With the Washington Wizards' playoff hopes, and even a chance at a .500 record, slipping away, a potential silver lining has surfaced. The struggling team still could end up with one of the top three picks in the draft.

It was believed that the Wizards traded their first-round draft picks for 1996, 1998 and 2000 when they traded forward Tom Gugliotta to the Golden State Warriors for forward Chris Webber in 1994.

But if the Wizards, who have the fifth worst record (12-27) in the NBA, do not qualify for the playoffs, they would join 12 other teams in the draft lottery, a drawing that will determine the draft order for those 13 teams. And although it was believed the Wizards had traded away their first-round pick in 2000, should they draw one of the top three draft positions, they would be allowed to make that pick despite the trade, General Manager Wes Unseld confirmed yesterday.

"It's something I'm not giving any thought to because we don't want to be there," Unseld said.

The worse a team's record, the greater its chances to receive a high lottery pick. Occasionally, however, a team in an unlikely position lucks into prime draft selection. Last season the Charlotte Hornets had the 13th worst record but wound up with the third overall selection, which they used to select point guard Baron Davis. It was the largest jump in draft lottery history.

Rookie guard Richard Hamilton, selected seventh overall last year, was the first pick the Wizards had made in the first round since taking forward Rasheed Wallace in 1995. All their first-round picks the three previous seasons had been traded.

Of the six first-round draft picks Washington made since 1990, five have been lottery picks. Forward Juwan Howard and Hamilton are the only first-round draft picks made by the Wizards who are still with the team.

The departed first-rounders were Gugliotta (No. 6 overall, 1992, traded to Golden State), Calbert Cheaney (No. 6 overall, 1993, free agent departure to Boston) and Wallace (No. 4 overall, 1995, traded to Portland).

With the season less than half over, the Wizards, who have lost four straight, still have time to climb into playoff contention. But with leading scorer Mitch Richmond out for two weeks with a broken rib, turning things around in the short term won't be easy.

The Wizards have not won more than three games in a row this season, which they have done just once. Washington has not won consecutive games since posting that three-game winning streak from Dec. 16 to 21.

Meanwhile, no developments were reported in the franchise's negotiations with Michael Jordan. The former Chicago Bulls superstar and the team are discussing his potential role as head of basketball operations and part-owner of the franchise.