An ailing knee that makes his playing status a game-by-game guess is not the only reason this has been a painful season for Pete Maravich.

For all his showmanship and dazzing skills, the New Orleans Jazz guard has been haunted throughout his career by the stigma of losing. Only once in eight pro years has he played on a winning team. That was in Atlanta.

This, however, was going to be the year of the Jazz. The franchise brass was convinced that only a knee injury to Maravich last season had prevented the team from finishing better than 500 and gaining the playoffs. This campaign looked even brighter because Maravich was healthy again, first-found draft choice James Hardy had come on board and the young squad had matured.

It hasn't worked out that way. Maravich can play only a few games at a time before he has to rest the knee, which is encased in a heavy brace during games. Both he and Truck Robinson wanted to be traded, the club has played sloppily and without much inspiration, and there has been no consistency or leadership on the court.

As a result, the franchise has taken a giant step backward, and Maravich once again finds himself surrounded by what appears to be a no-win situation.

During his years with the Jazz, almost everything has been tried to build a contender: draft choices have been dealt around like poker chips, free agents have been signed, major trades have been made.

Now New Orleans is trying a different approach. Coach Elgin Baylor will bring his Jazz to Washington tonight for an 8:05 game against the Bullets with the hope that it will perform better with less talent.

That is the only logical way to view the latest Jazz maneuvers, which saw New Orleans pick up Spncer Haywood from New York for Joe C. Meriweather, and deal off the enigmatic Robinson to Phoenix for Ron Lee, Marty Byrnes, two first-round draft choices and a truckload of cash.

Baylor is aware that talent alone isn't sufficient if team chemistry breaks down.

Despite Robinson's gifts, he was not able to blend with Maravich. Haywood, although talented, is not Robinson, who is younger, stronger and more consistent.

Neither Lee nor Byrnes is expected to be a starter, at least in the immediate future, and the Phenix firstround picks are not expected to be profitable, since the Suns most likely will draft late in the opening round the next two seasons.

The wheeling and dealing of the past two weeks probably was the best Baylor could make of a nasty situation, short of unloading both superstars and leaving the franchise even more depleted.

"It was very obvious that some nights we had players who didn't seem to want to play with one another," Baylor said. "We picked up Spencer as the first move in an attempt to change that situation."

Almost from the first day of its existence, the Jazz has pulled off a series of questionable trades and freeagent signings that has stunted the team's growth.

To obtain Maravich, its first player, New Orleans gave up two first-round picks to Atlanta, plus two choices in the expansion draft and favorable position in the first round of two future drafts.

The 1976 first-round selection was cast off to Phoenix for Neal Walk, who later was traded for a first-round choice. The Jazz wound up drafting center Rich Kelley through that trade Until this season, he was the only player on the Jazz roster picked by the team in the opening round.

The signing of free agent Gail Goodrich cost the Jazz another bundle of first-round selections. Hardy, drafted in the first round last June, has been disappointing, although he has been in and out of the starting lineup.

Through all this, Maravich has absorbed most of the criticism. At his best, Maravich cannot be equaled. But surrounded by inferior teammates and discouraged by the club's constant poor performances, he has become an inconsistent showman who sometimes just gives brief glimpses of his consummate ability.

The Bullets witnessed one of his more rousing displays in December at New Orleans. He got into a secondhalf shooting flow that couldn't be stopped, despite the guarding of three different players. He finished with 37 points and the admiration of Greg Ballard.

"Wasn't he something?" Ballard said after that game. "He was uncanny out there. After a while, it looked as if he had the ball on the string the way it was going in."

There was only one problem with Maravich's masterpiece: it contained few of the reckless drives to the basket that once marked his style.

"But with that brace," Ballard said, "he's probably lucky he can play. One thing for sure, even with one leg, he's worth the price of admission."