said, it’s not my decision.”
The Kings had high hopes for a major turnaround this year.
Teamed with 2009-10 rookie of the year Tyreke Evans, Cousins was expected to anchor the front line for a young and emerging roster in the deep Western Conference. Sacramento finished 24-58 last season and missed the playoffs for the fifth straight year, although a late-season surge behind a healthy Evans provided hope that maybe the Kings weren’t that far off from making the postseason again.
Turns out, the Maloofs couldn’t wait any longer.
The NBA and the Maloofs have given Sacramento a March 1 deadline to approve a plan to help finance a new arena, or the franchise could again explore relocation. The Kings nearly moved south to Anaheim, in April before the league’s Board of Governors decided to give Sacramento another chance.
Now the Cousins conflict is Smart’s responsibility to fix.
Smart, the former Indiana guard best known for hitting “The Shot” against Syracuse that won the Hoosiers the 1987 NCAA title, spent seven years as an assistant with Golden State before he replaced the ousted Don Nelson just before training camp last year. The Warriors went 36-46 under Smart, a 10-game improvement from the previous season but not enough to appease new owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber.
Smart said he never imagined his next chance coming so soon. While taking over for a fired coach is not the type of opportunity he envisioned, he feels comfortable with the decision after Westphal passed along his blessings.
“He said, ‘Don’t do anything stupid and reject this. I want you to coach this team,’” Smart said of Westphal. “He felt it, and I felt that he meant it from the bottom of his heart.”
Asked how he would approach Cousins differently after watching Westphal’s relationship with the center go sour, Smart smiled and said, “Probably have a good relationship with him.”
His job may depend on it.