Assistant coach Kenny Natt has been elevated to interim coach. Natt is Sacramento's fourth coach in less than three years, following Theus, Eric Musselman and Rick Adelman, who left the club after the 2005-06 season.
"When you look at the overall level of performance that we've experienced this year, it's just not where we want to be," said Geoff Petrie, the Kings' top basketball executive. "Sometimes you just need to try a different voice if you want to try and change things. It's not about just any one game."
Theus is the sixth NBA coach to be fired before Christmas this season, joining Philadelphia's Maurice Cheeks, Minnesota's Randy Wittman, Toronto's Sam Mitchell, Washington's Eddie Jordan and Oklahoma City's P.J. Carlesimo. The previous NBA record for pre-Christmas firings was three.
One of Theus' assistants, Chuck Person, was also dismissed, with the Kings having lost 13 of their past 15 games in a 6-18 start.
Speaking to ESPN.com's Andy Katz after his dismissal, Theus said: "I had no idea [in advance]. We were just coming off our best win [over the Lakers] the past two years. We've had a lot of injuries. ... Everyone knew we were rebuilding and the projection was for 20-25 wins."
Star guard Kevin Martin indeed has been limited to just nine games because of a persistent ankle problem, but Theus' relationship with management has been strained for months, negating any injury alibis he might have had. The Kings contemplated parting with Theus after just one season, according to NBA coaching sources, and his apparent lack of a long-term future with the club appeared to be picked up on by the Kings' young players, who have increasingly played without the scrappiness that enabled Sacramento to post a 38-44 mark last season.
That record far exceeded most external expectations after Theus made the jump from collegiate coaching at New Mexico State to the pros. But Theus' job security has been a leaguewide topic of conversation throughout the first quarter of the season, especially after Kings co-owner Joe Maloof publicly questioned his coaching methods in a recent radio interview. It's also believed that fan disillusionment with the state of the team and a growing number of empty seats at Arco Arena -- after Joe Maloof and brother Gavin were sold on Theus partly because they believed that, as a star from the team's early days in town, he'd connect with Kings fans -- were factors.
Sacramento's victory over the Los Angeles Lakers last Tuesday night in perhaps the season's biggest upset to date appeared to ease the pressure on Theus. But the calm didn't last when the Kings surrendered 43 points to the Knicks in Saturday's first quarter and were rarely competitive in a 24-point defeat. The Kings are the second team to make a coaching change after losing to New York; Washington fired Jordan on Nov. 24 after a Nov. 22 loss at Madison Square Garden.
Theus, though, said he had no inkling as of Sunday night that he was about to be fired. He added that Petrie -- and not the Maloofs -- informed him of the decision.
"It was a great experience, and I just wish I could have seen it through," Theus told KHTK-AM, the Kings' flagship radio station. "For it to have been better, a lot of things would have had to have been different. ... I think we were entertaining. Good and bad, when people came to games, it was fun."
It was not immediately clear whether the Kings will immediately pursue a full-time replacement or let Natt finish the season. Sources say that one option Petrie will investigate is bringing back Jordan, who was fired as Kings coach by the previous ownership before the arrivals of Chris Webber and Vlade Divac for the lockout-shortened 1999 seasons, acquisitions which eventually transformed Sacramento into a title contender after years of laughingstock status.
Natt is in his second season with the Kings after three years as an assistant with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who reached the NBA finals in 2007. He played three NBA seasons, including a stint with the Kansas City Kings, before moving up the coaching ranks in a path that included nine seasons as an assistant to Utah coach Jerry Sloan.
In his first game as head coach, Natt led the Kings to a 118-103 victory over the Timberwolves. Eight players scored in double figures as Sacramento put together one of its best efforts to hand Minnesota its 10th straight loss.
"I told these guys that all I'm asking of them is hard work and discipline each day in practice, because that's where you win basketball games," Natt said. "There's a rotation issue that's been something we've had to deal with for a long time, but that's something we'll have to work our way through. ... I'm not here as a coach to try to keep everyone happy. I'm here to look out for the best interests of this team."
Theus' departure means the Kings will be paying three head coaching salaries this season to Natt, Theus and Musselman, who still has a year left on his contract.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.