In the NBA, the pre-Christmas players are the ones for whom every game, in fact their every minute and every shot, is critical. Which is why the seldom-seen Bullets are more appealing at the moment than the ones dribbling toward the Hall of Fame.

The all-star Bullets are rapidly wasting much of the goodwill they earned in the playoffs last season. Even as losers in five games to Seattle in the championship round, the Bullets grabbed Washington's heart. The town was ready to give a good basketball team more support than a bad hockey team.

Now? Well, if the Bullets seem not to care about the first few months of the season, why should we? Click 'em back on in February, when the real season -- the push for the playoffs -- begins.

Lately, they sometimes have been disapointing in the victory -- and absolutely disgusting rather frequently, a team with little chemistry and little inclination to find it.

This season the Bullets were supposed to be swifter then ever, easing into overdrive about this very week. But the fastest thing they have done in 22 games is age.

"I'm searching," Dick Motta keeps saying. He is searching for a familiarly elusive commodity, a breed of player everyone else in the NBA seems to have almost in excess but which has been absent in Washington for ever so long.

Privately, Motta must be muttering: can't anyone here play guard? Can't we find a passer and shooter, a runner, dribbler and defender on one body? Is there a clone man in Cap Centre, somebody who could meld the best of Kevin Porter, Roger Phegley, Larry Wright, Kevin Grevey and Gus Bailey?

But no Phil Chenier. Sadly, Chenier has not regained anything near the skills he had before his back operation or the zest he misplaced even earlier. Slightly more than a month into his 30th year, he is playing himself out of the NBA.

If these were the playoffs, the Bullets would have a guard who meets most of Motta's specifications. But Bobby Dandridge is a forward during games that mean little more than exercise for Dandridge-like players.

"We are a power team," Motta said, "and if the forwards aren't getting the ball low, on their spots, we're wasting a lot of expensive talent."

They certainly are. The Bullets have lost to several teams -- the most obvious being Denver here last week -- they should have beaten with a minimum of enthusiasm and teamwork. Still Motta's December moan is significantly different from the one in May. s

Then he wanted to run. He wanted power and speed. Tom Henderson usually sent the ball toward the proper forward, but was a liability shooting even layups and on defense against any guard more mobile than Ron Saul.

So the Bullets reacquired a former trigger, Porter, the lead guard on a team arguably better than the one that won the NBA title. In '74-'75, there was nothing faster in basketball than a speeding Bullet.

"Wes must have a thousand outlet passes stored up since Kevin left," Motta mused aloud after one Unseldian playoff performance.

Now the Bullets are slower than ever. Motta publicly has scolded Porter, who accepted it. And benched him quite often. But is the team bending enough to accommodate Porter rather than the reverse? He needs passes and runners -- and somebody to hit open jumpers regularly.

Grevey must be smiling to himself. His return from a hamstring injury is eagerly anticipated by some who considered him a large detriment last season. By not playing he plays better in the mind, not unlike a politician whose best strategy is to keep his opponent talking.

Part of what ails the Bullets is that they are old enough to think, to realize that the NBA season is 20 games too long and that more teams make the playoffs than do not.

Two years ago, their most glorious season ever, the Bullets were just one game over .500 after 57 games. They were 11-16 for January and February and, with the eighth best record durin the regular season, won the NBA title.

So E and D and P might be saying: let the youngsters go full steam now. they and the other teams that have something to prove. The celtics and the 76ers, Atlanta and Milwaukee. We'll turn it on when we have to. Always have.


The the intrigue now with the Bullets is to see if their future is on the same floor with their present. What of Greg Ballard and Mitch Kupchak, Wright and Phegley?

All of them became Bullets with stunning credentials; all of them have not succeeded as quickly as they hoped. Wright is in the most awkward and frustrating position, in his fourth season and having watched management twice trade for players at his position.

Ballard is restless to start. But although he has more season-long drive than either Hayes or Dandridge, he has yet to show he can approach the remarkable performances they offer when suitably inspired.

Phegley has near-perfect technique, Kupchak near-perfect attitude.

All four are impossible not to root for, because they are scrambling to make an impression, for minutes. At this point in the NBA season, they command attention, for all we can applaud is effort.