Sacramento Kings fire coach Paul Westphal

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SACRAMENTO, CALIF. (AP) - The Sacramento Kings fired coach Paul Westphal on Thursday, cutting ties after two-plus seasons amid a slow start and an escalating dispute with young center DeMarcus Cousins.

Kings president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie made the announcement ahead of the team’s home game against Milwaukee on Thursday night. Assistant coach Keith Smart, let go by the Golden State Warriors this summer after one season, will serve as head coach versus the Bucks.

Looking to build momentum for a new arena project, Sacramento stumbled at the start again this year. A talented and athletic _ albeit raw _ roster led by Westphal is 2-5 and in last place in the Pacific Division.

“I want to thank Paul for all of his effort on behalf of the Kings,” Petrie said. “Unfortunately, the overall performance level of the team has not approached what we felt was reasonable to expect. I wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

In two-plus seasons leading the Kings, Westphal finished with a 51-120 record. The 61-year-old Westphal also previously coached the Phoenix Suns and Seattle SuperSonics.

“I would like to thank the Maloof family for the incredible opportunity they gave me to participate in the attempt to bring the Sacramento Kings back to prominence,” Westphal said. “While the job is far from finished, I am proud of the strides we were able to make.

“Finally, I want to thank my loyal staff and players for their efforts in attempting to climb out of the hole we shared. Nothing comes easy in the NBA and I know they will not rest in their efforts to rebuild this team.”

In the last week, all of Westphal’s efforts in California’s capital shattered.

Westphal 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.

Cousins had played in the past two games, losing at Memphis and Denver on consecutive nights.

Sacramento drafted Cousins with the fifth overall pick in 2010 after he spent one season at Kentucky. The 21-year-old Cousins 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.

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.

Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof simply 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, Calif., in April before the league’s Board of Governors decided to give Sacramento another chance.

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