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Nikola Mirotic has made a real argument to get his starting job back

With forward Nikola Mirotic coming off back-to-back games in which he has started and flourished in place of injured rookie starter Lauri Markkanen, it was more than just playing devil’s advocate to ask Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg if Mirotic has earned back his starting job. The Bulls won both games and have won four straight since Mirotic’s return from injury. He’s a combined plus-16 in the plus/minus category as a starter.

“We’re evaluating all the time,” Hoiberg said, taking the politically correct route in his response Thursday. “The plan [Wednesday] — obviously, Lauri was a late scratch — was Lauri going to be the starter.”

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So that’s a no for now.

But there’s an argument to be made for Mirotic starting, especially by Mirotic himself. He didn’t lose his spot after he was named a starter at the end of training camp — it was taken from him Oct. 17 when teammate Bobby Portis punched him in practice, hospitalizing Mirotic with a concussion and two broken bones in his face that required seven weeks of recovery. Portis received an eight-game suspension.

With both players on the shelf, Markkanen, 20, had an open door to start, surprising even the coaching staff with his versatility.

But his development before a back injury hadn’t exactly translated to wins. Mirotic, who promised the winning would start when he returned, has delivered on that bravado to the tune of a 4-0 record with him in uniform.

The second unit — especially Portis, of all people — has excelled with Mirotic out there, as has the starting unit the last two games.

“I’ve liked how both lineups have looked,” Hoiberg said, explaining his reasoning for sticking with Markkanen once his back improves. “With Niko coming off the bench, he was terrific in that role. Lauri, obviously has been very productive as our starter. But I’ve also liked the way it’s looked with Niko as a starter. Obviously, we haven’t had Lauri in the lineup these last two games when Niko has moved into that role. The big thing I’m looking forward to is those two guys playing together some. We have not really had that lineup out there to this point.

“The important thing is Niko is going to have a big role on this team. And there will be a lot of games where he’s in there at the end.”

Mirotic has been asked twice since his return about getting his starting job back. Both times he downplayed it.

“I’m not even thinking about that. I’m thinking about doing whatever it takes for us to win games,” he said.

That seems to be a healthy attitude for all parties, especially given how fragile the Portis-Mirotic situation was and how badly it could have gone. While the two still haven’t spoken about their altercation, they’re communicating and exchanging fist bumps on the court.

“We’re all grown men. We all understand the situation, what happened,” guard Kris Dunn said. “You’ve just got to get past it.

“They understand how to be professional, and I think they’re doing a great job with it. I think the team is helping them, keeping that positive energy between the two. I think it’s big props to them. They’re not letting it affect the team, so I think it’s unbelievable what they’re doing.’’

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Email: jcowley@suntimes.com