The National Basketball Association, in the throes of a slump in national popularity, hopes to make a strong comeback next season with the addition of rookies Earvin (Magic) Johnson and Larry Bird and the return of Bill Walton.

NBA general managers and coaches meeting this week at the Mayflower Hotel touched on that and other subjects yesterday, including proposed rule changes they hope will make their game more attractive.

"There will be an upsurge next year because Bird, Magic and Walton are the faces that will draw people," said Auerbach, Boston Celtic president and general manager.

"Phil Ford and Mychal Thompson were good rookies this year, but they couldn't sell tickets for you. Magic, Bird and Walton will."

Eddie Donovan, New York Knicks general manager, said he feels television ratings were poor and attendance dropped last season because teams in the big television markets - New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston - were unsuccessful.

"When those teams are down, the ratings are down," Donovan said.

"There is nothing wrong with the interest in pro basketball," said Port- land Coach Jack Ramsay, president of the NBA Coaches Association. "All we need are winning teams in the big media centers."

Simon Gourdine, the league's deputy commissioner, also feels the game is a sound one, "but we are in a period where the league has to come up with some new images.

"The players are better than they ever were and that may appear to make the game look too easy," Gourdine said, "but I don't think there is any question that these are the absolute best basketball players in the world.

"Yes, attendance was down, but only by an average of seven people per contest, and that just isn't very many."

A number of rule changes are being considered by the coaches. They include adoption of a three-point field goal and legalization of zone defenses.

The coaches and general managers will submit their recommendations on the changes to the competition committee, which will report to the board of governors at its meeting next week at Amelia Island Plantation, Fla.

Legalization of zone defenses appears to have little chance of passing, but the three-point goal could be adopted. The league experimented with the three-point goal in the exhibition season.

"I'm opposed to the zone because I think it would be very detrimental to the game," Ramsay said. "The players are too big and too skilled. It would reduce our game to a game of perimeter shooting. I don't think very many people want to see that."

Ramsay said there wasn't much support for the zone defense in the meeting, "but there was a lot of feeling for the three-point goal.

"I don't like it, but I'll abide by our decision. It is the former ABA coaches who feel the strongest about it, and they think it will add a new dimension to our game.

"I just don't like the premise of getting awarded for distance. You should get the same results, whether it's a layup or a 60-footer."

Auerbach said he thinks the game is fine way it is, "and we shouldn't change it."

As the proposal stands, three points would be awarded for any basket from beyond a circle 22 feet from the center of the backboard extending from the corners of the court to one foot outside the top of the free-throw circle.