One NBA title has stripped the Washington Bullets of two of their most important motivations this season: the role of the underdog and the ever-growing yearning to win that first championship.

Now, no one grins when Elvin Hayes talks about the Bullets being as good as anyone in the league. But no one - Hayes, his teammates, his coaches or his bosses - is quite sure how this season will unfold.

Will the players strive mightily for an outstanding regular-season mark? Will they be content, as they were last year, to make the playoffs and not worry about where they finish in their new home, the Atlantic Division?

Will they be ready for what Coach Dick Motta calls "the constant challenge of knowing, every night out, people will be gunning for you because you are the champs?"

Will they be pushed enough by the desire to show that last year's crown was not a fluke, as many members of the national press corps are writing in preseason previews?

"I've never coached in this situation before," said Motta, the fiery competitor who emerged as a local celebrity during last spring's playoffs. "The Fat Lady never sand for me before.

"I've been used to always fighting to get to the top, as has everyone else on the team. Now we are there. We have to find out what it is like up on the top."

Motta says he will tell the players "they will be playing a Super Bowl every night out. That's what the Dallas Cowboys have to go through every game. People play tougher against them and you have to get yourself ready to meet that challenge."

Certainly, this figures to be a different season for the Bullets. They begin with new-found respect and without the annual credibility gap. And still ringing in their ears are the sounds of cheering fans who celebrated their title with parades and ceremonies and unprecedented enthusiasm for probasketball in this town.

Washington chose to stand pat with its winning hand. Joe Pace, the wandering center, now is Boston property and his spot most likely will go to rookie Dave Corzine. Another rookie, guard Roger Phegley, has replaced traded Phil Walker in the fifth backcourt spot.

The lack of major changes has left the Bullets in the same situation as last season. This is no regular-season powerhouse that Motta will field opening night Friday at Capital Centre against the New Orleans Jazz. He readily admits that his clun won't win many games playing at half-capacity.

"We have to play well to win," he said. "A team like Philly can get by playing so-so some nights and still be okay. We aren't structured like that."

Yet, as soon as the playoffs begin, Washington should be a much more dangerous beast, as it proved last year. It is a club especially structured to handle the special problems presented by those seven-game wars that comprise playoff series.

These significant ingredients - a veteran, intelligent from line, quick and young guards, a respectable bench and an ability to pound away at an opponent's Achilles heel - combined with Motta's coaching and the outstanding individual talents of Hayes and Bob Dandridge are reasons the Bullets have as good a chance as any NBA team to win this season's title, even if their regular-season showing isn't impressive.

Motta is anxious to see if an injury-free season, something the Bullets hardly enjoyed last year, will produce 50-plus victories. But slumps, fatigue and wavering motivation from veterans over the seven-month length of the schedule puts them at a disadvantage against the 76ers, who will be favored to win the division title.

Although Motta won't panic if his team is not No. 1 in April, team officials have to wonder how fans will react to that position. Support has not mushroomed as quickly as owner Abe Pollin would like and a "so-what" showing during the regular season could lead to disappointing attendance.

At least Washington changed the conventional thinking around the NBA. Philadelphia whose image began crumbling two years ago after loans to the Trial Blazers, saw its credibility as a playoff team all but wiped out against the Bullets. Now it is the 76ers, not Washington that has to prove it can deal with the intricacies of playoff basketball and with the Bullets' front line.

That front line, oldest in the NBA, is the key to success.

Small forward Dandridge is expected in training camp tomorrow after a three-week holdout. He comes back hoping that talks with the club during the season will satisfy his financial desires: if they don't, this could be his last season in Washington.

Dandridge emerged as a superior player in the playoffs. He dominated Julius Erving, put in the big baskets, covered guards and provided the stablizing factor the team had been missing in previous seasons. As he showed in his final year at Milwaukee, when he already had vowed to leave, he does not let off-court squabbles affect his play.

His running mate at forward, Hayes, has had an outstanding preaseason in terms of conditioning and enthusiasm. Hayes' contract is up at the end of this season and he already has talked of possibly becoming; thus, he has plenty of motivation to play well.

This is a more content, mature Hayes at peace with himself and full of confidence that he is Washington's reigning sports hero. Equally important for the Bullets, he is showing no signs of aging at almost 33.

Wes Unseld spent the summer wondering again whether he should retire. The most valuable player of the final round against Seattle he had to decide if there was any future motivation left. But he's back setting crushing picks, making the passes that enable Motta's offense to work and pulling off rebounds with his massive strength.

In order for Motta to give his two up-and-coming frontcourt players, Greg Ballard and Mitch Kupchak, more playing time, all three starters will have to play less. Dandridge feels that is smart because he can save more for the playoffs. Hayes prefers to play 45-48 minutes a game; Unseld is unhappy with less than 35 minutes.

In part the franchise's future rests with the development of Ballard and to help their progress Motta must use them consistantly. Ballard already looks better than at any point last season. Kupchak had stated that he wants Motta to employ him "in crucial spots and when we need to win a game."

Motta considers it his duty to integrate the young with the old up front. If he can pull off the trick so no one sulks, it will make the Bullets' front court attack even more imposing.

He has nothing but youngsters in the backcourt, except for Charles Johnson, who moves like a 20-year-old. The Bullets need steady improvement from their guards, especially on defense, to make them more solid.

Much of that need for improvement will fall on the shoulders of starters Tom Henderson and Kevin Grevey.

Henderson was plagued by ankle injuries, inconsistency and an in-and-out relationship with Motta last year. As the club's playmaker, it is his responsibility to make Motta's complex offense work. He had expected to be traded; now he gets another chance to see if things can go smoother.

Grevey underwent on-the-job training last season. After spending his entire basketball life at forward, he made a stunning transition, at least on offense, to this new spot and wound up averaging 19 points as a guard. With Phil Chenier sidelined after a back operation, Greey remains the only experienced big guard on the roster.

"Kevin now has one training camp under his belt at guard," said Motta. "You can see the difference already. He should get better and better, as he gets more confidence."

Although the Bullets would like to see Phegley eventually grow into a competent backup to Grevey, that task still belongs to the effervescent Johnson, who, at 6-foot-1, is asked to guard players 6-4 or better.

Johnson is a gutty, pressureless player who fires away in streaks. He is used by Motta to calm down the club, to provide instant firepower and as a defensive stopper.

General Manager Bob Ferry still hasn't solved the club's major problem last year: defense against big guards. They will have trouble in this area again this season, especially if Chenier remains out for a lengthy period.

Larry Wright, who struggled trying to adapt to a playmaker's role last year, is part of what Motta hopes to put in Wright, Kupchak and Ballard and get his squad running.

This could be a pivotal year for the franchise. Attendance during the regular schedule was down last season and the first sellout at the Centre didn't come until the playoffs.

Another outstanding performance by the team and a solid base of fan support should result. But if the club stumbles, the newly won fans may vanish.

The Bullets' task becomes one of selling supoorters that this is a club made for the playoffs, not for the regular season. At $9 a ticket for the best seats in the Centre, that may be a tough idea to accept.