Frank Johnson, who became a starting guard for the Washington Bullets during his rookie season three years ago, had figured the team would make an offseason deal to improve itself. What he didn't figure on was the Bullets trading at his position, point guard.

It is likely that Johnson and Gus Williams, acquired from the Seattle SuperSonics on draft day, are the best guards on the team. But each is 6 feet 2 and their size makes it unlikely they can play many minutes together. As Johnson says, "That's a big negative."

Johnson, who has averaged almost 12 points and eight assists per game in his career, thinks a trade is inevitable if Coach Gene Shue -- who likes a set starting lineup -- decides that a Johnson-Williams back court is too much of a liability. "If we can't play together, well, then, a trade probably will be in the making," Johnson said. "That's what you'd think. You figure both of us won't be in there at the same time. If we don't play together at all, will I just sit here then?"

It is a role he would not relish.

"I want to play. I like to play," he said. "I want to contribute. I want to be in the position where I control my own destiny. In Coach Shue's system, the guys who start come out (only) when he feels they need a little break. Of course, last year was a slowdown team."

Injuries to Williams (sprained left ankle) and also-new forward Cliff Robinson (sore right shoulder and back spasms) has kept the team in limbo. Shue had wanted to have his starting lineup in place early this week so it could be refined in the final four exhibition games, starting tonight against the Atlanta Hawks in New York (6 p.m., HTS).

Neither Williams nor Robinson has practiced this week. Shue said he is likely to start Johnson with Dudley Bradley, a former No. 1 draft choice by Indiana who apparently has found a team that can use his vast defensive skills. It is the Bullets' third starting back court in as many games.

Shue said he probably will start Jeff Ruland, Rick Mahorn and Darren Daye in the front court. "What I would like to be doing now is getting on with a starting lineup and that stuff. But, with the injury problem, that's impossible."

Ruland, the all-star forward who last week predicted the Bullets will be better than defending NBA champion Boston by season's end, said, "It's a long year, and it's better that we have the injuries now."

There was no contact yesterday between Larry Fleisher, attorney for unsigned veteran free agent Greg Ballard, and General Manager Bob Ferry. Ballard, the team's starting small forward the past five seasons, rejected a contract offer last week. Fleisher said he would call Ferry today . . . Atlanta, a four-point winner over the Bullets in overtime Saturday, will play tonight without forwards Cliff Levingston (tendinitis in left knee) and Dominique Wilkins (bruised right heel) . . . The Knicks play the Chicago Bulls in the other game of tonight's doubleheader. New York announced that reserve center Marvin Webster will miss the season because of acute hepatitis. Starting center Bill Cartwright is out with a stress fracture in a foot, and veteran guard Ray Williams, Gus' brother, is an unsigned free agent.