Bullet center Wes Unseld said yesterday he expects his playing minutes to be reduced this season, but made it clear he couldn't justify "in my own mind" losing his starting berth "unless someone comes out here and beats me out of the job."

Second-year man Mitch Kupchak, who the Bullets feel is a budding pro star, would be that "someone." A spirited battle for the starting center position is anticipated during the remainder of training camp at Ft. Meade.

Although nine-year veteran Unseld played down any worries about his future with the club - "Each year I've been here. I've heard that someone was going to be challenging me" - his slimmed-down waistline told a different story. Team officials say they've never seen him in better shape for a training camp, evidence he isn't prepared to accept a backup role.

Unseld isn't the only player with problems. As the Bullets had announced earlier, guard Phil Chenier has a strained lower back and watched yesterday's workout (the first to include veterans) in street clothes. He said he wasn't sure when he would be able to start practicing.

"It still hurts a lot," said Chenier, who missed the first week of last year's training camp with a similar ailment. "I hurt it a week ago Wednesday and it isn't much better.

"They say my muscles weren't strong enough to accept the strain I put on them and now maybe a disc got a little out of joint. I want to get going but not before this feels a lot better. It has come around before."

Neither Unseld nor Kupchak is the type to issue ultimatums about how he should be used. Both said yesterday that they would leave such decisions to coach Dick Motta.

"Hey, I wasn't particularly happy about losing some minutes last year," said Unseld. "But you never heard me complain about it. It's his job to make the decisions and I have to respect that.

"I think there is a way to handle this so we can complement each other. Whether they will try to find that way I'm not sure. Again, that's up to them.

"I used to worry about getting beaten out. Ten years ago, I would have been nervous. Now, I'm not."

Kupchak said starting "would be nice," but that he was more concerned about playing "35-to-40 minutes a game. I really don't care where I play - center, big forward or small forward - as long as I play.

"I was happy with what happened here last year, but not satisfied. I wanted to play more, but I think that's natural. Whether I get those added minutes as a starter or coming off the bench isn't as important as just getting them.

"Not that starting isn't okay. It's great to have your name announced before the game and all. But I've always said if I have to play behind one person, Wes Unseld would be the guy. You know me, I'd try big guard if it would get me into the game."

Kupchak looks fit enough to play anywhere. After a summer of working on weights, he has increased his weight to 234 pounds (from 233 last year) and dramatically increased the size of his upper body and chest.

"I was in tremendous shape," he said, "until I picked up a charley horse a couple of weeks ago. They said the best thing for it was rest, so I laid off for nine days. If it doesn't respond now, too bad. I've given it a chance to heal."

Unseld says he is in "about the same shape as I usually am for camp. I weigh about 245-250 and I want to play at 240-245." But friends say a late-summer conditioning program took off 20 pounds and that he has talked about getting down to 230.

He was more specific about how he views his role this season.

"The only way I can see me improving my statistics from last year," he said, "is if they play me differently. Last year, I was away from the basket a lot. If they move me inside more, I can rebound and pass better.

"I'm sure I'll play less. Why? Well, because of Mitch and because we've got a lot of good rookies. I look at it this way. I've always gone into a game and done my best. If someone was better than me, I've accepted it. If that happens here, I won't sulk about it, that's not my nature.

"Of course, I've never been in a position where I had a chance to sulk."

Motta, who says he is remaining "neutral" about center for the time being, emphasized that "what is important isn't so much who starts but who is in the game at the end when the dust clears - and Mitch was in at the end a lot last year.

"In something like this, you have to take into consideration egos and also the needs of the team. Does it need offense off the bench or defense?"

Other teams have handled this delicate changing of the guard between the aging veteran and anxious youngster by starting the veteran and then giving the younger player the bulk of the playing time.

That seems a likely possibility for Motta, who wants to play Kupchak at least 30 minutes a game. The only spot left in which he can get that much time is center, now that Bob Dandridge has been brought in to take over the small forward spot and Elvin Hayes remains an iron man at the other forward. At the end of last year Kupchak came on so strongly and was, getting a lot of work at the small forward position, while Unseld occupied center.

Unseld seems destined to average no more than 24 minutes a game, 11 fewer than last year. "I think Wes has the ego that can deal with anything that happens to him," said Motta. "He's that kind of man."