Here's what the Washington Bullets envisioned before the NBA season started: Ledell Eackles and Darrell Walker at guard, an offense-defense combination. Bernard King and John Williams at forward, both good scorers and passers. Pervis Ellison at center, a shot-blocking specialist.

Off the bench, Harvey Grant, Charles Jones, Mark Alarie, Tom Hammonds, A. J. English and Haywoode Workman. It wasn't a team that would have threatened for a title, but it could have "scared the hell out of some people," as Coach Wes Unseld said.

Of course, that never happened. Williams and the club were at loggerheads all summer about his knee rehabilitation and withheld money, and Williams didn't come to Washington until the day before the season started. Eackles held out and missed all of training camp.

Ellison started extremely slowly, adjusting to play in the Eastern Conference. Alarie couldn't hit a shot. Hammonds struggled mightily. And the Bullets didn't win a game in preseason, going 0-7.

Quietly, "we got a very good read on the lottery players," General Manager John Nash said. "Early in the year, I felt there was a likelihood we would be in the lottery. . . . But now we've shifted our focus to those who might be in the next wave."

That's because the Bullets are close to the all-star break not only within five games of .500, but they've done it without Williams, and with Eackles going through wild swings of inconsistency. And to use that awful phrase "if the season ended today," the Bullets would be in the playoffs.

"These guys have worked doggone hard," Unseld said.

King, the Bullets' best offensive player, has also been their hardest worker. His offseason program brought him to camp in great shape, and other than a four-game glitch he has shown no signs of slowing down.

"There are different levels of skills," King said. "Mental as well as physical. . . . I came in in hopes that I was in better shape than the majority of the players in the league once the season got underway. If you're in better shape than most of the players when the season begins -- fatigue becomes a factor for anyone -- you won't be behind the pack, you'll still be ahead of the pack."

The Bullets have beaten every team in the Atlantic Division save Philadelphia, with which they've twice gone to overtime. In the Central, they've beaten six of the seven teams, losing only to Milwaukee (with a chance to win in the last five seconds).

They've ridden King's 30-plus scoring average to third place in the Atlantic. When many thought they would be hard-pressed to win 25 games all season, they already have 20 victories. They aren't doing it by outscoring teams, because other than Grant and King, they don't know where their points will come from on any given night.

Still, "we maybe don't get as much respect as some of the other teams in the league," Nash said this week. "You saw a game {Monday night in Detroit} that maybe we didn't get the respect from the officials. When Julius {Erving} was with us in Detroit, he had not only the respect of the opponent but the referees as well." (Nash formerly was the general manager of the 76ers.)

The Bullets have improved by cutting their points allowed from 109.9 last season to its current 106.7. After opponents shot .474 last season, they're down to .462 this year.

But, as they go to Boston today for an afternoon affair with the Celtics, the Bullets have seven healthy players. Eackles (flu) and Alarie (laceration of the orbit of the right eye) didn't make the trip. Walker is out three weeks with a sprained knee ligament.

Workman and Jones are playing, but they're hurting. Workman strained his right groin in the first minute against Detroit Friday and played just six minutes. He's listed as questionable for the Celtics. Jones has been playing for the last two weeks on a pulled left hamstring.

The Bullets didn't immediately make any roster moves. It would seem that if Workman is out for an extended time, Washington would go to the CBA and sign a point guard to a 10-day contract. The team's working arrangement in the CBA is with Albany, which has both veteran Albert King and Mario Elie, a 24.5 points-per-game scorer and CBA all-star.

The goal now is to get to the all-star break without losing anyone else. By the time the Bullets go to Texas next week for a three-game trip, they are hoping to have Williams back, an event that the team has been waiting for all season.

A healthy Williams gives them a scorer, a rebounder, a ballhandler, a defender. He can break pressure or defend one-on-one. In short, he makes everyone on the floor a better player.

He would be especially helpful for Eackles, who has struggled with his conditioning and preparation all year. When he signed his two-year, $1.4 million contract in November, Eackles thought he might be starting relatively soon. But he's shown no reason to unseat Workman, the ex-CBAer who has greatly aided the Bullets' transition game.

In Williams's absence, Grant has stepped in at power forward and doubled his scoring and rebounding averages from last season, becoming a top candidate for the NBA's most improved player. He has been Washington's best all-around player, the man most likely to fill the lanes for transition baskets offensively and take the opponent's best man defensively.

Ellison has been maddening at times, but he's also begun to show the promise the Bullets were looking for when they traded Jeff Malone in a three-way, offseason deal with Utah and Sacramento, where Ellison played. Friday, for example, he came on strong in the fourth quarter and almost got Washington an undeserved victory over Detroit. He had 11 rebounds in the fourth quarter against Atlanta last month. And he's a top-10 shot blocker.

The supporting cast has given the Bullets a chance to compete. But it has been King who has given the rest of the league a reason to watch. He's scored 40 points or more eight times, 30 or more 24 times, landing him on the all-star team.

"If I would have retired one day without getting back to the all-star game," King said, "something would have always been missing for me."