As long as Bill Walton is playing center for the Grateful Dead and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar remains a gentle giant and Artis Gilmore seeks a supporting cast better than his former college team, this new National Basketball Association season will have the heart of attendance counters throughout the league thumping in anticipation.

A race without clear-cut favorites is like an election without an incumbent: everyone thinks he can win. And that attracts fans who fill arenas and pay the bills accumulated by overgenerous owners who have turned many of their players into a bunch of miniconglomerates.

Washington proved last season that the NBA is now a league ripe for the opportunist. The right combination of players melding at the proper time can win a title over opponents with more imposing statistics.

A Bullet repeat this year?Why not? But the slightly revamped Philadelphia 76ers, still trying to recover from their playoff embarrassments of the last two years, have just as good a chance, and there will be support for Los Angeles, Portland, Houston, San Antonio, Milwaukee and Chicago.

Injuries, coaching changes, players' tempers and Lady Luck have left things unsettled enough for only the most courageous to think they know what is going to happen by next June, when the marathan NBA season finally ends.

But at least the league is more exciting. Improved coaching, a wider distribution of talent and the unpredictable behavior of the NBA's few dominating big men have changed things considerably since the days of Bill Russell and those bullies from Boston.

For years, critics wanted it this way, yet last June, when Seattle and Washington were tangling in a provocative, spirited final series, many of those same critics were calling the proceedings dull and mediocre.

"If that was mediocre, then pro-basketball is in trouble," said Bullet Coack Dick Motta, who pulled off one of the league's more starting upsets by guiding his club to the title. "To my way of thinking, what we did has to give hope to every club in the league. We obviously are no dynasty, but we showed what you have to do to win."

Besides entering the year with that type of inspiration league teams also will be dealing with a few rule changes. Hand-checking, long one of the most abused acts in the book, has been outlawed, as have deliberate fouls in the final two minutes. And three referees will now patrol every game, which will result, if the exhibition season is an example, in more free throws. Eastern Conference

ATLANTIC DIVISION: This is the latest line from Philadelphia, home of brotherly losers: Now that George McGinnis and his playoff slump are in Denver, this is a new 76er team. Julius Erving will be free to play as he did in the ABA, centers Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones will be allowed to shoot occasionally and new forward Bobby Jones will supply the defense and teamwork that has been so lacking in the past.

The rest of the league is saying, "Show us." Lloyd Free is still unhappy as he fires up his 25-footers, Dawkins has yet to mature and Jones has yet to prove he can survive the physical requirements of an NBA season. If Jones holds up, he will be asked in the playoffs to stop Elvin Hayes, much as Bob Dandridge was asked to put the clamps on Erving last season. Philly could win 60 games in the regular season; the playoffs may be a different story.

The addition of center Marvin Webster is the first step toward respectability for the New York Knicks. But as long as Bob McAdoo and Spencer Haywood remain Webster's front-court mates, the Knicks remain only future contenders. Younger players like Glen Gondrezick, Ray Williams, rookie guard Mike Richardson and Toby Knight are talented but look for the Knicks to dabble more frequently in the free-agent market. Next year.

No wonder Red Auerbach almost became a New York Knick. He looks around his Boston Celtics and has difficulty finding familiar faces. Guard Jo Jo White and center Dave Cowens, who has been hobbled by a bad back, are the last of the old guard. The new wave is led by guard Tiny Archibald and forwards Marvin (New Me) Barnes and Billy Knight. The starting five will score points, give up a lot and look for help from the bench. And then Auerbach will really begin to wince.

The New Jersey Nets finally have shed themselves of owner Roy Boe. Now if they could do something about their roster. Good news in the development of guard Ed Jordan, who is backing up new playmaker Eric Money, brought in from Detroit for Kevin Porter. John Williamson is still trying to learn what a pass is at the other guard and forward Bernard King is an outstanding offensive machine. He needs help from Wilson Washington at big forward, but so far Washington hasn't progressed. Nor has the franchise's chances.

CENTRAL DIVISION: One night the Houston Rockets are going to score 180 points. Their opponents may counter with 181. And that is the good news and bad news about Houston. The return of Rudy Tomjanovich off the injured list and the signing of free-agent Rick Barry gives the Rockets an awesome scoring arsenal. But Moses Malone is the only one to show a tendency to rebound. And who is going to play defense?

