'Greatest teammate ever' Patty Mills leading from the front

MILWAUKEE -- As the NBA regular season reaches the halfway point, the San Antonio Spurs find themselves in unfamiliar territory.

Holders of a 15-20 record, the Spurs are in danger of posting their first season below .500 since 1997.

"It's been challenging, that's for sure. It's something that we haven't gone through in a very long time," Patty Mills admitted to ESPN prior to the Spurs meeting with the league leading Milwaukee Bucks (32-6).

Remarkably, San Antonio find themselves tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, and Mills remains typically upbeat about his team's prospects with 48 games remaining.

"In a way it's exciting to be able to find the pieces to be able to put together and that's what we are learning. I think we are finding out a lot about ourselves and each individual on the team, but I also understand there is a long way to go in this season."

The bulk of that learning stems from the mass exodus of franchise staples, with future Hall of Fame players in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker retiring over the past three seasons.

That trio combined for 3,647 appearances with the franchise, and now, in his ninth season in San Antonio, Mills finds himself as the longest tenured player on the roster and an integral part of everything that happens both inside and outside the locker room.

"It's same as when he first stepped on the court with us, he's a natural leader, he's selfless, he's the greatest teammate ever," Spurs head coach, Gregg Popovich said.

"He just sets a great example for any player, especially for young guys when they see how he conducts himself, how he practices, how he handles wins, how he handles losses. He's a consummate pro and a beautiful human being."

Despite the team's overall struggles, Mills himself is arguably having his best season in the NBA.

On the back of a scintillating FIBA World Cup campaign with the Boomers, the crafty guard is averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on 40.8 percent shooting from behind the three-point arc.

The Boomers point guard added 21 points in 23 minutes in a strong win over the Bucks on Tuesday.

While Mills admits he is having "fun" with his commitment to staying aggressive on offence, it's the development of the Spurs quartet of young guards that brings him a true sense of pride.

Lonnie Walker IV (21 years old), Dejounte Murray (23), Derrick White (25) and Bryn Forbes (26) have all become integrated into the Spurs rotation over the past two seasons, as Popovich continues to tinker with different combinations on the floor.

"I take a lot of pride in being able to keep those guys as ready as you can, it's good to understand and know what it takes to be a guard in the NBA and on a playoff team," Mills explained.

Displaying that trademark selfless mindset Popovich spoke about, Mills remains cognizant of his own mortality in the game, while also ensuring to play his part in fostering the development of the franchise's future.

"I enjoy that part, my own progression will go one way, but I think I get more excitement out of seeing the other guys come into the league."

Milwaukee Bucks head coach, Mike Budenholzer, who was an assistant coach with San Antonio when Mills arrived ahead of the 2010-11 season, smiled when that quote was mentioned to him pregame.

"His energy when he was on the other end of the spectrum as a relatively young guy coming through and improving, his teammates were just so excited for him and loved it whenever he did anything well and he brought such a positive energy to the game and team," Budenholzer said.

"Now he's on the other side of it and to still be playing really well, it doesn't surprise me to know he would be excited to see the young guys grow up. He's such a positive force, he's very unique."