The Washington Bullets, a team that has stumbled to the seventh-worst record (15-19) in the National Basketball Association, will begin the toughest part of their season tonight against the Portland Trail Blazers in Portland.

The Bullets received a boost yesterday when forward Bob Dandridge, who missed the last five games with foot, knee and back ailments, returned to practice. Dandridge will accompany the team on the trip, but won't start tonight. Greg Ballard, his replacement, will open at forward, Coach Dick Motta said.

Dandridge said he felt "all right" and he hardly looked like a man who had missed 12 days of practice.

"It was good to have him back." Motta said. "He looked good and we had a great practice. That doesn't mean we'll play good, though.We've had great practices in the past and then not played worth a darn in the game."

Ballard has averaged 19.4 points and 10.8 rebounds, while playing 37 minutes a game, as a starter for Dandridge the last five games.

"There's no real decision to start or not start Bobby" Motta said. He's missed five games and 12 practices. We can't just throw him in there. It's not a demotion for him or a promotion for Greg. It's an injury thing and Greg has made the best of his opportunity to start."

The game tonight is the first of a four-game, five-night western swing that also will take the Bullets to Seattle to face the defending NBA champion Super-Sonics Wednesday in the Kingdome; to Oakland to play the Golden State Warriors Friday and to Salt Lake City to face the Utah Jazz Saturday.

When they finally return to Capital Centre Jan. 9 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Earvin (Magic) Johnson and the rest of the mighty Los Angeles Lakers will be waiting for them.

The Bullets played 20 of their first 34 games at Capital Centre, but won only half of them.

Beginning with tonight's game, 18 of their next 25 games are on the road.

"I look forward to taking the show on the road. "It's time to get the main act out of town. I think we're about as ready as we'll ever be to get going. I just wish things would start falling our way. But we have to make it happen ourselves."

Motta is still optimistic, even though his team is still four games below 500 and not playing particularly well.

"I really like the way Jim Cleamons has been playing and if Bobby comes back okay, we'll be all right," Motta said. We just have to be more consistent from the bench."

In the last four games, three of them Bullet losses, the reserves have been outscored, 179-81.

Portland started the season with nine straight victories, but has had its share of troubles since then Coach Jack Ramsay now seldom starts the same lineup two games in a row.

With its physical front line of Maurice Lucas, Kermit Washington and Tom Owens, Portland is the only team in the NBA that is yeilding fewer than 100 points a game -- is also the only team not scoring 100 a game either.