There is also the question of the bench. Or lack thereof. Robert Reid is trying to become a 6-foot-8 playmaking guard to back up Mike Newlin, sidelined with a broken hand. Dwight Jones remains the top front-court reserve and he is barely a journeyman. The Rockets will miss John Lucas, especially in the future when Barry and his slowly diminishing skills retire.

San Antonio had its ballon deflated on national television last season by the Bullets and it might take awhile for Coach Doug Moe to inflate it again. George Gervin decided he was worth more than $125,000 a year after leading the league in scoring. He got a more lucrative contract after a training-camp squabble but he also could use more defensive aid and a rebounder or two to take the pressure off him. Larry Kenon hardly performed like an all-star in the playoffs and center Bill Paultz also stumbled.The Spurs will score a horde of points again and their wide-open brand of basketball is made to order for the regular season. Not so the playoffs, however.

With Washington now in the Atlantic Division, the Detroit Pistons move into new territory with a new coach. And many of the same old problems. Dick Vitale is setting a record for whirlwind schedules and publicity releases about himself. He also has to deal with playmaker Kevin Porter, who quickly wears out coaches, and a new home, the massive Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.

Vitale showed his leanings quickly by drafting two of his former University of Detroit players, neither of whom is expected to help the club. A healthy Bob Lanier would make his task easier - as would a deeper bench.

Every league needs it stabilizing force and the NBA has its rock in the Cleveland Cavaliers. Coach Bill Fitch refuses to pay outlandish salaries, keep high draft choices or get into the free-agent market. He gets his club into the playoffs every season but how long is that going to be sufficient? The cast is much the same as last season: Elmore Smith at center, Jim Chones at big forward, Campy Russell at small forward, and a bunch of guards, including Foots Walker, Austin Carr and Walt Frazier, who missed the end of last season with a bad foot.

The new league rules will hurt the Atlanta Hawks more than any other club. Coach Hubie Brown relied on hand-checking and zones to make up for talent deficiencies as he guided his club to a 500 season and an unexpected playoff berth. At least he has more talent this season. Rookies Butch Lee and Jack Givens, veteran Geoff Petrie and free-agent Dan Roundfield give him more depth and a bigger payroll. Lee and Roundfield will help more than Givens or badkneed Petrie but now that they are no longer a surprise, the Hawks may have trouble building on last season's momentum. A key probably is the growth of center Tree Rollins, whose roots seemed to be maturing in preseason play.

Truck Robinson left them laughing around the league last month. He had a no-trade contract, but wanted to be cast off, anyway, because he said the New Orelans Jazz catered too much to Pete Maravich. Since Robinson, a free agent, had chosen the Jazz a year ago, it seemed a strange charge to make. Robinson led the league in rebounding and offers a solid one-two punch with pistol Pete. But otherwise the Jazz fires blank. Rookie forward James Hardy has talent but no maturity and the rest of the supporting cast is mediocre except for guard Gail Goodrich, who is aging. Western Conference

MIDWEST DIVISION: Once upon a time there was a basketball team in Denver that prided itself on teamwork and defense. But that club never could win an NBA title. Afer a lot of unhappy endings, the Nuggets will now try their luck with individuals: Charley Scott, George McGinnis, David Thompson and Dan Issel. They still have the most talent in the division but it's difficult to understand what direction Coach Larry Brown is taking his club.

Thompson remains, along with Erving, the NBA's single most exciting player. He may have trouble getting the ball from either McGinnis or Scott. And Brown is low on competent reserves, especially in the front court. And this is the team that traded away Marvin Webster.

Larry Costello won an NBA title with a big center (Abdul-Jabbar) when he was with Milwaukee. The Chicago Bulls hope he can work the same results with Gilmore recently enriched with a $4 million contract. The Bulls need more consistency from forward Mickey Johnson, a comeback from gimpy Scott May, a strong showing from rookie playmaker Reggie Theus and some depth. That's a long shopping list for a new coach.

The Milwaukee Bucks weren't supposed to do much last year, then almost got to the conference finals. A slimmed-down Kent Benson could provide the play at center to make them into a bona fide contender this season.

