For the better part of two weeks in early April, the Washington Bullets hoped Moses Malone would be sidelined for their first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers.

The 76ers still defeated the Bullets in five games, despite the absence of Malone, who missed the entire postseason because of a broken orbital bone beneath his right eye.

Malone's absence gave rise, however, to an even wilder wish, one that culminated late Monday in the trade that brought the three-time NBA most valuable player, 6-foot-9 forward Terry Catledge and two first-round draft picks to Washington in exchange for Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson.

"It occurred to me when we were playing them," Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry said yesterday. "I just got a feeling that Moses might be available."

Ferry's hunch grew as the undermanned 76ers -- still playing without Malone -- advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals and lost to the Milwaukee Bucks by a single point in the seventh and deciding game. In the process, it became apparent that the heart of the 76ers wasn't Moses Malone or even Julius Erving, but Charles Barkley, who averaged more than 20 points and 15 rebounds in the postseason.

"After Philadelphia was eliminated, I called Pat Williams," said Ferry. The 76ers' general manager was involved in some thinking himself; on the very day his team was eliminated by the Bucks, Williams was in New York for the league lottery, where the 76ers won the right to select first in the June draft.

Although there was no one along the lines of Patrick Ewing or Akeem Olajuwon available, the 76ers would be able to choose from three talented big men: North Carolina's Brad Daugherty, North Carolina State's Chris Washburn or Memphis State's William Bedford.

Williams picked up the telephone. "I usually take our roster at the end of each season and try to get a reaction from around the league as to the value of our players," he said. "I like to find out who likes whom. Moses didn't start a blaze of great, great interest initially, probably because of the salary cap."

But Ferry saw Malone's annual salary of more than $2 million as working in his team's favor. "I thought I could read the league, and I didn't think there were too many teams Pat could deal with," said Ferry. "And I thought that of all the deals that were being discussed, ours was the best offer he'd get."

For close to a month, the two men volleyed back and forth. "I talked to him Ferry more than I did with my wife," said Williams. Ferry, who works the phones to the point of exhaustion, according to some NBA player personnel executives, was now in his element.

"During the season, it's really tough to make trades. What you do now you'll probably have to live with all year," he said. "For coaches, the fun part comes when the season starts, but for me this time of year -- making deals, finding out interest in your players, communicating with other teams -- is just very exciting."

Ferry had potential deals on the table with four other NBA teams. "The 12th pick started to become attractive to teams when they quit kidding themselves and realized that there were some attractive players who would be available then," he said. "The thing was, though, even the most minor deal would have brought the team over the $4.2 million cap, and the trade for Moses would have dried up. . . . The other teams had to wait or else they could look somewhere else."

Ferry's attempts to move up from the 12th spot in order to select Maryland forward Len Bias fell through. "We tried furiously to move up. It was terribly frustrating," he said. His spirit was rekindled late last week when the talks with Philadelphia had progressed somewhat. "But until it happens, you just never know," he said.

Williams was even more unsure. "Up until the last minute, it just didn't seem like it would come together," he said. "There were too many problems -- the cap, players. . . . It just didn't seem like we would be able to satisfy each other."

There were indeed numerous hurdles to be cleared. Ferry said the subject of draft choices was one issue; another was which players would be included in the deal. One report had Malone coming to Washington for Ruland, Robinson and Dan Roundfield.

"Our coaches could have flown first class, but we wouldn't have been able to field a team," joked Ferry. Ruland was an essential part of the deal from Philadelphia's perspective, but in order to fit Malone and his annual salary of $2.2 million in under the Bullets' $4.2 million salary cap, the deal had to include more.

"We had to clear another high-salaried ballplayer," said Ferry. "It came down to two players who could do that, Robinson or Roundfield." Williams said that Roundfield, who made approximately $759,250 last season, wasn't acceptable. The Bullets didn't want to part with Robinson, who had a base salary of $500,000 a year ago.

On Friday, Bullets owner Abe Pollin entered the picture. "We wanted to do something to get the fans excited, get the team excited, to get me excited," he said. "The draft was coming up, and I didn't want to lose the opportunity. The decision eventually would be mine and 76ers owner Harold Katz's anyway. I was at the farm his residence in Middleburg, Va. , he was in Atlantic City, and we went at it the whole weekend."

In the initial course of discussion, Pollin said the two men were having as much luck as their general managers.

"A couple of times he asked for more than I wanted to give and I just said forget it," said Pollin. "He did the same thing, too. I guess we both lied to each other a little bit, but we got back on the track."

Late Monday night, Washington finally consented to the addition of Robinson, Philadelphia included power forward Catledge, and the issue of draft picks was settled to the satisfaction of both squads, with the Bullets getting a first-round pick this year and in 1988.

The addition of Malone and the departure of Ruland and Robinson puts the Bullets' payroll at about $4 million. This means if the top draft picks -- forward John Williams, guard Anthony Jones and point guard Steve Mitchell -- make the team, enough players and substantial salaries will have to go to make room on the roster and still fit under the salary cap.

However, guards Gus Williams and Frank Johnson would not count against the salary cap because they fall in the category of "veteran free agents."

Less than 24 hours after the deal was announced, Pollin and Ferry were basking in the glow of what appears to be, at worst, a very popular day's work.

"I was driving out to the office from downtown," said Pollin. "Right in the middle of the road there was a truck blowing its horn. The driver rolled down the window to tell me what a great deal he thought it was."

Added Ferry: "Now there's a bit of a letdown, when you know you have to go through the drudgery of negotiating contracts and things like that, but I'm still very excited. After all the talking we did to make the trade , the only phones ringing today are from people wanting season tickets -- and it's like listening to the Washington Symphony."