The Bullets are showing some trends that will adversely affect their long-range plans for another NBA championship.

For instance, in Capital Centre the other night, Elvin Hayes twice refused to shoot difficult 10-foot jump shots. Instead, he passed to an unguarded Mitch Kupchak for dunks.

Shame on him.

Earlier, Greg Ballard blocked a shot by Kansas City's Reggie King.


Wes Matthews once made up a three-yard deficit -- from mid-court -- and slapped the ball from Hawkeye Whitney on a breakaway and Carlos Terry saved two balls from going out of bounds with acrobatic hustle.

If they were not freshly molded Bullets, that would be inexcusable. What follows is.

On consecutive trips down court, Wes Unseld blocked a Kansas City shot, caused a turnover with the sort of wrist reflexes nobody his size and age should possess and took a charge. Then Kevin Grevey refused to stay on the bench with miseries that might send some players to the hospital and scored nine pivotal points.

The Bullets won.


Readers familiar with the brilliantly twisted logic sometimes used here may already have begun to smile knowingly. For the dunces, be reminded that the Bullets are elderly and have showed that -- as long as Bobby Dandridge continues to be a professional outpatient -- they do not belong among the top half-dozen teams in the league.

If the Bullets' destiny, in their present form, is not to be competitive for the NBA title, it follows that they ought to be competitive for the glittering first-round draft choices that can vault them back among the elite.

Drafting in the first round is not enough to assure overwhelming success. Drafting one of the top three or four players in the first round often is, assuming the general manager knows the difference between a thoroughbred and LaRue Martin.

There is a tasteful analogy between basketball players and racehorses, in the sense that generations for both can be measured in one-year terms. As Secretariat and Spectacular Bid dominated their contemporaries, so did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russel, Walt Frazier, Bill Walton, Rick Barry, Magic Johnson and a few others in a sport that rewards teams with one extraordinarily gifted player.

That list must include Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. They were the standouts of their collegiate generation, the first two players chosen in the 1968 draft and together on the Bullets the last eight years. Hardly anyone wins an NBA title without that sort of core, without someone drafted among the first few players of a given year.

Unless it gets exceedingly lucky, a team can draft in the first round, from players 10 through 23, every year and be almost guaranteed never to slip past the first plateau or so of the playoffs. Kupchak and Grevey make any team for whom they play special; they are not the cornerstones of champions.

At the moment, the Bullets are in a fitfully frustrating position. Going into last night's games, there were 11 teams with records better than the Bullets, nine teams with records worse than the Bullets and two other teams at 11-15.

If that trend continues, the Bullets might not be good enough to make the playoffs -- and also not be bad enough to get a dominant player in the draft. That is mediocrity carried to its most absurd level, a team going nowhere and with nowhere to go.

Before the season, the cold-hearted part of me was enthusiastically rooting for the Bullets to be memorably awful, worse even than the Dallas Mottas. Perhaps for a year or so. Dare to be bad, create the chance to be excellent once again more quickly, a chance once again to draft an Earl Monroe and an Unseld back to back.

They are not cooperating, or at least not at home. That 2-11 record beyond Landover offers hope. But these players do not show signs of folding, of losing consistently to teams of equal ability or worse. Unlike last year, there seems to be a glimmer of pride affot -- and infinitely more speed and imagination.

Unseld simply refuses to let the Bullets go totally blank. He refuses to listen to knees that told him to get into a healthier line of work several years ago. There are no guttier players anywhere than Grevey and Kupchak, who almost never leave the gym without some part of their body bandaged or wired together. Matthews works at defense, Ballard works every moment of every game and Hayes probably will meet his nightly point and rebound quotas until he qualifies for social security.

It is a well-kept secret but these Bullets are not exactly an eyesore, more entertaining certainly than last year although hardly any better.

The owner, Abe Pollin, presumably knows how to recreate a team with a chance at a championship. He has done it before, with his checkbook (for Hayes and Dandridge) and the draft. Last year, a lot of us told him to come to terms with reality, to recognize that his team was moving swiftly downhill and to do something about it.

Go with younger players, the argument went. Trade everybody who could bring an important draft choice in return. Send a Hayes-Kevin Porter care package to Dallas for its first-round draft choice in 1981, because Elvin said he wanted to end his career with a Texas team.

Why didn't Pollin, a master builder, do that? Very likely because his heart would not allow it. If he could have looked around the league and seen better players, he might not have seen better people.

George Steinbrenner might have been able to order Unseld to retire, or been able to part with Grevey, Kupchak and Ballard. Pollin could not -- or at least he did not. And how can anyone who values spirit, who cherishes men struggling to play beyond their natural level, argue too vigorously? This is a team you know cannot win much more often than it loses -- but one you hope finds a way.