Guard Brian Winters and forward Marques Johnson are a prolific one-two punch, Junior Bridgeman provides scoring off the bench and even Benson seems to be trying harder. Last year, he wouldn't player in a summer league; this year, he was a star for the Bucks' summer club. He says he wants to make amends for his poor showing, which saw him losing his starting job to John Gianelli. If Gianelli starts again, Benson could see himself in another uniform by next season.

Bobby Leonard is running a shuttle service with the Indians Pacers. Everytime the rent comes due, another player leaves. This year's edition is built around center James Edwards, and guards Rick Sobers and Johnny Davis, obtained from Portland. But all three may be with someone else before the season ends. Free agent Alex English will help at forward.

Much-traveled Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons is nos with the Kansas City Kings. He's headed a lot of clubs with little talent, so this latest stop won't seem different for him. His team has a promising back court in Otis Birdsong and rookie Phil Ford, and formard Scott Wedman is a winner. But neither Tom Burleson nor Sam Lacey have been effective at center. NBA teams don't win many games depending only on strong back courts.

PACIFIC DIVISION: The Los Angeles All-Stars, otherwise known as the Lakers, proved last year that a bunch of individual stars don't necessarily make a good team. Coach Jerry West is hoping for better results after tinkering with his toy for a year. But how far he succeeds will depend almost entirely on one player: Abdul-Jabbar.

The big man from UCLA player without inspiration last season and the Lakers were early playoff flops. A better year from him and the rest of the cast - Adrian Dantley, Jamaal Wilkes, newcomer Ron Boone and Lou Hudson - could combine to make a run at the division title.

Seattle shocked the NBA world by making it to the finals last June. Without Marvin Webster, any great success they have this season will be equally as shocking. Tom LaGarde and Jack Sikma will play center along with ex-Knick Lonnie Shelton, but none of them will make Fred Brown, Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams look as good as Webster did.

But don't underestimate the coaching of Len Wilkens, who did a marvelous job blending his talent last season. If LaGarde can overcome a bad knee and if Shelton can gain better hold of his emotions, this will be a dangerous team. But the city may never forgive owner Sam Schulman for letting Webster escape to the Big Apple.

Even without Walton, Portland still has an overload of medical problems. Forward Maurice Lucas has fractured a spur near a finger on his right hand and will be out at least three weeks. Bob Gross (ankle) and Lloyd Neal (knee) are still hobbled while guard Dave Twardzik has a kidney injury. Rookie Mychal Thompson and veteran Tom Owens replace Walton at center. Rookie Ron Brewer and veteran T. R. Dunn add strength to a back court that is missing Davis, now with Indiana.

Coach Jack Ramsay will try to make up for Walton's loss with depth. He'll run players in and out of games while hoping to have Walton back sometime before the end of the season. He also says Owens has improved to the point where he is almost as good as Walton. Ramsay doesn't deny believing in Santa Claus, either.

The Phoenix Suns ran out of gas last season after an electrifying start. They did nothing in the off-season to add more depth, which means they can expect a similar conclusion this season. Beyond Walter Davis, Paul Westphal, Don Buse and Alvan Adams - who is still trying to live up to his rookie season - the Suns are woefully weak. They are especially hurting at big forward, where Gar Heard is not Elvin Hayes. Or even Marvin Barnes.

The rest of the league is delighted over the Buffalo franchise now being located in San Diego. It's an improvement in climate, if not team ability. Coach Gene Shue must meld a squad from the likes of Kermit Washington, Sidney Wicks, Swen Nater and Randy Smith, plus a lot of guys named Joe. Kevin Kunnert, rookie Freeman Williams and ex-Bullet Phil Walker could form what there is of the Clipper bench.

Perhaps the most unsettled club in the league is Golden State, which lost Rick Barry to Houston and then got John Lucas in return as compensation. Lucas will make guard Phil Smith Better with his passes but he can't rebound or score up front, which remain the Warriors' major problems. Clifford Ray and Robert Parish continue to split center duties and Sonny Parker is the new small forward. After that, Coach Al Attles is praying for the development of young forwards like Purvis Short and Wesley Cox. Keep the faith, Al.