As the New Jersey Nets and Washington Bullets warmed up for a recent game at Capital Centre, a Nets executive watched the players and smiled.

"I don't know who's worse, them or us," he laughed. "They have old suckers who can't play anymore and we have young ones who have never known how. They may be a little better off, though. At least their guys have marquee value."

Look again, because the way the Bullets are playing, they are distancing themselves from struggling teams like the Nets. A 6-2 record under new coach Wes Unseld, with victories over good teams like Milwaukee and Philadelphia, is indicative of the strides made by the team since a disappointing early season.

If one subscribes to the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately theory, then things don't look too bad for the Bullets. Despite some small crowds the past two weeks, the average attendance at Capital Centre is still 10,205. The team has also shown a decided upswing under Unseld, the players exhibiting increased concentration beginning at the start of games, which has led to more accurate shooting and better rebounding.

Another encouraging aspect of the team's play has been its ability to crush poorer squads like New Jersey and the Los Angeles Clippers. On Friday, the Bullets handily beat the Golden State Warriors, 115-91. Since Unseld became coach, Washington has gone 5-0 at home. Four of those games have been against the Nets, Clippers, Sacramento Kings and Warriors. The combined record of those squads was 35-100 entering play yesterday; Washington defeated them by an average margin of 19 points.

But is it too late to overcome the team's early season problems, the pair of five-game losing streaks and another four-game skid? Seven of Washington's 13 wins have come against the league's weakest teams.

All indications are that Washington will continue to grow under Unseld, but even the coach admits to uncertainty at times. After the Bullets' impressive come-from-behind, 110-98, triumph over the 76ers on Wednesday, for example, Unseld was asked if his team was back in the playoff chase.

"I don't think we're in that position yet, talking about catching people or the playoffs," he said. "We're still trying to get our team to be competitive and play hard every night."

The Bullets' showing of late has impressed some NBA observers, although others attribute it to the honeymoon period generally enjoyed by a new coach.

Some observers believe it may be hard for Washington to sustain its current pace because of the team's schedule, which finds it on the road for virtually all of February, and because the Bullets are too mismatched to succeed, that the franchise never formulated a solid plan of attack entering the 1987-88 season.

"Some players' skills are suited for a running game but not a half-court game while other players' skills are suited for a half-court game but not a running game," said one NBA general manager.

That thought is shared by one team member, who adds that the Bullets' approach -- especially before Unseld's hiring -- may be out of date.

"You can't pound it, pound it, pound it inside anymore. The game has changed," he said. "Most teams are playing from the outside in now. People like Clyde Drexler and Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins all attack and make the other teams adjust to them."

Other NBA watchers acknowledge the point about the evolution of the game, but argue that in those cases in particular -- in Portland, Chicago and Atlanta -- it's necessary to play that way because of the lack of a dominating center. Said Bucky Buckwalter, the Trail Blazers' vice president for basketball operations, "They've got the big, power center everybody wants in Moses Malone, and whatever anybody says, he's still doing it."

Fans around Capital Centre are quick to criticize General Manager Bob Ferry for the Bullets' problems, citing mistakes in drafting players like Kenny Green instead of Karl Malone, or Anthony Jones as opposed to Mark Price or David Wingate. He also comes under fire for his apparent penchant for trading for players closer to the end of their careers than their prime.

But the Bullets have made the playoffs in 12 of the 14 seasons the team has been in Washington. And a mandate from owner Abe Pollin to get the team in the playoffs consistently makes Ferry's job a tough one, according to Ferry's New York Knicks counterpart, Al Bianchi.

"What we're doing here is obvious," said Bianchi, whose team hasn't made the playoffs the last three seasons. "We're going with young players and we're building through the draft. We're not looking for a quick fix, and because of our situation in New York, we are able to do that.

"I don't know if you would be able to do that in Washington. If you tell people who already don't care and won't come out {to games} that it's going to take three, four, five years -- I don't know whether they could live through that. So I can't quarrel with Bob Ferry. He's doing it piecemeal, trying to get by."

If the Bullets don't make the playoffs this year, the season's biggest story becomes the draft. Washington would then lose twice because the 76ers will own what would be a lottery pick as a result of the 1984 trade for seldom-used guard Tom Sewell. Such bad luck is just one example of what Ferry means when he talks about the "inexact science" of putting together a basketball team.

"No one wants to make changes just to make changes," Ferry said. "That's been the hardest part of these last three seasons -- being forced to make changes because of all the injuries we've had.

"You don't always know if you made the right choices -- drafting isn't a science. We think Tyrone Bogues is going to be a very good player. We had people who were in love with Mark Jackson {the Knicks' rookie guard who's fourth in the NBA in assists}, too, but one of the most important people {former coach Kevin Loughery} wasn't.

"Luck is a major part of this business, too. Sometimes it takes years of losing and getting high picks and sometimes some of those picks make it and some don't. Look at Detroit {which has only come on in the last four years}, it took them a long time to get as good as they are. Cleveland has taken years and we still don't know if they're good enough. They've had people like Mel Turpin and Keith Lee who haven't worked out for them."