Transition game

MILWAUKEE -- They're calling him the "Severance Package."

"What's that?" Scott Skiles said, his brow appropriately furrowed.

OK, I called him -- John Salmons -- the Severance Package, in regard to the fact the Bulls are still paying Skiles in Year 2 of his post-Bulls career, and giving him a little something extra to boot.

After all, Salmons has been like free money for Skiles' fast-rising Milwaukee Bucks since coming over in the Bulls' cap-space fire sale at the trade deadline.

The 39-30, playoff-bound Bucks are 15-2 with Salmons, and just like his coach, he's earning a reputation for quick fixes. Last season, he helped push the Bulls from mediocrity to one of the best first-round playoff series of all time. Now, teams in the Eastern Conference are starting to "Fear the Deer."

"I didn't know he was that good," Bucks center Andrew Bogut said of Salmons. "He can really shoot the ball."

With all the talk leading up to the trade deadline about clearing cap space and making room for optimistic summer scenarios, one team in the Central Division is just trying to win now, not trying to get Dwyane Wade.

"[The Bulls] did what they did," Salmons said at the Bucks' practice facility Tuesday. "I guess they felt like they made the right move as an organization."

Would you rather have a chance to land a superstar or the possibility to be the fifth seed in the playoffs? Milwaukee is no free-agent paradise, but the Bucks are heading in the right direction and could be a tough out in the playoffs under Skiles.

To be fair, the Bulls looked good with their additions, former Buck Hakim Warrick and erstwhile Bobcat Flip Murray, before injuries decimated their season. The Bulls are 2½ games back of Toronto for the eighth playoff spot, and looking eagerly to the summer.

"Every team is moving in some direction," Skiles said of the Bulls. "They're moving in the direction they want to move in. We're moving in another direction."

When the trade went down, I asked Bulls general manager Gar Forman if he thought it was strange to trade two talented players in Salmons and Tyrus Thomas to teams the Bulls were fighting against for a playoff spot. He said it was unusual, but in the end, it was what the Bulls wanted to do.

"Obviously, we want to be competitive," Forman said at the time. "Our goal coming into the season was to continue to improve on what we did a year ago. Also, our goal was ... to create the flexibility that we've really created."

But now the deal is looking like a steal for the Bucks, and not just for this season. Salmons is scheduled to make $5.8 million next season, with a player's option, just enough to have made him a stumbling block in the Bulls' plan to offer a max contract this summer, but not enough that the Bucks wouldn't want him. In an Isiah Thomas-like deal, Milwaukee also gets the right to swap draft picks, provided the Bulls' pick isn't in the top 10. Right now the Bulls, currently ninth in the Eastern Conference playoff race, would be 11th.

The Bucks, who haven't made the playoffs since 2006 and haven't really mattered since going to the Eastern Conference finals in 2001, are in fifth place in the East, 5½ games behind Atlanta for home court in the first round.

They had a losing record at the end of January, when they were 20-25 and going nowhere. And then the team started clicking. Skiles' systems aren't easy to learn, but when his teams get it together, it really shows.

As Bogut put it, the Bucks are "getting better with time, like a fine wine."

After a so-so second season with the Bulls, Salmons is back in form, teaming up with Brandon Jennings, Bogut and Carlos Delfino to form a solid offensive nucleus.

"He's been a huge scoring punch for us," Bogut said. "We had been struggling to score before we got him, winning games with our defense. Now we're still winning games with defense, but also putting points on the board."

Salmons said he hasn't spoken to his old teammates since coming over. He played the "It's a business" line a couple times, but he seems a little hurt still, although he noted that he is a better fit with this Bucks team. Even if he's a little lonely.

"The thing is, last year I got traded with Brad [Miller], and being that he played in Chicago before, he helped me a lot. Coming here by myself, not knowing anybody, was different in that sense," Salmons said.

If he keeps winning games, I'm sure he'll have a lot of friends.

While Salmons, who scored 16 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter in a 98-95 comeback victory over Atlanta on Monday, is getting credit for sparking the Bucks recently, it's plain to see that it's Skiles who has done it again.

The Bucks recently pulled off a pretty tough feat, winning a double-overtime game on the road against the Sacramento Kings and then beating the Denver Nuggets in Denver the next, despite getting just 11 combined points from Bogut and Jennings.

Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups told The Associated Press he wasn't surprised the Bucks won, because "it's a Scott Skiles team."

"I mean, that's one of the worst teams you can play in the regular season because he has them playing hard, diving on loose balls; it doesn't matter if they played [the night] before or not," Billups said. "In my times playing against his teams, I just respect him a lot because he just gets his teams playing hard every single night."

