Before the season is much older, Bullet coach Dick Motta is going to bench a player who is leading the NBA in steals and is second in field goal percentage. In doing so, he believes he will strengthen his team.

The player in question is Larry Wright, the second-year man from Grambling who has been starting in place of still-ailing Phil Chenier since the season began. Among league guards, only Pete Maravich off to a better start than Wright, but his performance still won't keep him from losing his first-string berth.

"If Phil Chenier was 100 per cent before the season he'd be starting," said Motta. "Since Phil is still, oh, maybe 80 per cent, I haven't even thought about what will happen how when he is OK."

But there has never been any question within the Bullet camp that the team is stronger with Chenier starting and Wright coming to pick up the tempo. That's the way Motta planned to handle his guards prior to the season and he still would like to see how how that setup works.

Wright already knows what Motta's decision will be. "He will start Phil," Wright said. "I know it, you know it and so does everyone else. And I can't argue with it and I'm not going to sulk about it.

"But I'm not going to lie down and give up either. I'm going to keep on playing as hard as I can and see what happens. I'm a man and I'm going to act maturely about it."

Wright can't play much better than he has through the first four games. His career-high 43-point effort against Indiana was a marvelous all-round performance that also included five steals, five assists and 13-for-20 shooting, mostly from long range. And he has yet to shoot below 50 per cent in any contest.

He also is averaging 3 1/2 steals and a team-high 23-3 points a game while hitting on eye-popping 70 per cent from the floor.

Chenier, meanwhile, is gradually rounding into his usual form. He played 28 minutes against Kansas City Saturday night, scoring 17 points while starting to move in the second half with the freedom and agility he hadn't displayed in early game.

"There is alway room for improvement," Chenier said, "but I'm ready to start playing some minutes now. I feel like l'm just about all the way back. It doesn't matter if he starts platooning Larry and me, that's fine. But I think I can play now."

That is, if his latest injury, a sore knee, doesn't get worse. Although it isn't swollen, the knee is bothering him enough to have it checked out by team physician Dr. Stanford Levin.

"It just feels a little weak," said Chenier. "Whatever this injury jinx is, I wish it would go away."

So do the Bullets. The team needs Chenier's shooting and his defense, which Motta says is already stronger than last year's. And it needs the depth his complete return would provide.

It also needs Wright's consistent play. His steadiness during the Bullets first three road games is a signal to him that he profited by his rookie season.

"Last year, I was scared sometimes to make mistakes," he said. "This year, I say the hell with it, I can't worry about that stuff. There are a lot of quality guards like Maravich and Frazier who wouldn't be around if they worried about mistakes.

"If I make a mistake now trying to do what coach Motta wants and I think I did the right thing. I'll try it again. Last year, I wouldn't."

But he never worried about his shooting. He once made 19 of 20 shots at Grambling and he was certain he could be just as accurate in the pros, "even if they would look at me and wonder what that little guy was doing here."

That little guy proved to Indiana what he was doing in the NBA. The Pacers, who start tall, physical guards in Ricky Sobers and John Williamson, left Wright alone early in the game. After he hit three in a row from the baseline, they tried to tighten up the defense, but Pacer coach Bob Leonard admitted it was too late.

"Once he gets going it's hard to slow him down," said Leonard. "He sure got into some kind of groove."

Wright missed a shot in each half but inbetween made eight straight attempts. At intermission, he was nine for 10 and his teammates told him "to keep putting it up and don't worry abou taking too many.

"But I don't like to take 20 shots in a game. I'd rather have two people take 10 each. I don't want to be just a shooter, because I can be a ballhandler too. Either place, I think I can make things happen."

Wright says he gets into shooting streaks "by getting off to a quick start. You hit one or two early anf then all of a sudden you are in a groove and everything you toss up goes in. But you never know how long it's going to last. That always keeps you guessing."

He isn't guessing about his role on the team. He's willing to be reserve "but I want to get my 25 minutes a game, regardless. The important thing is for me to play well no matter hwo I'm used, so he has to keep using me."

Motta agrees. "I'm not hung up on all this starting stuff any way," said the Bullet coach. "You don't penalize anyone intentionally. You have to go on matchups, game situations, how a player adapts to a certain role.

"We'll experiment and see what happens. When we do, maybe Phil will prove the better as a starter and Larry the better coming off the bench. We'll see."

The Bullets are last in the league in team defense, giving up 126.5 points a game . . . Tom Henderson is third in assists (7.3) and Mitch Kupehak is seventh in field goal percentage (64 per cent).