With tongue in cheek, Jeff Malone is playing a little game, the kind you play when you haven't a care in the world. Eating lunch in a suburban restaurant, the veteran Washington Bullets guard is asked the date of the preseason, Capital Centre game against the NBA-champion Los Angeles Lakers.

"I don't think we play them this preseason," he answered earnestly. "I think we play Utah and Houston maybe, but I don't know about the Lakers."

But the Washington Bullets definitely are playing the Lakers. And it isn't until you start to argue the point with Malone that you detect the faintest trace of a smile on his face.

Gotcha. He isn't talking about the Bullets. In this case, the "we" referred to the Denver Nuggets, with whom Malone came within a phone call of spending his fifth NBA season.

If nothing else, Jeff Malone is cool. Cool when he's hitting no-look, turnaround jump shots over a defender's outstretched hand; cool as he sits in sweltering heat and calmly discusses what may yet result in a major upheaval of his life.

"That's the nature of the business," said Malone of the proposed draft-day trade with Denver that would have sent him and forward Jay Vincent to the Nuggets for point guard Lafayette Lever and forward Dan Schayes.

"I never planned to be here 13 or 14 years -- I've never ever thought like that," he continued. "Some players get caught up in that -- I'm a realistic-thinking person. If Washington thinks it's a good deal for them, they'll make a move. I look at it the same way; if it's a good deal for me -- the right situation, the right team -- I've got to think positively."

Right now, all indications are that in 1987-88, things will remain status quo for Washington, perhaps an unappealing thought for those who remember last season's first-round playoffs against the Pistons, in which the Bullets were swept in three games by an average of nearly 20 points.

Malone was one of the main culprits. After making the Eastern Conference all-star team for the second straight season and averaging 22 points per game on 46 percent shooting during the regular season, the 26-year-old slumped in the playoffs, scoring just 15 points a game and missing 29 of 46 shots from the field.

Perhaps most glaring was the second half of the series' final game, a 95-94 loss at Capital Centre. After hitting four of seven shots in the first half, Malone was one for eight after intermission. With the game tied in the final seconds of the fourth quarter, Malone got hung up in no man's land, leaving a rusty Frank Johnson to take a hurried shot that missed and gave the Pistons the ball for the winning point.

"My confidence did go down {against Detroit}, everyone on our team felt bad with the way we had played," Malone said. "That last play, we could've been running something -- usually {center} Moses {Malone} and I ran the two-man game. Maybe the coach -- the way I was shooting the ball in the second half -- didn't want to put it in my hands or maybe I didn't want it in my hands."

If it was the latter (and some close to the team believe that it was) then it was something of an aberration; one thing that Malone doesn't lack is self-assurance, particularly out on the floor.

"I have confidence, I know what I can do," he said. "I have a great deal of confidence; you can call it cockiness if you want to, I just know what I can do on a basketball court. I can't go out against a {Michael} Jordan or {Rolando} Blackman and run away from them. I know what I can do against those guys -- I like playing against the {top} guards.

"Magic {Johnson} has a great deal of confidence; Larry {Bird}, Jordan . . . they know what they can do and they go out and do it. I think I've shown I can play with those guys."

Jordan of Chicago, Blackman of Dallas, Johnson of the Lakers and Bird of the Boston Celtics -- each is rightly considered amongst the upper strata of NBA talents. Malone makes a persuasive argument that he belongs there as well.

"I think that Jordan is in a class by himself in terms of what he can do," Malone conceded, "The other big guards . . . I have a lot of respect for Blackman, Walter Davis {of Phoenix}, Dennis Johnson {of Boston} -- but I think if you put the rest of us together, I'd be in the top four -- I really believe that."

One area where Malone comes up way short in comparision to the others is in salary. A bargain at $250,000 in '86-87, Malone was chagrined enough at his wages to stage a brief walkout during preseason last year. Now he's hoping that something in the way of an extension can be worked out before his contract expires at the conclusion of the upcoming season, "wherever I end up playing.

"You play against these guys with big salaries and you're competing with them -- outplaying them some nights," Malone said. "I've had some pretty good nights against a Blackman, a Jordan, a Walter Davis -- guys like that. I think I'm pretty good at not letting it bother me but sometimes you say 'Damn' -- it's obvious you can play with them, obvious you can outplay them on any given night . . . it would bother anybody.

"I've been very happy with the Bullets the last four years," Malone said. "But there's a lot of guys in the NBA I'd like to play with; I'd like to play with Magic, I'd like to play with Akeem {Olajuwon of Houston} -- they're great players and I admire them.

"I'm sure every player in the league in their own way -- whether it's verbally or not -- sits down and dreams about being on certain teams like the Lakers or Boston. When I was young, I always liked the Washington Bullets and Phil Chenier. I used to play in the backyard and have three-on-three tournaments; my team was always the Washington Bullets. So ending up here was like a dream-come-true situation. Right now I'm still with the Bullets, but I'm ready for whatever happens."