Whatever the Bullets do, they ought to keep Dick Motta as coach. Those who would fire him are misplacing the blame.The failures of this team are not his. History shows that NBA champions decline swiftly, and these Bullets have tumbled head over teakettle down the mountain they climbed two seasons ago. Firing a good coach would make the climb up only that much longer.

"Got 'The Chicken' here tonight," someone said to Motta an hour before the Bullets' game with Atlanta last night.

Motta is mischievous. With the Hawks already assured a division championship, this would be a night off for Hubie Brown's team. The Bullets have been a blight upon the hardwood too often. The crazy poultry from San Diego would be a pleasant diversion.

"Good," said Motta the imp, "I hope he's good."

The Chicken was wonderful, especially in his Elvis getup when he serenaded Tiny BB, the gentle dachshund mascot, with "You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog."

The Hawks were miserable, Brown took an early leave, ejected by the officials after they socked him with two technical fouls in the second quarter. While the cat's away, the mice will play. In the third quarter, the Hawks missed 13 straight shots.

And so, a drum roll please, the Bullets are still alive.

Still alive in the chase for the very last playoff spot.

Still alive!

Big deal.

It means nothing. Even if last night's 100-80 victory is followed by another at New Jersey Sunday, all it means is that the Bullets have qualified for the playoffs for the 12th straight year. Nice. But no cigar. These guys are going nowhere in the playoffs.

As all NBA champions have done since Bill Russell quit the Celtics, the Bullets have fallen from that special grace that makes a team a true team.

Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld are as good as ever. Both men are 34 years old. They ought to be getting creaky. Incredibly, they may be even better players than they were two years ago. Their statistics suggest that. Kevin Grevey at guard is the same 15-point-a-game scorer he was in the championship season. And Greg Ballard, at one forward, is as good as you could hope for.

But that's it.

The Bullets won their NBA championship with eight or nine men contributing mightily. He came to town in a helicopter, Charlie Johnson did, but he left on wings of praise for having delivered the important pressure shots that breathed a champion's breath into the Bullets. Where have you gone, C. J.?

Mitch Kupchak hurled his body and soul at the enemy. Bobby Dandridge was a miracle when it meant the most, and whatever Tim Henderson did at the playmaking-guard spot -- oh, how we griped about Henderson's invisible offense -- whatever he did is was more than this year's playmaker, Kevin Porter, could do.

Kupchak, sadly, was in street clothes on the bench last night, reduced to a spectator by a back that surgery didn't fix. Pain in his calf was only the last of Dandridge's aches this season, the final injury that sent him to the sidelines, too.

"When we write the history of this league," Motta said, "Our championship front line of Hayes, Unseld, Dandridge, Kupchak and Ballard will go down as the greatest front line ever.

"You don't take 36 points off the strongest front line ever -- that's Dandridge and Kupchak -- without it hurting you."

This is Motta's fourth season in Washington after eight in Chicago.The only front line he compares to the Bullets' great one is a Philadelphia trio of Luke Jackson, Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham.

"At Chicago, I had Chet Walker and Bob Love," Motta said. "If I'd had Mitch and Ballard on the bench there, we would have won four or five NBA championships."

Kupchak sits and waits. Ballard starts in Dandridge's spot. Charlie Johnson is gone and replaced by a discontented and overweight John Williamson. Porter runs the offense so poorly that it is infected with terminal dribbleitis.

So the Bullets have become a mediocre team.

Motta knows it. But he does not rail against the night. Events and circumstances conspired against these Bullets. The hiring of Porter was a mistake, because the little guy has destroyed the flow of the offense and he cannot play Henderson's defense. And the injuries to Kupchak and Dandridge ruined the team beyond a coach's help.

Motta takes the long view.

"In my time here, we have lost Phil Chenier (to a back injury), Kupchak and Dandridge," Motta said. "Those are three all-stars, and we have been drafting 15th, 16th, 14th.

"It's not a disgrace what has happened. I know Bob Ferry (the general manager) would like for me to be coaching Marques Johnson, Bill Cartwright and Michael Ray Richardson. But the Bullets have been too good for too long."

The worse a team does, the sooner it gets to choose from the available college talent. Because one player can change a basketball team from mediocre to very good, a team that drafts late consistently is working against the percentages.

"I'm not the least bit ashamed," Motta said of a season in which the Bullets need a victory in their last game to rise above the 38-44 record of 1971-72 that is their worst in the last dozen years.

"It hasn't been an ugly season," the coach said. "It's almost like you go to the candy store and they don't have your favorite candy. You're disappointed more than bitter. It's just, 'Oh, shoot.'"

If he had the season to do over again, Motta said, "I wish we hadn't waited so long with Bobby. I wish we'd put him on injured reserve a long time ago (instead of March 22, after Dandridge missed 30 of 75 games) and brought in a pro to take his place. That was probably the most unsettling thing of the season, not knowing from one day to the next if Bobby could play."

The coach has read that team owner Abe Pollin expects him back next season. "I have one year to go on my contract," Motta said, "And I have always tried to do everything ethically."

Of reports that all three Texas teams in the NBA may be interested in him, Motta said, "Nobody has contacted me."

Good.