During a coaching career that has spanned 16 seasons, Gene Shue's teams have run the gamut from first to last, they have been offense-oriented or have stressed defense, they have been built around a superstar such as Julius Erving, or a temperamental Elvin Hayes.

Shue has battled some of the biggest egos in the game, as well as enjoying an ideal relationship with Wes Unseld. He has been hired and fired. He's worked on the East Coast and on the West. He lost to Bill Walton and won with him.

On his 50th birthday recently, the coach of the Washington Bullets took time to look back, to try to put the pieces of more than 1,100 games together, to find some semblance of order to a life of hopscotching the continent, following the NBA's crazy-quilt schedule since graduating from the University of Maryland in 1954.

With 731 games as a player and 1,165 as a coach, Shue has been involved in more NBA games than anyone. Only Red Holzman's total of 1,805 is close to Shue's 1,896 going into tonight's game with Philadelphia at Capital Centre (WTOP-1500 at 8:05).

"I hope it's not the emotion of the moment," Shue said when asked which team he enjoyed coaching the most. "But I honestly can say, I'm having more fun coaching this bunch than any I've ever had."

Above all, whether it's his daily racquetball at Whitemarsh Racquet and Country Club in Bowie or playing liar's poker on plane trips, Gene Shue wants to win. Badly. Still, he is taking enormous satisfaction out of the Bullets' surprising success (15-18) this season, more so, perhaps, than leading a talent-laden Philadelphia team to the 1976-77 championship series.

"That team was supposed to win," he said of a lineup of Erving, George McGinnis, Caldwell Jones, Doug Collins and Henry Bibby. "You never forget getting to the finals and coming so close to winning (Portland won, 4-2, taking the sixth game at home, 109-107, when McGinnis missed two shots inside 12 feet in the last seconds), but, as a coach, the Bullets are more fun."

The blue-collar Bullets of today have not been bestowed with great talent. There are no all-stars, no gate attractions, no temperamental veterans, but they work as hard and enjoy each other's company as much as any team in the league.

"This is a great group because . . . I can make lineup changes without worry about offending anyone.

"I couldn't do that last year. Wes and Elvin expected to start the second half no matter what the situation was."

The main reason for the Bullets' recent success--11 victories in their last 18 games--is that they are playing excellent defense. They are third among 23 teams, yielding 101 points a game, compared to 100.6 for top-ranked Atlanta.

"Coach has stressed defense since Day 1," said Jeff Ruland, one of the biggest surprises on this surprise team. "He told us all through training camp that the only way we could compete this season was to play tough defense every night."

The Bullets opened the season by losing to Boston, 124-100, and Celtic Coach Bill Fitch said the difference was the Boston bench. Now, with the development of Ruland, Frank Johnson and Don Collins, Shue can substitute the way he wants.

"I prefer to have a set lineup, but we're still in the experimental stage," Shue said. "But at least I have options."

Although he insists defense always has been his No. 1 priority, Shue admits he's changed his philosophy. After years of being labeled an offensive coach who often let his players run out of control, he now calls every play from the bench.

"Coaching is adapting to your material," he says. "Sure, when I had Dr. J, Lloyd Free and those guys, I let them run. That was their game, that was when they were most effective."

Erving played his first NBA season for Shue, and remembers the coach talking about defense, but in a different manner.

"We had a shot-blocking team with Harvey Catchings and Caldwell Jones and Gene used to tell us to funnel everything to the middle," Erving said. "He wanted to get the block or the turnover so we could run."

The contrast in the '77 championship series between the play-oriented offense of Portland Coach Jack Ramsay and the fast-breaking, free-wheeling attack of the 76ers prompted the joke that when Shue opened his playbook, the only thing inside was a picture of a playground.

"Give me a passer like Walton and I'll run plays, too," was Shue's defense, but the label stuck: Shue's team had no discipline.

In two years at San Diego, Shue's offense consisted mainly of Free, Brian Taylor and Freeman Williams tossing up three-point shots. The fact that the team improved from 27-55 its last year in Buffalo to 43-39 often was overlooked.

"Those shots were by design," Shue says now. "That was our strength and it also opened things up for Swen Nater underneath. Again, it was adapting to the material on hand."

So, again, Shue has adapted. He has taken a Bullets team that doesn't have a consistent 20-point-a-game scorer, a team that is young and willing to learn, a team, he says, without egos and attitudes, and blended it into a cohesive group that suddenly has become a playoff contender.

"One of the reasons I brought Gene in was because he was very successful in rebuilding the Bullets once and he did the same thing in Philadelphia," said General Manager Bob Ferry. "He'll do everything possible to uncover talent and he's not afraid to deal with it, to adapt to it."

No one else in the league was willing to take a chance on Lucas, no one else was willing to gamble on Spencer Haywood. Shue did and, so far, both have been positive acquisitions.

Shue knows talent, and he knows how to adjust his system to the players he has. That's what coaching is all about.