A year ago, Boston General Manager Red Auerbach knew he had no chance of convincing the other 21 National Basketball Association teams that the present balanced scheduling format should be changed.

But trends in the league over the past 12 months have so disturbed most of those clubs that Auerbach didn't even have to use his best sales pitch at the recent All-Star Game annual meetings. The motion to switch to an unbalanced schedule, which will reemphasize longtime rivalries, passed on a 20-2 vote.

"The margin of the vote stunned all of us," said NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien. A year ago, it was almost unanimous to stay with a balanced schedule.

"Things have changed. There is a realization that we can improve our product and this is a good first step."

With both attendance and television ratings declining, the NBA is searching for ways to improve its position among major professional sports leagues in this country. As a result, the decision to revise the schedule could be just the beginning of many new looks in the league the next few years.

O'Brien, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and postmaster general, will be leading the march toward change.

In his four years as commissioner, he has expanded and solidified his power to a point where few in the league now are willing to tackle him. During his reign, the NBA has merged with the American Basketball Association, the players' legal battles with the league have been resolved, most franchises have been solidified and fighting during games has been virtually eliminated.

"My desk is just about clear of all the problems that were on it and have been plaguing us since I first came here," O'Brien said.

Now he can concentrate on leading the NBA out of its present slump, which he is convinced has not reached major proportions, a view some critics would debate.

In many ways, this could be O'Brien's most difficult challenge. The league is treading water both at the gate and on the court. There are no superpowers, the old dynasties have crumbled, the style of play is often dull and the enthusiasm of players varies from night to night.

"I'm naturally a pessimist," O'Brien said, "but I am sure that our attendance will equal or exceed last year's by the time the season is over.

"I am also sure that our TV ratings will get better. But I recognize that we can improve and that we have to study what is happening with us and how we can get things better."

He is starting with a multipurpose program to make his New York-based headquarters more efficient.

The NBA long has lagged behind the National Football League in terms of image, marketing and influence.O'Brien wants to change that, soon.

An outside public relations firm will be hired to coordinate publicity and the league probably will get involved in the syndication of films and peddling souvenirs. O'Brien even would like to see the NBA's future national television slogans used on local telecasts by the 22 teams.

But O'Brien also acknowledged that changing the league's image won't be enough. He is listening to players, coaches and executives, many of whom have advocated improving the game.

One of the most-mentioned suggestions is improving the TV game of the week with better scheduling.

"The regional game idea isn't working," said Bullet General Manager Bob Ferry. "I think one good national game is better."

The game should be carefully picked and its teams should be given at least one day's rest prior to tipoff. Too often, teams play Saturday night, then at least one has to fly to the Sunday game.

A return to hand checking and forcefully outlawing the zone also are high on some lists.

"Otherwise, we are going to lose our identity," said former Celtic Coach Tom Heinsohn. "We will be just like the colleges."

Larry Fleisher, general counsel for the players association, agrees.

"Our players are too good," he said.

"Without hand checking this season, we feel there is too much one-on-one play. Fans just don't want to see so much scoring. By bringing back defense, the games will get closer.

"The association was in favor of eliminating hand checking this year but it's just not working."

O'Brien says he has not noticed "any trend to repeal hand-checking restrictions. I thought everyone was pretty well satisfied with it. I think it has given us a cleaner game and that's important."

Bullet Coach Dick Motta is just as adamant about the zone.

"With the 24-second clock, the zone is killing us," he said. "You don't see many drives down the middle any more and it's halting great passers. There is no more contact, period.

"I don't advocate fighting, far from it. But I believe there is a violent element in our society that has to be satisfied. This doesn't mean mayhem, but there has to be a certain degree of aggressiveness and contact to make our game appealing. We had a better game two or three years ago."

Some want the three-point basket added to give the game a new personality.

"The players would like to see it," said Fleisher, whose organization is becoming more actively involved in the league's future. "Why not? It would help the little guy and it would keep things exciting at the end of games. People might not go home as early."

Others would like to see more drastic changes in the rules. Attorney-agent Scott Lang finds most games so dull that he thinks the four-quarter structure should be junked.

"Maybe go to something like five segments and make each one important toward determining the ultimate winner," Lang said. "It's extreme, but look at the present product. Fans just aren't excited by it any more."

Others want the schedule cut from 82 games to about 60 and the play-offs made more exclusive, as in baseball. Critics carp that games in October and November have been made unimportant.

"I think the revised schedule is a good step," said Kansas City President Joe Axelson."People said we did it to save money but I can honestly answer that that was not really a consideration.

"We have to create division races. By playing each other six times within a conference (instead of the present four), there might be some real tension down the stretch. As it stands now, two contenders might not play each other after January."

The minor professional leagues might be developed as legitimate farm systems.

"The person has one chance in the NBA now," said Axelson. "Either he makes it or he is cut. The ones who are almost good enough could go down to the minors and develop and make this league."

The minors also could be used to cultivate better officiating, a problem that remains one of the league's major headaches, especially as the players get better.

"We've got the greatest athletes in the world in our league," Ferry said. "Why shouldn't they be received accordingly?"

Whatever changes the league makes will be influenced by the up-coming negotiations over a new players association contract. There also is continual concern about inflation and the high-priced tickets in most arenas. And no one is sure how more liberal compensation rules will affect the structure of the league in the early 1980s.

Some coaches and executives also are not sure the NBA office has the knowhow to pinpoint and then solve the league's problems.

"The best thing they could do," said one executive, "is hire some basketball people and let them worry about what goes on inside the court boundaries. Then have promotions people worry about promotions and marketing people about marketing and don't mix them up.

"We aren't like baseball or football. We have the stiffest competition of any pro league. We have to do things right or people will go to something else."

Says Ferry, "Every game has to be an event if we are to draw crowds. I have two sons. Watching them play basketball during the week takes up so much time, I might not be inclined to go to a pro game if it wasn't for my position with the Bullets. We've got to make things special."

O'Brien eventually would like to make the NBA an international league once it has fully expanded in this country. But he realizes that dream is years away from reality.

"Right now, I'm concerned about the immediate future," he said. "We have a fantastic product and we know we have fans who want to see that product. It's up to us. If we blow it, we can't blame anyone but ourselves."