To the end, Jeff Malone joked about it. Last week, when he found out the Washington Bullets had a new general manager, he wondered -- again -- if he should pack a bag. He always laughed about being traded, then turned very serious and said he understood it was part of the NBA.

It finally happened Monday. After several years of being on the trading block, Malone was finally dealt, as part of a three-way deal that ended with the 28-year-old guard winding up in Utah. The Bullets got Sacramento Kings center Pervis Ellison, the NBA's No. 1 draft pick in 1989.

"The loss of Jeff Malone is going to hurt," Bullets forward Bernard King said from his New Jersey home. "But overall the team is going to get stronger. John Williams's return is going to make us stronger."

"He feels a lot of love for the area," his father, Elvin Malone Sr., said last night from Macon, Ga. "But it's time to move on. He's not sticking his head in the sand. He's going to play as hard for them as he did for Washington. You can see getting some easy shots in that {Utah} offense."

Malone drew mixed reactions during his seven seasons with the Bullets. He never averaged fewer than 18 points per game after his rookie season, and always shot between 46 and 49 percent from the field. Few in the league could get hotter than Malone on a good night; almost no one was better at scoring off a screen.

But he never became a star even though he had all-star numbers. He was named an all-star twice, but once because Washington had to have a representative. Though he had the respect of his peers, his public image was that of a one-dimensional player.

The Bullets never have been able to break through as a high-priority attraction since moving to Washington. Malone always acknowledged that and never showed bitterness about it.

Before his last game with the Bullets he said: "We need to get a couple of guys, big people. Power forwards, centers. There's no secret about that. Without a draft choice, we have to trade someone. I expect to be here, {but} I just want to be ready, be in shape when I come back, wherever I am."

He played with a host of point guards -- Gus Williams, Ricky Sobers, Muggsy Bogues, Darwin Cook, Leon Wood -- before the Bullets put Darrell Walker beside him at the start of the 1988-89 season. The two worked well together, and though everyone in the league knew Washington's offense relied on King and Malone last season, there were still few nights when both were stopped.

"I enjoyed playing with him," King said, "because we had a chemistry out there. I knew where Jeff was at before he got there. . . . On any ballclub, you have to have younger ballplayers. On a young team, you also have to have that blend, not only to provide leadership, but you also have to be able to play on the floor."

Malone's defense wasn't all-league, but statistic stood the test of time: Michael Jordan scored 40 points against every non-expansion team except one. That was the Bullets, with Malone usually guarding him.

Coach Wes Unseld appeared genuinely sad to see Malone go. He demanded a lot from Malone over the years, especially last season. Malone responded with his best season ever. But losing gnawed at Malone; he understood Washington's plight, and wanted to stick around to see things through. But he talked privately about wanting to play for a winning organization.

"He had a great amount of respect for Wes," Elvin Malone said. "When Jeff was small, back when the Bullets were contenders, he always watched them play. That was a great thing for him, getting to play for Wes."

Walker was perhaps Malone's closest friend on the team.

"When guys play as well together as we've been," Walker said, "and do as many things as we did, you know I'm going to miss him. I might never go out {after a game} again."