As far as Mitch Kupchak is concerned, the situation is all too familiar. He remains the promising Bullet front court player who, after two seasons in the NBA, is admired for his hustle, but not enough to earn him the kind of playing time he wants.

"What I want this season," says Kupchak, "is to be one of the five best players on the Bullets. That doesn't necessarily mean be a starter. But I want to be one of the five players they use at the end of the game when it's close.

"It's simple. I want to play more. Coming off the bench, playing the role I've had to pla is hard. I won't complain about it, that's not my style, but I won't be happy without more playing time this season."

During an interview this summer, Kupchak hinted that unless his status on the team improves, he might try to escape from his Bullet uniform next season, the last of a four-year pact. Kupchak now downplays any thoughts of leaving, saying. "I'll probably be in Washington the rest of my life," but it seems clear that his love for the team could change if he feels his career is at a standstill.

Until Wes Unseld retires, Kupchak's desire for more minutes probably will be unfulfilled. He realizes there is always the chance he could win the starting center spot, but he doesn't hold out much hope.

"It's like it's always been," he said. "It's his job until I beat him out. But I don't see that happening.

"I'm good enough to play for a lot of teams for a lot more minutes. I know that and so do they. Ultimately I'd like to play maybe 35 minutes a game. But more importantly, I want to be on the court when it counts.

"When the coach looks down the bench for someone to win a game, I want him to turn to me, instead of turning to Wes to go in for me. I want to be the one he puts in, even if it means only 30 minutes a game.

"It's difficult, but I've finally concluded that Wes has the inside track for a starting position, no matter what I say about it. He was only playoff MVP. Why shouldn't he play?

"But what happens when you are a reserve is this. You get into a slump like I did last year and you aren't given a chance to work your way out of it. Instead you get less playing time. They have to go with hot hand but still, you'd like to be able to get unwound without any pressure."

Kupchak's shooting slump came at a most inopportune time - during the playoffs. He began pressing and worrying and not until he was able to take a week off from shooting before the start of the Seattle series did his accuracy begin improving.

For a career 54 percent marksman, it was a difficult period complicated by lingering effects from a midseason thumb injury. Coach Dick Motta feels Kupchak adjusted his shooting technique because of the thumb operation and lost his confidence.

"Unlike a lot of players, Mitch will fight something until he can overcome it," said Motta. "But sometimes that can hurt you. Mitch didn't give himself a chance to get over his problems and he started making some adjustments. But I thought by the Seattle series, he was coming out of it."

Kupchak averaged 26 minutes a game during the regular season, eight more than his rookie year. But with Motta already promising forward Greg Ballard more minutes, Kupchak wonders where any added playing time for him will come this year. The answer he gets isn't encouraging.

"I look around and I know who is going to play what kind of minutes," he said. "You aren't going to play Elvin (Hayes) 35 minutes. Or Wes 25. If Greg gets more, there aren't many extra left for me. I know that."

Kupchak lifted weights in the off-season, increasing his strength and adding extra pounds until he now weighs 240. He says his on-court goal is to improve his passing - "make my teammates look better by getting the ball to them" - but the Bullets would like to see him also improve his defensive rebounding.

"I'm getting better every year," he said, "but I know I have aways to go. I've proven I can score (15.9 average last year).Now I want to be a more complete player."

And he'd like to be a richer player. Last year, he laments, "I had to pay out over $2,000 to the league for technicals and fines. Geez, did that hurt? It's bad enough that you get pounded around in practice, but then to lose all that money."

At least in the money area, Kupchak is off to a slow beginning. He was fined for being late to the first team meeting.

"What a way to start," he said with a laugh.