Because he is not a controversial man by nature, Wes Unseld has endured what he calls the transition period of his career the last two seasons without complaining.

The closest he will come to questioning how he is being used is to wish out loud "that I'd be substituted for, not by the clock, but by how I'm playing. If I'm doing well, don't pull me out just because that's when I always come out."

But now an injury to Mitch Kupchak has given Unseld an opportunity to prove his strongly held belief that he is not as old, at 31, nor as limited in ability "as some people in the Bullet organization might think."

With Kupchak on the sidelines for six weeks, leaving unpredictable Joe Pace as the No. 1 reserve center, coach Dick Motta will be giving Unseld more playing time, especially against a center-dominated team like the Los Angeles Lakers, today's 1:45 p.m. opponent at Capital Centre.

"I like to play against people like Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and Bob Lanier and Artis Gilmore," said Unseld. "I enjoy the challenge of trying to prevent them from determining the outcome of the game. They are going to score, but I measure how I do by whether I believe their points were the reason we won or lost."

From his high-post position in the Bullet offense. Unseld probably won't help much with the scoring void left by Kupchak. But he believes added minutes will increase his rebounding production (currently at a career-low 10 a game), and his picks, screens and accurate passing should help others, like Bob Dandridge and Elvin Hayes, to increase their scoring.

"People look at my averages and they judge me on those," said Unseld. "Last year, they said I had a bad year because I didn't rebound or score as much.

"But I don't think I had a bad year. If I played in a low post like I once did, I'll score and rebound more. But that's not my role now. They want me to screen and pick and pass and I think I am executing what they want. I think I'm playing good basketball. If I didn't, I wouldn't be here."

He feels some Bullet officials would prefer that he wasn't here. "A few wanted me to retire," he said. "And I'm sure they think I won't be back next year."

That Unseld is playing this season surprised more than a few in the Bullet organization. He talked seriously about retiring after last year, then changed his mind "because I still enjoy basketball and I felt I could contribute. I know I didn't want to come back as a token."

Nor has he decided that this will be his last campaign, although he signed only a one-year contract with the club before the season.

"I haven't even thought about retiring," he said. "I may come back and I may not. I want to see how things go from now on and how I feel.

"Yes, I know almost everyone feels this is my last year. But I'm the one who has to determine that. I feel pretty good health-wise and maybe I can play another year, with the Bullets or with some other team."

From the very start of training camp, when he reported in what the Bullets thought was his best condition in a couple of seasons, Unseld has been determined to show he wasn't some relic being readied for retirement.

He withstood Kupchak's challege for the starting center spot and he already has turned in one 20-rebound performance, something he wasn't able to do last season.

Motta has responded by having him defense centers most of the time instead of forwards, as he was doing last year, and by relying on his brains and experience in close games.

Yet Unseld acknowledges that Kupchak seems destined to gain a starting berth next season somewhere in the frontcourt. And he realizes it would make it easier for the Bullets if he stepped aside in June.

"I like Mitch and I think he is going to be a great player," said Unseld. "And I know that teams have to go through a process of phasing in the new players and phasing out the old.

"Right now, I just don't think Mitch is ready to play defensive center in this league. He is so emotional that he takes every basket scored against him personally and he gets in foul trouble.

"You have to realize that people like Kareem are going to score. You just have to forget it and come back the next time and do a better job of defending him."

Unseld has lasted 10 seasons as a 6-foot-7 center in a league of giants by employing that thinking man's philosophy. And no one respects his intelligence more than Motta, the man moved him to a high post and cut his minutes to an average of 31 this season, four less a game than he had ever played.

Wes gives us those intangible that no one sees in the stands." said Motta. "He is so smart and he has been around so long he knows how to defend the good ones. He also is steady. So much of what we do on offense depends on Wes. And he still can throw that great outlet pass on the fast break.

"I think he needs his rest more now. But he still can play this game. If anyone doesn't think so, they aren't watching very closely."

In the last two weeks, Unseld has turned in two impressive defensive efforts. He cut off Bill Walton's passing and forced Portland out of its standard cutting offsense when the Bullets beat the Trail Blazers at Capitol Center. And he pushed and learned against Artis Gilmore enough Tuesday night to frustrate the Chicago Bulls' center and limit him to only 11 points and four rebounds.

Without Kupchak, however, Motta is limited in ways to counter teams that have their centers drop off Unseld on defense and double-team Hayes and Dandridge inside. Abdul-Jabbar, for example, will rarely guard Unseld closely today when the Bullet center moves to the high post.

"When they sag like that, I have to shoot to keep them honest," said Unseld "but I know Dick doesn't want me shooting too much. That's not my role."

He also has been a liability at the foul line. At one point this season, his free-throw percentage fell to a horrible 32 per cent. How he has raised it to 44 per cent (compared with a career average of 63 per cent) but he admits "it's got to get better."

"I haven't got any excuses. It's a matter of concentration, that's all. I can't bend my knees as much as I once did, but that's been true for a couple of years now."