Bullet coach Dick Motta said yesterday that he isn't counting on having available star guard Phil Chenier for the start of the regular NBA season Oct. 21.

"I'm not pushing the panic button on this," Motta said, "but it's reached a point where we will have to make plans for the start of the regular season without Phil in mind.

"He still could be ready in time and it wouldn't surprise me if he was, because he takes good care of himself. But it's safer sometimes to be pessimistic about the type of injury he has."

Chenier has been sidelined since the beginning of preseason workouts Sept. 23 with a strained lower back. He was hurt Sept. 14 during a pickup game at Ft. Meade with Bullet teammates.

Motta said that if Chenier was not able to play in the opener against Detroit at Capital Center, he would be placed on the injured-reserve list. That would mean he would have to miss five games and would not be able to suit up until Nov. 5. He would be replaced in the starting lineup by second-year guard Larry Wright, who has had an outstanding training camp.

Chenier had expected to begin light running by the end of last week but said yesterday he wasn't sure now when he would resume training.

"I just don't want to put a time limit on it," he said. "I expected to be back sooner than this. It's feeling better but it's still not healed. The doctor keeps telling me not to rush it and to make sure it's okay before I start playing again."

He tried to jog a mile Sunday but said his back felt uncomfortable. Monday night, he took few shots and the back siffened yesterday morning.

"I don't have a lot of mobility," he said. "I'm afraid if I get nudged in a game, it might strain things all over again.

"It's better than it was a week ago, when I had to get a shot in it. I can bend over more than I could but not as much as I would like. And there is still some discomfort to the side of my back."

Chenier's problem stems form irregular spacing between the vertebrae in his lower back.

"They can't decide whether it's a disk problem or a muscle spasm," he said.

"It's a tough injury to treat. Doctors really can't tell if it's healing or not. I have to determine that. They've got me going to a therapist twice a week for treatments and I take daily treatments here at camp."

Chenier said he wasn't sure how long he would need to be ready for the opener. "I'll be ready mentally but having my wind and getting the timing of the plays is another question," he said. "I feel I can be ready in whatever time span they give me."

The Bullets' remaining preseason schedule works against a quick recovery by Chenier. Following two practices today, the team leaves for a three-day trip to New York City and will not practice here again until Monday. Then it embarks on a four game trip that takes up the rest of the week.

"There just aren't many practices left for Phil," said Motta. "Once next week is over. I'm not going to push them too hard.

"If he can start working out in time to play in some of the games next week, he should be O.K. for the regular season.

"But if he misses the entire exhibition schedule. I think that would eliminate him for the opening games."

"You'd like all your parts ready for the season," said Motta, "but it's a long schedule and it's more important to have him available for the long haul."

Motta said he would begin giving former free agent Coniel Norman who played two years with Philadelphia, more work at the shooting-guard spot as a backup for Wright.

Norman is one of the team's best shooters. "He's the one guy everyone wants on their team when we have shooting contests," said Motta, who has only one other pure guard in camp, rookie Phil Walker. Forward Kevin Grevey also has been used during workouts in the backcourt.

Bob Dandridge who was just getting over a twisted ankle, suffered a slight knee strain in Saturday's exhibilition game against Buffalo and dif not suit up yesterday . . . Joe Pace attended his first practice in five days. He will be fined at least $750 for his walkout from camp . . . Tom Henderson is still bothered by the flu and did not work out, but Ggevey's blurred vision cleared up in time for him to practice. . . . Wes Unseld has run extra laps after the last two practices, another indication of his determination to keep his starting center spot.