Gene Shue stood at midcourt directing his makeshift Washington Bullets through some basic plays as the team readied for tonight's 8 o'clock game at Capital Centre against the Los Angeles Lakers. His starting front line consisted of a forward playing center, a small forward playing power forward and a player who wasn't in the league three weeks ago playing small forward.

"This just isn't happening the way I envisioned it when I took this job,' said Shue. "Something went wrong somewhere."

A problem with finding good big men not already in the league is that most of them are playing in Europe and their rights belong to some other NBA team. The Bullets would have to make a deal to get those rights.

"We're still looking for someone to take Rick's place, but it can't be just anybody," Shue said of trying to replace injured rookie Rick Mahorn.

"We've got to find someone who can play and help us, not just someone to fill the roster."

Indeed, something has gone wrong. The Bullets have been beset with injuries, poor shooting, bad rebounding and, most importantly, not enough good basketball players. And it's all coming to a head now.

The Laker game tonight will be the t eam's first home game in almost two weeks, and the Bullets probably will be without center Wes Unseld. His backup, Mahorn, definitely is out. That has necessitated the front line juggling that leaves Shue with Elvin Hayes at center and Greg Ballard and Anthony Roberts at forwards.

The Bullets have lost six of their last seven, two in a row at home and their 17-27 record makes them 18th best in a 23-team league.

That Hayes-Roberts-Ballard front line is weak in rebounding and poor defensively. "But it's the best we can do," Shue said.

"Aside from all our other problems, the injuries are killing us, especially the one to Wes."

Unseld has swelling in a tendon in his right knee that makes it very painful for him to run or jump. He has missed four of the last five games with the ailment.

"Wes is so important to our defense and our rebounding," Shue said. "I'm not counting on him playing against the Lakers because I don't want him back until he's ready. He's too valuable to risk."

Before Unseld was injured, the Bullets were second in the NBA in defense, giving up 103 points a game. On the road trip, they gave up 137 points to San Antonio, 136 to Kansas City and 132 to Cleveland.

Mahorn, a promising 6-foot-9 rookie from Hampton Institute, fractured a bone in his right hand in a game against San Antonio Saturday night and will be out at least three weeks.

"With Rick coming up with his injury, on top of Wes, we're left without a real center," Shue said, "and there's no way we can make up for that defensive deficiency. 'E' has to play center because he and Mitch (Kupchak) are the only two we have left who could possibly play the position. They do okay in practice and in some situations, but it's hard on them because they don't do things instinctively from that spot. That takes time to develop."

"I don't want to start Mitch because I want his scoring to come off the bench and if anyone on the front line gets into foul trouble, he's the only one I can put in there."

Kupchak was one of the few bright spots on the just-completed 1-4 road trip.

On the trip, Kupchak averaged 17.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and shot 62 percent from the field.

The Bullets are expected to put Mahorn on the injured list, already tenanted by Bob Dandridge and Carlos Terry.