Elvin Hayes' future with the Washington Bullets could well be determined by how he plays during the team's next few NBA games, starting tonight against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Capital Centre.

The Bullets are puzzled by Hayes' inconsistent start and by what they feel is his inability to blend in with the club's team-oriented offense. But, the same team sources say they also are not ready to trade him, at least not until they give him more than eight games to adjust.

Coach Dick Motta, who said the team wasn't "actively" trying to trade Hayes, admitted yesterday, "there have been too many sideshows, too many distractions" in the early season, which has seen the Bullets get off to a 3-5 start.

"We've got to start concentrating on playing basketball," he said. "We don't have any chemistry on this team yet. I want to see if we can develop chemistry before I form any opinions. But this is not all Elvin's fault."

Hayes, who pulled a hamstring muscle against Milwaukee Thursday night and was still hobbled yesterday at practice, is just as puzzled about what is happening.

"I want to win games," he said, "but people keep forgetting it takes more than me. With all the talent we have, there is no way I can get as many shots or as many points as before, and I realize that.

"We're still learning to play with each other. But I think we can have a great team."

Hayes already has said he thought he would be traded. That prediction apparently will come true if he continues to labor and the team stumbles even further.

Past trade talks concerning Hayes always have fallen through when the Bullets decided they couldn't get equal value for him. But now they may be willing to lift that requirement and trade him if they feel he cannot blend in.

However, Washington has yet to play with its starting lineup intact because of Phil Chenier's lingering back problems. And the club does not want to panic early after spending the summer (and $250,000) obtaining free agent Bob Dandridge, whom they still believe is the perfect small forward to complement hayes.

"If everyone was healthy, eight games would be able to tell us a lot," said Motta. "But I don't know much at this point. Yes, I'm anxious to find out and soon."

Hayes scored only six points against Milwaukee, but said the harmstring pull hindered his mobility. He had 21 points and 20 rebounds in the previous game against New Orleans, but only three points against Houston a week ago.

"We've done everything to keep everyone happy," said one club source. "Now it's up to the players to make it work."

Making it work against Philadelphia will be difficult. New 76er coach Billy Cunningham has his talented bunch hopping with a shot of good old college enthusiam. The result has been three straight wins going into last night's game against the New York Knicks.

"We're giving it the old college try." said center Darryl Dawkins. "Except I've never been to college to find out what that is."Dawkins will not be at Capital Centre tonight. He cut his index finger on broken glass while washing dishes yesterday and was placed on the injured reserve list. He will be lost for at least five games. Six Cunningham, who replaced Gene Shue eight days ago. And Dawkins had responded with agrresive play in the middle, something the 76ers needed.

Cunningham is as enthusiastic and nervous on the bench as Shue was conservative and calm. His bubbly nature is rubbing of on his players, who all but stopped performing for Shue the game before his dismissal.stitches were required to close the wound. Rookie Wilson Washington, who played his freshman year at Maryland, was activated to replace Dawkins.

Dawkins is one of the most outspoken 76ers when it comes to praising.

Since taking over, Cunningham has closed practices and worked on fundamentals. The 76ers are now playing more spirited defense and their fast break has picked up.

Cunningham is keeping everyone happy by substituting frequently. In beating the Nets earlier this week, only one player, Henry Bibbly, played more than 30 minutes. No player apparently wants to be traded, an unusual situation at Philly the last two years.

It also helps that Cunningham is friendly with both George McGinnis and Julius Erving. The two superstars like him and are clients of the agent with whom Cunningham was associated before taking the coaching job.

The coaching change created some controversy, especially since Shue was not told about his dismissal until 30 minutes before the announcement.

But Cunningham's long-standing popularity in the City of Brotherly Love, coupled with his enthusiasm, has taken some of the heat off owner FitZ Dixon, who dropped the axe on Shue.

Dixon, the man who spent a fortune assembling a team of stars, is more comfortable with Cunningham. The new coach established himself in business (including a travel agency) and had been well known along Philly's Main Line, the land Dixon also roams. Likewise, the players enjoy Cunningham's methods.

"It's exciting playing for Billy," said guard Doug Collins. "I've always liked playing for emotional coaches."

Cunningham's relationship with Dixon is important. Shue and the club owner did not get along, especially after Dixon stormed into the dressing room following one game last year and demanded that Shue give him "some excuses" for blowing a 15-point lead.

Although Dixon decided over the summer not to fire Shue, his patience ran out after the team got off to a stumbling start. He turned to Cunningham, who had no previous coaching experience.

The Bullets had enough trouble with the 76ers last year. They lost three of four games to Philly, winning only the season-ending contest in Capital Centre.

Motta is hoping that the addition of Dandridge, who will guard Erving, will help his team's matchup problems. If Hayes can play, he will guard McGinnis while Wes Unseld will take on the Philly center, either Caldwell Jones or Harvey Catchings.

Erving scored 71 points against the Bullets in the final two meetings last year. He was particularly effective driving to the basket and creating mismatches underneath, something the Bullets are going to try to cut off tonight.

About 4,000 tickets are left for tonight's game.

The Bullets will play at Detroit Sunday night and then host Seattle Tuesday night.