Skiles wouldn't take the bait on ego-puffing questions.

"This is what you want to do," Skiles said. "Build as the season goes on. You want to be playing your best basketball at the end of the season."

Milwaukee has actually gotten better since their leading scorer, Michael Redd, was knocked out for the season in early January. Like all Skiles teams, this one hangs its hat on defense.

Basketball-Reference.com ranks the Bucks fourth in the league in defensive rating. They're giving up 102.8 points per 100 possessions. (For comparison's sake, the Bulls are 11th at 105.4.)

Bogut is second in the league in blocked shots at 2.51 per game, and the Bucks are third in the league at forcing turnovers, with 15.6 per game. Bogut said Skiles' attention to detail as far as defensive spacing -- something the coach was lauded for early in his Chicago tenure -- has made an immense difference in his game.

"He's one of the smartest coaches I've been around as far as defensive spacing and offensive spacing," Bogut said.

"He's such a tough coach," said Jennings, the rookie sensation. "He wants you to play physical."

Will Skiles get recognized for turning the Bucks into a playoff team?

"He's got my vote for coach of the year," said Jennings, himself a strong candidate for rookie of the year. "He's taken us from the bottom to the top."

"What he's gotten out of our team, with no All-Stars, he's definitely the coach of the year, and I'm not just being biased," Bogut said.

My guess is that Skiles will get strong consideration, but he won't win. Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks will be a stronger candidate, as he has an All-Star in Kevin Durant. No, Skiles is destined to be overlooked. I'm not sure how he would do with all the hoopla anyway.

"There's 13 games left and there's the postseason to deal with," he said, when someone brought up the possibility. "I'm just happy we're winning games."

But behind that 1,000-yard stare and those verbal blasts is a vibrant, mordant wit. If Skiles ever wrote a book, it would put Jayson Williams' "Loose Balls" to shame. He's seen a lot in his two decades of NBA service.

"He's always getting on me when I change my hair," Jennings said. "Like when I got that red mohawk, he was like, 'What, do you put some peroxide in there?'"

The Bulls talked like this too when things were going well. I'm guessing the Suns did as well. But in his two stops, a small sample size to be sure, Skiles has had to leave, for one reason or another. When his teams win, it's proof that a smart, tough coach can make a difference. When they lose, both the players and Skiles get sick of each other.

"He tells it how it is," Bogut said. "He doesn't sugarcoat anything. He's pretty blunt and straightforward. You don't have to sit in his office for an hour. He's not one of those coaches who tries and tells you something, but spends 15 minutes pumping you up, before he tells you something negative. He tells you straight-up, which is something you respect in a guy."

But Bogut allows that Skiles' style probably isn't for everyone.

"It's frustrating at times, because he's on guys every day, but that's just part of the business," he said.

Some guys coach because they love the game, some because they don't know anything else. Skiles, like his peripatetic role model Larry Brown, is a basketball lifer who isn't tied down to one team or one town. But coaching defines him, for better or for worse.

"It's not that I don't enjoy [coaching]," Skiles said, referencing his sometimes grim-faced appearance. "It's that if you put in the time and the effort into something, you expect good results. So when good results come, you take it in stride. And when they don't come, if you're not careful, you can get really down about it, because you expect to win."

Skiles really means that last part. It's probably part of the reason he burned out in Chicago that last season.

"He's very tough on himself," Bogut said. "He's as tough on himself as he is on us. I know he kills himself after tough losses, just as much as he kills us."

Skiles is burning for a deeper run into the playoffs. He's 15-20 lifetime coaching in the postseason, with two first-round series wins. Then again, he hasn't stuck around long enough in one spot to really build a playoff winner.

The Bucks aren't imposing, per se, but the team is blessed with a young one-two punch in Jennings and Bogut, a reliable scorer in Salmons, an X factor in Delfino and some weapons off a fairly deep bench, including Jerry Stackhouse, who was acquired off his couch when Redd went down. I guarantee Atlanta isn't thrilled about facing the Bucks in the first round.

So, is this late run for real? Should Milwaukeeans be focusing on the Bucks over the Brewers next month?

"I wouldn't overreach," Skiles said. "When we're playing well, we can beat just about anybody. When we're not, we could lose to just about everybody. But that doesn't make us unique; that goes for most of the league."

One thing's for sure: This league is better with Scott Skiles, a guy who means jump when he tells you to jump and will always tell you when your red mohawk looks nuts.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.