Lenny Wilkens is not a mean person by nature, so his words weren't meant to harm. Quite the contrary. He likes Marvin Webster and wants to see him succeed as a New York Knick.

But Wilkens, the respected coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, still wasn't about to change his mind.

"No,) he said, "I just fell this way. This season is going to show that the players around Marvin Webster (last year) made him a better player, and not the other way around."

Through the first half of this season, Wilkens has been an accurate prophet. While the Sonics have prospered despite the loss of their giant center, Webster and the Knicks have struggled to gain respect and a winning record.

Yet few in th NBA are smugly smiling and saying, "I told you so" about Webster. It may be difficult to feel sorry for someone making $600,000 a season, but there is sympathy for what has happened to him in New York.

Webster is no polished, flashy showoff who wants a candy bar named after him or who gives titles to his dunk shots. He is a friendly, decent individual whose timing might be better than his long-term talents.

Illness has limited him to one outstanding pro season, which happened to come during the last year of his original NBA contract.

His worth increased just when the richest team in the league, the Knicks, were in the market for a center, the one commodity then-Coach Willis Reed said was necessary to rebuild the franchise quickly.

Webster was available, the Knicks offered a lucrative contract and the two ultimately came together. But not before Webster and the Sonics almost reached terms to keep him in Seattle.

"Staying with the Sonics probably was what Marvin should have done," said a Seattle team source. "Lenny was the right coach for him and we had the right personnel. Besides, once you become a free agent, your world changes. You sign for big bucks and you better live up to your press clippings."

Webster, who will lead the Knicks against the Bullets today at 1:45 in Capital Centre (WTOP-1500), has always been involved in relatively lowkey sports situations. Although his Morgan State team won a NCAA Division II title one season, it still was not the same as beating UCLA. And Seattle, with its limited national publicity outlets and normally friendly fans, is far different from the cold glare of New York.

Suddenly, he was asked to live up to spiraling expectations on a team that lacked the continuity of the Sonics or the even-handed coaching of Wilkens. He was caught in the swirling cauldron surrounding Reed, whose running arguments with Knick honcho Sonny Werblin eventually led to his firing.

If Reed had expected Webster to lead the Knicks out of basketball's wasteland by the force of his talents alone, he badly misjudged his new player.

Webster's strengths are in rebounding and defense, although he is capable enough offensively to take control of contests, as he threatened to do in the seventh game of last spring's final-round playoff against the Bullets.

To complement his strong points, his other responsibilities have to be reduced, much as Wes Unseld is asked to concentrate only on limited areas for Washington.

But with the Knicks, roles are not so easily defined. Reed at first put him at the high post, an uncomfortable position. And there still is not enough consistency or stability within the club to allow Webseter the freedom he had with the Sonics.

"We all have been struggling to straighten things out," Webster said recently. "It's been a disappointing season because we all thought we'd win more. No one has stopped trying, but we can't seem to get over the hump.

"I know I haven't played as well as I wanted. Maybe I'm pressing too much at times. Some nights I think things are going to work out, other nights you just don't know."

Webster thrives in an unselfish atmosphere, where the emphasis in on teamwork and not statistics. Seattle was just such a place. Wilkins shuffled players in and out of the lineup, countering uneven matchups and not worrying about playing time or scoring averages. The defense was structured to funnel opponents to Webster, who could swat away shots and get quick position for rebounds.

He did not need to be a dominating, game-controlling player with the Sonics. There were enough good athletes around him that defenses had to play him honestly and couldn't sag in. It was a comfortable situation, which almost resulted in an NBA title for the club.

Knick fans, however, have discovered that, stripped of some of the Seattl eluxuries, Webster is not the second coming of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He will hustle and his intensity is never a problem, but his natural gifts are not on the level of those of the Laker center.

"Good, but not great," is the label Webster carries around the league.Many feel the move to New York might have set back his development instead of helping it and, unless the Knick personnel changes, he may never become as proficient as he could be.

"Marvin isn't a forceful person, he's too nice," said one NBA coach. "You are asking him to cope with a lot of strong people in New York and a lot of critical fans. It's not comfortable.

"You can't blame him for taking the money. It was a smart business move on his part. You just question his thinking. He could have stayed in Seattle, gotten paid just about as well and not got involved in the present situation. He already knew his role and where he fit in. He is still searching in New York.

"As long as the Knicks struggle, he's going to remain a 14-point, 12-rebound player. If they get better defensive people and players who are unselfish, he'll improve. But you have to know what he can do best and make sure you utilize those talents."

Lately, Webster has been struggling with a leg injury and rumors that Seattle would just as soon reverse last summer's deal and take back Webster and let the Knicks reclaim Lonnie Shelton. There also is the growing presence of backup center Joe C. Meriweather, acquired from New Orleans in a trade for Spencer Haywood.

It is during these times that Webster must think back to his two seasons at Denver, when he was hampered by illness and an offense that did not best fit a low-post pivotman. "Never will make it," said the Nuggets, who traded him off to the Sonics.

Webster proved the Nuggets wrong in a year. He's convinced he'll do the same in New York, if they'll just give him and the Knicks enough time to eliminate the kinks.

The Bullets and Knicks have split two games this season... Washington only has one more home date this month -- against Atlanta Tuesday -- before an ice show takes over Capital Centre. The first home game in February is scheduled for the 20th.