The Bullets are treating Phil Chenier as though he were the world's largest hot potato. They seem to be assuming the worst about his return from back surgery. As Truman Capote would say, the team and its former star now regard each other stangely, and as strangers.

It is easy to see the Bullets' reluctance to make room for even a player with Chenier's credentials. They searched for a decade for the elusive chemistry that yields championships -- and found it not too long after Chenier was forced out of the line-up a year and a month ago.

The Bullets won the NBA title last season without Chenier; now they are playing better. Why cut even the weakest fiber from the team?

An athletic team is machine-like in the sense that one tiny cog either out of sorts or broken can cause massive trouble, like the 68-cent part that forever sends exquisite Indy cars limping off the track.

Bullet officials can read. And when they notice the postseason fuss the Redskins made about the seemingly harmless trade of Frank Grant, some of them foresaw similar problems over Chenier.

Some Redskins blamed trading Grant just after they reached that 6-0 zenith as a primary reason for their quick downfall. Probably, other factors were more important -- injuries to the offensive line, the opposition decoding Joe Theismann and the game plan, better teams starting to exert themselves.

But Bullet management, looking from afar, cannot underemphasize that, knowing full well that mental attitude is more important in the NVA than any other professional team sport. Pro hoops is no joy, because so much of the season is relatively meaningless.

The act of adding Chenier to the roster would be no overwhelming burden, although rookies Roger Phegley and Dave Corzine are highly regarded. The uncertainty, some insiders feel, is what would happen Chenier began messing with someone else's minutes.

Minutes to an NBA player are like land to a real estate broker, or patronage to a politician. The translation is power and security -- and there are only a finite number of minutes to dole out on any NBA team.

With the Bullets, there are only 96 guard minutes to be shared by four players -- Kevin Grevey, Tom Henderson, Larry Wright and Charles Hohnson -- and, when the games are out of control, Phegley.

Whose minutes does Chenier take? And how many? And might whichever player whose minutes woiuld decrease cause a Grant-like effect with other Bullets? How many minutes does a former all-star such as Chenier deserve immediately?

Indirectly, Tom Landry of the Cowboys touched on the issue during Super Bowl week. He said Robert Newhouse would start at fullback, because his policy was that any player who performed well before an injury would assume his position when healed.

Chenier clearly has been absent too long -- and the team done too well -- for that to be relevant, although the largely overlooked fact remains that the Bullets were farther over.500 when Chenier left the lineup -- eight games -- than any other regular-season period last season.

"He can't expect anything great," said Bobby Dandridge. "He can expect to get playing time. How much is up to the coaching staff."

Coach Dick Motta believes certain players ought to play certain roles -- and certain minusdtes. And he very much believes in loyalty, in rewarding players who have performed well for him.

Until the playoffs last season, Henderson was on the thinnest of ice. Without that diving, on-the-floor stab of a pass to Mitch Kupchak in the final moments, the Bullets might well have lost game seven of the championship series to Seattle.

Charles Johnson's career numbers pale in comparison with Chenier's. He frequently takes bad shots and can barely look George Gervin in the chest. Yet he is one of life's winners; his effect on the Bullets is said to be inestimable.

Still, one fact leaps out: when he is healthy and inspired, the Bullets have no guard capable of Chenier's all-around brilliance. He can shoot with Kevin Grevey and handle the ball at least adequately.

He also can play excellent defense. (The Bullets were forced to use Greg Ballard on James Silas the other night.) Or he could before he signed that rich contract several years ago. Thke burden of proof here would be on Chenier, to hustle for loose balls and work on defense once again because the Bullets clearly have shown they can manage nicely without him.

If the Bullets are playing slowdown with Chenier, waiting until the last possible moment to make a decision about his status, it might well be a silent message that he did the team no favors by postponing surgery so long.

But they need him, very simply, because there is no assurance Grevey will not sign elsewhere when his contract expires this year -- and nobody either in college or easily available in the NBA is as good as a healthy Chenier.

So the Bullets have no business trading Chenier, as the currently fashionable rumor suggests. This is no marginal talent -- and the Bullets are not the Celtics reincarnate. It certainly seems possible the Bullets won the NBA title as much because of another injury -- to Bill Walton -- as their own merits. Once Chenier was the quintessential guard, selfless and gifted. Why not assume he can be that again?