In 1969, San Diego's Elvin Hayes led the NBA in scoring, but Wes Unseld was named the league's most valuable player and top rookie after his Bullets compiled the best regular-season record.

In 1970 and 1974, Hayes was the NBA's No. 1 rebounder, but the most-valuable-player award went to Willis Reed (1970) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1974).

In 1978, Hayes, by now a Bullet, topped Washington in almost every major statistical category during a two-month march through the playoffs to the NBA championship. But Unseld, who made two free throws to clinch the title in the seventh game against Seattle, was selected the MVP of the final round.

When Hayes passed the coveted 20,000-point mark in his pro career earlier this season, he looked back at this series of near misses and disappointments and said he had one final individual goal remaining.

"I'd like to be the MVP," he said. "That is the one thing I haven't won and it means a lot to me. I think a few years ago I should have won it, although I wasn't picked. I'd like to get it before I retire."

In his 11th year in the NBA, Hayes might finally get his wish. This is the season he could win that coveted MVP award.

He has intense competition. Moses Malone, the young Houston phenom, is having the kind of dream season that dominates headlines and impresses those who vote for the official MVP award, the body of league players. And rookie Phil Ford has made such a dramatic impact on both Kansas City and the rest of the association with his stimulating playmaking and leadership that he could capture the fancy of the voters.

There is also scoring leader George Gervin, whose consistency and highcaliber point production have kept San Antonio in a challenging position for the league's best record, and Abdul-Jabbar, who is a longshot bet, especially if Los Angeles finishes strongly. Julius Erving is always a contender, just because he is Dr. J.

But Hayes probably is in the strongest position of his career to win the balloting, although he most likely would not be considered a favorite at this point.

There are two obstacles that could thwart his success.

The first is his lack of popularity among the players, a situation created mainly by his early, stormy years in the league. Although the selection is supposed to be on merit, human frailties sometimes make the voting less than objective.

The second is the Bullets' style. The club is so team-oriented and unselfish -- Hayes has adapted those habits so convincingly -- that his standout season has been overshadowed by the team's stunning consistency.

Washington also has won so many games so easily that Hayes' time has been reduced to an average of 35 minutes a contest, by far the lowest of his career. And fellow forward Bob Dandridge is playing so well that they probably should be selected as the team's co-MVPs.

That leaves Hayes as the Bullets' leading candidate for the award. Just the fact he is on the league's best team, which is running away with the race for the top record, makes him a viable contender. But he also is having the kind of individual season that merits recognition.

He is No. 1 on the Bullets in minutes played, field goals made and attempted, foul shots attempted, offensive and defensive rebounding, blocked shots, points and scoring average. He also is the type of dominating player who can turn around games with a timely block or breakaway dunk. The MVP award has been won the majority of time by just this type of athlete.

Any feeling he might have lost some of his skills has been disspelled by his performance over the last five games.

Without Mitch Kupchak available to play his customary 25 minutes a contest, Coach Dick Motta has asked Hayes to forget his normal bench time and stay in longer.

As a result, Hayes has played at least 40 minutes in four of those games, including 48 in two. His scoring average over that span: 30.8.

But Hayes' attitude has made a bigger impression on Motta. Although his superstar still occasionally lapses into the lackluster moods that once marred his career, Hayes is embracing the Bullets' share-the-ball concept with increasing fervor.

"He is doing things that people thought he would never try," said Motta, whose team hosts San Antonio tonight at 7:30 in Capital Centre. "Look at all the years he was doubleteamed and wouldn't pass off. Now he'll do it and the team usually benefits.

"When he gets into one of his shooting streaks, like he is now, it's got to demoralize the other team. I mean, he is tossing them in from everywhere. But I think he realized we needed some help. He was not playing that well at the start of the West Coast trip (Feb. 13) but he got himself together and he has taken off."

The Bullets expect a near-capacity crowd for tonight's jersey night... This could be a preview of the Eastern Conference finals. The Spurs have a slightly different style this season, with James Silas starting at guard in place of Mike Gale. They don't run as much and Gervin shares more of the shooting burden than he did last season.... Motta was encouraged by Kupchak's 15-minute effort Wednesday against Chicago. Although Kupchak was only three-for-11 shooting, he ran freely on his ailing Achilles' tendon... The Bullets embark on a three-game Midwest trip Wednesday, with stops at Indiana, Kansas City (Friday) and Denver (Sunday). All will be on television here.... Dandridge has a sore neck but is expected to play.