After losing preseason games to the Detroit Pistons and Utah Jazz -- two good teams hoping to break into the NBA's upper echelon -- the Washington Bullets tonight at Capital Centre will face the team against which all others must be measured -- the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

A 15-3 spree through last season's playoffs brought the Lakers their fourth championship this decade (they won in 1980, '82 and '85), and climaxed a 65-17 regular season. Between March 3 and the completion of their six-game victory over the Boston Celtics in the finals, the Lakers went 36-6.

All that that success has done for the Lakers lately, however, is raise questions about their chances of becoming the first NBA champions in 18 years to repeat. "It's a fun place to be in, the defending champs, but it's not a nice question to deal with," General Manager Jerry West said.

West said he's confident the Lakers "will be a good team at the end of the year," but that, even more importantly, the players believe it, too.

"I can't believe how committed the players have been {to defending their title}," he said. "Every camp you're either pleased or concerned about what you see but I think this has been the best we've ever had."

Of course, with MVP Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and defensive player of the year Michael Cooper, it's easy to believe in yourself. The Bullets are believers too; according to sources, they guaranteed the Lakers $75,000 to bring them here for the game, a relatively high price in the NBA. However, as of late yesterday afternoon, about 10,000 tickets had been sold, meaning plenty remain.

"Detroit and Utah are good teams, but the Lakers were the outstanding team in the league last season," Bullets Coach Kevin Loughery said. "I'm looking forward to the game."

After experimenting with combinations in their first two games, the Bullets will try to start putting together a nucleus. Of course, that probably won't be completed until they know whether they will be able to obtain free agent forward Bernard King from the New York Knicks, and until the status of unsigned veterans Frank Johnson, Charles Jones and Darwin Cook is settled.

"The first two games we've gotten to look at all our players," Loughery said, "those guys who we have to make decisions on regarding if they'll make our club or not. Starting {tonight} I think we'll see more playing time for our regulars and getting them ready for the season."

As for King, Knicks General Manager Al Bianchi said he has not yet talked to Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry about a possible deal.

King, 30, the NBA's leading scorer in the 1984-85 season, signed a reported two-year, $2 million offer sheet with the Bullets last Friday. The Knicks have until Oct. 31 to decide whether to exercise their right of first refusal and keep him.

The Knicks are said to covet Detroit forward Sidney Green, apparently leaving King out of their plans for the 1987-88 season. Sources said the Knicks would be willing to work out a trade with Washington for King, but Bianchi said talks haven't begun.

"I've been doing other things," Bianchi said. "Why should I call him? What's there to talk about? They offered a second round pick on the telephone to expedite matters, although I don't see any reason why that would get things moving."

The lack of conversation between Ferry and Bianchi would indicate that the Bullets are prepared to play hardball in their quest for King. Their offer to the player includes a no-trade clause and King and his agent, Bob Woolf, have said that Washington is the only place he'll play.

If the Knicks match the Bullets' offer and are prevented from dealing him elsewhere, they'll not only have a player who probably doesn't fit into their plans but, under the rules of the league's salary cap, will be unable to acquire a high-salaried player such as Green.

That would seem to put the Bullets in a controlling position in any potential negotiations. Ferry could not be reached for comment, but Loughery said in a conference call with the NBA media that "at this stage, we're willing to wait until the {15 days} expire."

During the same conference call, Loughery omitted free agent guard Darwin Cook when referring to the missing pieces of his team. He later said was just an oversight, but Cook's agent, Fred Slaughter, said yesterday that the Bullets have not been negotiating in good faith with him.

"Sometimes it seems like they'd rather tend to aliens than taking care of one of their own," Slaughter said from his office in Los Angeles. "With Ferry, you don't know if he's playing a game, if he's serious or if they have any interest at all. We're out here dangling in the cold."

Cook has previously said that the Bullets' management hadn't been happy about the way he played last season while he claims that he was misused by Loughery and the Bullets' coaching staff.

Slaughter said the Seattle SuperSonics were interested in Cook before getting guard Sam Vincent from Boston in a trade last week and that another offer sheet hasn't been forthcoming.

"Teams say they're interested, but it's hard to add someone when most teams are trying to cut down," he said. "I don't know if Washington is interested in Darwin enough to move towards settling on a contract. I don't know if the Bullets are ready to deal in good faith -- maybe they will, maybe they won't."